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"Eh-strike tree!" "Sayyyyyf!" "Yeroutahee!" Nelson unhesitatingly knocks 'em out, calls 'em safe, and condemns 'em to the showers in such a baritone that the art director remarks that the studio's cats probably shat themselves.
When the photographer is satisfied with the number of shots, Nelson wordlessly glides back to the bathroom. He returns wearing a bright-red spandex shirt and jeans, ready for the ride back to Miami. He looks refreshed.
He can handle the heat, Nelson grumbles as he stuffs a protective cup down gray slacks. But it's never this damn humid in Cuba.
He's in between a Tuesday-morning double-header. His partner for the day, a graying fellow named Jim Cowen — chatty even on the field, he calls plays with "You got him there!" or "Didn't get that one!" — strips beside him. Cowen, a three-decade lifer, is explaining how the only thing keeping an old man like him on the field, on a day like this, is the love of youth ball. "I'm happy if I get enough to cover the gas from Boca," he chirps. "Nobody works amateur games for the money."
Cowen apologetically glances at his partner before realizing Nelson can't understand him anyway. The veteran pair smoothly managed the 9 a.m. first game between the Columbus Explorers and the Miami-based All Sports Academy despite not two words of conversation. "Umpiring," Cowen remarks, "is a universal language."
In his on-field dealings with players and coaches, Nelson knows Umpire's English. Ask him: "What's the count, Blue?" for example, and he'll immediately signal the balls and strikes using his fingers. He calls pitcher's mistakes in Spanish: "¡Bola!"
Says Cowen: "Even the Cuban coaches have been giving me shit about him not speaking English. I remind them: 'Hey, two years ago, neither did you!'"
At today's sun-blasted twin bill, the handful of parents find shade under trees beyond center field and beneath tin bleachers. It's the sort of game where the right fielder can be heard asking the center fielder between pitches: "What's the score? Five to one? Four to one? What's the inning?"
Today, 2,000 miles and a galaxy away in Anaheim, is Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. It features a six-man on-field officiating crew. But it's just another day in purgatory for the self-proclaimed world's best ump, who now hops from his borrowed truck to evade a reporter. He doesn't like to talk on game day. He walks a few steps and sits rigidly on a rolled-up chainlink fence beneath a tree, stares silently at the empty baseball field ahead of him, and waits for game time.
Danielle Alvarez contributed reporting to this story.