On a dirt field on a hazy Tuesday afternoon in Miami Lakes, a no-level game of teenage baseball is under way. The kids, acne-pocked and wearing sleeveless T-shirts in place of jerseys, nonchalantly dangle their bats as they saunter to the plate. They make mud with their spit and dig into the elaborate stances of A-Rod or Pujols, imagining themselves as Major Leaguers.
But in this summer contest between the Falcons and the Thunder, two teams of mostly Cuban 15- and 16-year-olds, there are probably no future big-leaguers. There is, however, one star on the field.
Umpire Nelson Diaz stands, with the perfect posture of a drill sergeant, behind first base during the pitcher's windup. When bat hits ball, he springs toward the infield and performs a quick pirouette to give himself a direct view of a play at first base. His "out" call is a karate move: a grand, reared-back punch into the air accompanied by a left-leg kick and a banshee moan. His "safe" call is crisp and emphatic, a full-body exhalation.
Despite a barrel-chested ogre's frame, a boxer's flattened face, and a head nearly devoid of hair — Nelson looks a bit like Judge Mills Lane on growth hormones — he steals ninja-like across the field. Nelson accomplishes the hallmark of every good umpire: He commands the game while remaining in the background.
His partner, a bookish-looking man named Bienvenido whose day job is as a county employee, seems to consider movement to be above his pay grade. He's probably right: Nelson and Bienvenido will each make about $50 for tonight's double-header.
For many of the fathers in the stands, and a few of the young players, seeing Diaz on their field is a strange sensation. They grew up watching him officiate games on television in Cuba, where he was the baseball-mad island's most prominent umpire. Among the international contests he oversaw in his 26-year career: three Olympics, both World Baseball Classics, several Pan-American Games, and the much-hyped exhibition contests between Cuba's national team and the Baltimore Orioles. He worked fields shared by demigods of béisbol cubano — and future Major Leaguers — such as half-brothers Liván and Orlando Hernández, José Contreras, and Aroldis Chapman. For him to appear suddenly at this kids' game, flying around the field and punching players out, is a bit like Baryshnikov crashing a grade-school rendition of The Nutcracker.
Miguel Fiandor, dad of center fielder Chris, speaks of Diaz in a hushed tone as he watches him from nearly empty bleachers: "You can tell he's a professional umpire the second he steps on the field. Most of the umpires we see are jumpy. They don't like to run. This guy's the real deal."
Between innings, Nelson swaggers to the chainlink backstop to greet New Times. His baby-blue collared jersey is adorned with the flag patches of Cuba and Brazil — souvenirs from a contest he umpired between the two nations. He sticks two fingers through the fence for a prison-style rendition of a handshake. In rapid-fire Spanish, he declares that Bienvenido, bless his heart, is simply not at his own level. Then he asks, "You guys saw that that guy knew me?" nodding with a smug eyebrow arch toward Fiandor.
The man who six months ago couldn't walk down the street in his resident Havana without being stopped by fans now thrives on such little moments of recognition. For three decades, Nelson bit his tongue as he worked games for the Cuban Baseball Federation, pet organization of fanático Fidel Castro, the dictator who imprisoned Nelson's father for 27 years. When the insults finally grew too grievous and Nelson fled to Miami, the man who had umpired in front of crowds of 50,000 found himself working games attended by a dozen parents.
He suffers the same frustration felt by hundreds of Cuban doctors and lawyers relegated to Calle Ocho restaurant kitchens and gas stations. As Nelson's sister, Barbara Diaz, puts it: "In Cuba, he's Nelson Diaz. Here, he's just one more."
But even the kids scuffling through the Miami Lakes ball game notice there's something wrong with this picture. "I'd love to see him in the Major Leagues," says Ernesto Punales, a lanky, faux-hawked, 16-year-old Falcons pitcher and shortstop. As a boy growing up in Cuba, he knew Nelson Diaz as a folk hero ubiquitous on government-televised games, a celebrity in a country that has few. "He doesn't belong here. At all. At all."
Meanwhile, Nelson, still in uniform, slinks behind the wheel of his brother-in-law's Nissan and heads to his makeshift abode — an efficiency in his sister's South Miami home.
Ernesto is still saying, "At all. At all."
For ten years, Barbara urged her older brother to defect. When boxes full of Nelson's trophies began arriving from Cuba at the SW 74th Court house she shares with her contractor husband, Humberto Hernandez, she knew he had finally made the decision.
Today, the awards line a hallway in the part of the home now cordoned off for Nelson, his wife Maritza, and their two daughters, Islen and Yaritza. There are bronze medals from the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing Olympics, tokens for umpiring those games; Lucite baseballs mounted on stands made of tiny baseball bats; towering bowling-style trophies given to him by various governments — Venezuela, Brazil, and at least a dozen from Cuba — for tournaments officiated; a Sharpie-inscribed wooden shard from a grateful Cuban province; and the crown jewel: a simple, faded medallion, laser-written with his name and the inscription "International Umpire of the World."
Given to him in 1994 by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), the sport's global governing body, it is the Nobel Prize of umpiring.
Nelson flits childlike around the hallway as he shows off these prized possessions, his deep-blue Cuban Olympics travel bag, and his selection of jersey shirts adorned with tournament logos from around the world. He savors his own glory: His cell phone voicemail greeting says you have reached "the umpire Nelson Diaz." Taking a shot of Bacardi every time he declared himself "the top umpire in Cuba" in casual conversation would have you bending over Barbara's bidet-outfitted toilet in no time. And when pressed, Nelson admits that, yes, he is the best in the world, period.
He has a couple of all-encompassing codas: Never fraternize with the players. Baseball comes first, then family, then nothing else. And conversation is largely unnecessary.
Nelson, wearing a Lycra-tight T-shirt and embroidered jeans, sits with a yogi's posture on a leather couch in his sister's baroque living room as he claims he had a "very normal childhood." In two hours, he never mentions that Fidel's goons stole his father in the middle of the night. He is loathe to share his opinion on Castro or his politics, only vaguely saying, "Imagine, he was a powerful dictator for 50 years." He makes little effort to explain what made him stay in Cuba or what finally made him leave.
And, like any decent baseball star from the island, Nelson apparently fibs about his age. He claims to be 52 when simple math — by all family accounts, his father was arrested on Nelson's eighth birthday in 1962 — reveals he is at least 55.
But he does admit his greatest fear: that he will have to give up baseball. And that going from umpiring the world's most important games to bumbling high-school matches does bite at his soul.
"It's really hard for me to go from where I was to where I am now," he explains in a tumbling cadence. "But I really have nothing else to do, so I have to keep doing it. Everything I have ever done throughout my entire life has been baseball."
Nelson's wife Maritza used to have a rule when she took their daughters to watch games he was umpiring: If he flubs a call, we're going home immediately; go straight to your room and don't tempt his wrath. "His reputation was that he never made a mistake," she explains. "He tortured himself if he wasn't perfect."
In the spirit of self-flagellation, Nelson recorded and rewatched every game he worked to see if he had blown any calls. Asked to recall his most haunting mistake, Nelson, who comes alive when he recollects baseball scenarios, sets up the story the same way he does all such tales: by stating the place and year.
Pinar del Río, Cuba. 2007. The hometown Vegueros were hosting La Habana in the playoffs of the Cuban National Series, the country's equivalent of the Major Leagues. In the ninth inning, with La Habana down by one run, the team's top star, Juan Carlos Linares, tried to beat a fielder's throw home. Nelson, working the plate, perfectly placed himself to see Linares attempt to dive under the catcher's tag.
The split-second play was enveloped by a miniature dust storm kicked up by the convergence of cleats. But Nelson's brain processed it: Linares's hand missed the plate. The ump punched him out emphatically. La Habana lost that game and went on to lose the series.
That night, in front of the TV set in his living room, Nelson watched Linares's hand clearly plant itself on home plate before the catcher applied the tag. Nelson didn't eat or sleep for a week. "I was so upset," he says. "I am not going to forget that until the day I die."
He experiences flashbacks of that pit-of-the-stomach sickness when he considers the plight of Jim Joyce, the usually excellent umpire who this past June blew a no-doubter at first base to rob Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game. Joyce's gaffe, as well as several other blown calls, might lead to the rise of expanded instant replay in Major League Baseball.
Checking calls with cameras would have saved Nelson from his self-imposed fast in 2007, and it would have kept Joyce's call from the ledger of baseball history's greatest mistakes. But like most umpires, Nelson is steadfastly against the rise of the machines. Expanded instant replay would mangle the "essence of the game," he says, and undermine the umpire's all-important "dominion on the field."
But Nelson heard about Joyce's controversy only from gabbing relatives. He has refused to watch professional baseball on television or in person since he defected. He even turned down New Times' offer to take him to a Florida Marlins game. He'd be busy all week, he lamented, and the next week too.
"He can't bear to watch professional games," Maritza explains. "It's too painful for him, because he feels like he should be on the field."
The Diaz men — Nelson's father Placido and sons Nelson Jr. and Noslen (yes, that's an anagram) — are like life-size superhero figurines who burst from the same brawny mold. The same hulking frames atop ballet-size feet, the same bulging eyes and gleaming foreheads. The same tics and gestures. And the same utter lack of hyperbole.
Eighty-one-year-old Placido Diaz Millo lives with his wife Yolanda and a hyperactive terrier named Pinky in a comfortable South Miami home that smells of delicious chicken broth. He loves offering guests anything — café, Coke, jugo, crackers — because for once in his life, he can.
Placido spent 27 years as a political prisoner in rancid prisons throughout Cuba. Father and son can count on one set of stubby fingers the number of times they saw each other during that span. But today, in their own quiet way, they understand each other better than anyone else. "Everybody in Cuba has to live a double life," Placido explains when asked if he felt betrayed by Nelson calling Castro's béisbol as he floundered in prison. "He never denied me. He was always proud to have a political prisoner for a father."
Police officers took naval officer Placido on Nelson's eighth birthday — August 29, 1962 — after an evening his son had spent watching American flicks on a cineplex screen in the Vedado district of Havana. Nelson says he doesn't remember much about the raid, just being awakened in the middle of the night along with 4-year-old Barbara, and the olive-colored uniforms of cops with guns at their waists.
It was the job of Nelson and Barbara's tough-as-nails mother, Nieves Blanco — "Snow White" in Spanish — to explain: Dad had plotted against Fidel Castro. Now he might never come back.
Nelson, an aspiring catcher who was named for Cuban baseball moonlighter Rocky Nelson, suddenly found himself thrust into his father's shoes. The family fled the turmoil of Havana to the smaller town of Güira de Melena. "He was very strong," Barbara says. "It was just the three of us for all those years."
But as Nelson hit his teens, his prospects as a player faded, and it became clear he wouldn't survive on brains alone. "He wasn't very smart," Barbara allows with a chuckle. He's "medio bruto" — halfway stupid — she says.
So it was provident that Nelson discovered umpiring in his 20s. He enrolled in the 45-day course at Escuela Rafael De La Paz, the arbitros' academy named for a Cuban pioneer of the trade. Nelson, it turned out, had the build (foreboding) and the brain (clear of distractions) of a born ump. He was the on-field cop, enforcing not the whims of a despot but the just mores of the weathered rule book in his back pocket. To Nelson, who missed his dad's revolutionary genes, baseball was an escape from the high-tension nerves and fraught decisions of life in Cuba.
Even as Nelson started his own family, having two sons with a former phys-ed student named Odali, Placido remained in prison. He refused to submit to a criminal's uniform, for decades wearing only loincloths made of torn bedsheets, and so was denied visits. And he spat on the carrot of "political rehabilitation" — the acceptance of Communism — that would have set him free, even as his wife begged him to comply. After one final ultimatum, Nieves Blanco separated from Placido and remarried. Placido later married Yolanda, a cellmate's sister.
In May 1988, the stubborn plantado was freed through an international agreement and shipped to Miami for refuge. Virtually all of Nelson's relatives — his mother, sister, sons, grandparents, cousins, and, eventually, grandchildren — ended up in the United States.
But Nelson remained a rock in the tide. He started another family, marrying Maritza, the daughter of a cigar roller, and having two girls, Islen and Yaritza.
He was a monk of baseball, worshipping the craft of umpiring and his own stature within it. He was paid 38 pesos, or $1.35, a game but experienced a phenomenon mythical to most Cubans: travel. He worked tournaments throughout Latin America, the United States, China, Australia, and Japan.
He wasn't about to jeopardize it all. "I had the ability to travel in and out of the country," he says. "I had a car and a house. I was comfortable. I had it made."
Placido understands why his son always refused to join him in libertad. "We're the same," he says. "I decided to stand by my politics no matter what happened. He stood by baseball."
Crammed into the back of a Toyota coupe, alongside his Cuba Olympics travel bag full of umpiring gear, Nelson has no idea where he's headed. "We're going far, huh?" he observes at one point.
We're going to Fort Lauderdale, he's told, but Nelson hasn't heard of it.
It's been a familiar feeling since he came to Miami. Friends set up games for him and give him rides or very detailed directions to the field; he shows up, umpires, collects a check, and heads straight home.
With a thinly veiled motive, New Times offered to drive Nelson to his cover photo shoot. A reporter drives, a translator rides shotgun, and he's stuck in the back, forced to answer questions — to finally cough up the truth. There's no way he can be so doggedly Zen, no way he can have no real opinion on Fidel, no way he can be so emotionally indifferent in a life marked by tragedy, loss, and dilemma.
It doesn't work. Nelson stares straight at the headrest in front of him and gives neutral answers. Castro is a dictator. Baseball is great. Was he angry when Placido chose political principle over family? "No. I always understood what my father was doing."
Eventually, the interrogation makes him testy. He's tired of these brats dead set on discussing feelings. Asked what it is about the sport of baseball that appeals to him, Nelson impatiently barks, "Emotion! The play at the plate! The home run! The perfect game!"
Then he clams up until he's let out of the car.
Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano. 1991. Nelson was working first base in a Pan American Games semifinal between the United States and Puerto Rico. He called a balk — one of baseball's most subjective infractions — on an American pitcher. Next thing he knew, he was in the screaming, bulbous red face of the U.S. team's coach, Ron Polk.
So Nelson poked him in the chest. And Polk exploded. A Dutch umpire rushed in and bear-hugged the coach before the situation escalated further.
"He started pushing me. That never happens in U.S. baseball," Polk seethed after the game, which the U.S. team lost. "I spent more time yelling at him not to touch me than I did arguing the call."
Today, Nelson is vaguely apologetic. "It was my fault," he says of the squabble with the coach, "but it's not my fault that they lost."
But when he returned to Havana, instead of being punished, Nelson was recommended for more international tournaments. Cuba might be the only country where an umpire could be rewarded for losing his cool. Nelson's bosses, it seemed, liked the sight of the buff compadre pushing around the whiny American.
So they were especially pleased when one of his colleagues went jungle commando on the ass of a Fidel-protesting Miami Cuban.
Baltimore's Camden Yards. May 1999. The first game of the exhibition double-header between the Cuban all-star team and the Baltimore Orioles had been weird — including the sight of Fidel Castro, adorned in guerrilla green, seated behind home plate between billionaire Orioles owner Peter Angelos and MLB commissioner Bud Selig — but this was the surreal main event.
Played on American soil, picketed in Little Havana, and breathlessly anticipated in Big Havana, this game was the crescendo in an overblown pageant of clashing motives.
To MLB brass, the games were an olive branch, as well as a complicit opportunity to scout forbidden talent. To Cuba, this was the Bay of Pigs in cleats, a chance for its $10-per-month athletes to embarrass Baltimore's $80 million lineup in an American stadium. To the Major Leaguers, the games were an unpaid nuisance.
To Cuban coaches and players, it was a glimpse into big-league environs they evidently desired: Seven of them never caught the return flight home.
To Nelson Diaz, the Baltimore game was the "biggest honor of [his] life." Confirming his elite status, he was given the role of plate umpire and crew chief of a six-man umpire team divided evenly between Cubans and Americans.
Cuban-born Gus Rodriguez, who had defected to the States as a child and is now the IBAF's top umpire evaluator, was one of Nelson's colleagues on the American side. Rodriguez recalls that el gobierno was on high alert to prevent the defection of an umpire. The Cubans were provided with "interpreters" who doubled as monitors. They stayed in a different Baltimore hotel than the Americans and weren't allowed to socialize off the field. "It was a really strange environment," Rodriguez says. "But once the game starts, you just play ball."
Cuba, which had lost to Baltimore in extra innings in the first game, pounded out 18 hits and pummeled the oligarchs 12-6 this time around. But the game's real excitement came in the fifth inning, when a man charged toward short center carrying a sign reading, "Freedom — Strike out against Castro." Three protesters — all from Miami, of course — had already been arrested for running onto the field an inning earlier, and Cuban umpire Cesar Valdez was enraged. He chased the lone intruder, body-slammed him, and then repeatedly punched him until Baltimore left fielder B.J. Surhoff peeled the umpire off.
After the game, Valdez preened in front of reporters, declaring, "Above all, I am Cuban."
His American colleagues found the display disgusting, as did Nelson. "It was unnecessary. That's what security is there for," he says. "Of course it was political. Cesar is more of a politician than he is an umpire."
When they returned home, Valdez was greeted at the Havana airport by Fidel Castro, who toasted him as a hero. Valdez was awarded a new car and house, Nelson says. In the popularity contest that is Cuban politics, Valdez was Castro's new favored child. "That moment made all the difference," Placido says. "That was the point where Cesar's stock starting going up, and Nelson's stock went down."
Nelson still spent the next decade working major tournaments. Despite an annual wage that topped out near $250, his was a relatively cushy existence, living the hotel life on the road and driving a white 2001 Fiat at home. But Nelson worried about his adolescent daughters having to navigate a country where betrayal is traded like currency. And his wife had long ago made up her own mind. Says Maritza: "If it was up to me, we would've left 20 years ago."
In 2007, Nelson's 74-year-old mother, Nieves Blanco, learned she had cancer. Nelson appealed to the Cuban government to allow him to visit her in South Miami. He was rejected, and she died within three months.
Nelson began telling close friends that he was thinking of finally taking his wife and daughters to Miami. From a Beijing hotel room during the 2008 Olympics, he called his father in Miami and asked him to put in a legal claim for them to join him in the States.
In the confidence sieve that is Cuba, the government soon knew of his plans. The baseball federation refused to send him to Japan to work the 2009 World Baseball Classic and that year unceremoniously "retired" Nelson from the sport.
He and his family spent that autumn giving away their belongings to friends and relatives. The government took the Fiat and their house.
When Nelson told his fellow umpires — brothers in blue after decades spent together on ball fields and cross-continental flights — they acted "horrible" toward him, he says. "They said I was a traitor to my country."
Fidel's darling, Cesar Valdez, condemned him most vociferously. It wounded Nelson, says Maritza. "There are no friends here. There are no real men here," she recalls her husband seething as they packed a few suitcases before catching a commercial flight to Miami International Airport. Placido had legally claimed Nelson, Maritza, and their daughters. Said Nelson: "I should have made this decision a long time ago."
Nelson had refused to defect for the sake of his career. But as it turned out, the Cuban Baseball Federation had stolen his prime and then tossed him away. If he had defected in his 30s, he might have had a shot at the Major Leagues. Now he was heading toward a very uncertain future.
Maritza says Nelson runs his home like he's in uniform on a ball field: all boomed orders and unquestionable, unilateral decisions. For years, his steady hand had steered his family right. But even the best umpire makes a mistake sometimes.
Making it to the bigs, Nelson says, is still his sueño. But there's only one way into the six-figure-salaried, first-class-flying, 70-member tribe of Major League officiators: through two Florida umpire schools. The students at the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Ormond Beach, and the Jim Evans Academy in Kissimmee are predominantly boys fresh from high school, desperate to stay out of suits and ties.
"The schools are these quasi-military institutions for young men," says New York Times reporter Bruce Weber, who recently published a book about umpires. "Some of them take to it. The others don't and sort of mentally drop out."
It's tough to imagine a 50-something man who already considers himself the best umpire on the globe gelling in a place like that. And after the customary ten-year trip through the Minor Leagues, Nelson would be past normal retiring age by the time he made it to the Majors.
For this umpire without a country, his career in the Olympics, World Baseball Classic, and Pan American Games is over for the foreseeable future. He could still become a top officiator in Division 1 college ball — where umps are paid as much as $250 a game — says friend and umpire evaluator Gus Rodriguez: "He's definitely one of the most skilled umpires in the world. The greatest obstacle in his way right now is that he's unable to speak English."
But Nelson, cocooned among Miami relatives who speak not a syllable of gringo, hasn't taken any steps toward becoming bilingual. His sister believes that's a pipe dream: He's medio bruto, remember? "He barely speaks Spanish," Barbara says. "How's he going to learn English?"
With summer's end, Nelson's amateur gigs — he averages about eight or nine games a week and recently worked five in one day — will dry up. But the idea of him getting a 9-to-5 job — stuffing himself into a cubicle or slapping a headset onto his bald, sunburned cranium — strikes those who know him as a tragic and bizarre concept. Moments of silence follow when his relatives are asked what Nelson might have been if he hadn't become an umpire. "Maybe the guy bringing balls to the field?" Barbara offers after deep contemplation.
Reality will have to pry the ball/strike counter from Nelson's clenched fist. Maritza has found a job at a South Miami nursery, and his daughters are helping out financially. He shrugs heavily when asked how long he'll continue to umpire: "As long as I can hold out."
Nelson emerges from the bathroom in full World Baseball Classic regalia — black hat and shirt adorned with the tournament's colorful pinwheel logo, pressed slacks, polished umpire's shoes, and a mask dangling from his fingers — and he suddenly just looks right, even against the incongruously arty backdrop of a photographer's studio.
He stands, head held high, in front a paper green screen. English be damned. Reporters be damned. This is take-no-shit, poke-you-in-the-chest Nelson Diaz.
A photographer asks him, through a translator, to make a few calls, and Nelson takes off like a shuttle. "Eaz-out!" he booms at a phantom play as muscle memory takes over, his elbow leaving a dent in the green screen. The calls come rapid-fire and without prompting, as if an endless chorus line of invisible base runners is being mowed down at the plate. "Eaz-out! Eaz-out! Eaz-out!"
"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.
In a parking lot outside Southwest Dade's Christopher Columbus High School, Nelson Diaz hangs out of the open cab of his brother-in-law's white Ford pickup and chugs water from a blue thermos.
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!"
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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.