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Latest defector is an umpire

11/30/2009

I've heard of players defecting from Cuba. Lots of players. But umpires, too?

    El Nuevo Herald is reporting that Nelson Diaz, an umpire for 26 years in Cuba, has defected to the U.S. and arrived in Miami on Sunday.

    Diaz was behind the plate when Cuba sent a team to Baltimore for an exhibition against the Orioles in 1999. He also worked in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Olympics, but Cuba didn't pick him for the 2009 WBC because of fears he would defect.

    Based on his experience, Diaz is obviously qualified to join MLB's umpiring roster, though it's unclear if any spots are opening up over the winter. MLB has incredibly little turnover when it comes to umpires.

The problem isn't that MLB has incredibly little turnover (which is true). The problem is that even if a space were open on the major league staff, Diaz almost certainly wouldn't be allowed to fill it. Like anyone else, he would almost certainly be required to start in one of organized baseball's lowest leagues and work his way up. Theoretically, he could reach the majors in two or three years, and I suspect that's what he's got in mind.

There was a time, when the American and National League presidents (remember them?) administered the umpires and could essentially do whatever they wanted. In the 1920s and '30s, an ex-player would occasionally join one of the major league staffs after having served little or no apprenticeship in the minors.

Generally speaking, today's system makes sense. Because aspiring professional umpires haven't worked above high-school or perhaps the college level, they're not accustomed to the speed and the skills of the pro game. Working their way up the ladder, they (ideally) do become acclimate to the highest levels of the sport.

But Diaz is already most of the way there.

We know there are umpires in the majors who shouldn't be. We may reasonably surmise there are umpires not in the majors who should be. After this October's collective failure of umpiring, MLB signaled a willingness to at least consider steps to improve things. A great first step would be to fast-track Diaz to the Triple-A level, where whoever's in charge can get a good read on his skills. If only he were a bit younger.