Angel Hernandez left Cuba with his family when he was 14 months old, spent much of his youth playing baseball at Babcock Park in Hialeah, and went on to become a Major League Baseball umpire.
On Tuesday, Hernandez fulfilled a dream when he returned to Cuba to umpire the goodwill exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National team.
“I didn’t have a dry eye,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez, 55, is the only Cuban-born umpire presently working in the majors. Joining him on the trip was fellow MLB umpire Laz Diaz, a first-generation Cuban who was born in Carol City.
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Before working the game at Estadio Latinamericano, Hernandez said he and the rest of the umpiring crew greeted President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro.
Although it was a special time for Hernandez, he said it wasn’t quite as emotional as the first time he returned in December to be baptized and spread his father’s ashes.
His father, Angel Hernandez Sr., ran the Hialeah Khoury League for 34 years, mentored an estimated 60,000 young players — including future major-leaguers Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco, Ricky Gutierrez and Alex Fernandez — and allowed his son to umpire Little League games.
After injuring his arm while playing baseball at Hialeah High, Hernandez said his father encouraged him to continue umpiring.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to umpire, Dad. That was just Little League,’ ” Hernandez said.
But Angel Sr. persisted, Hernandez went to an umpiring school in St. Petersburg, and eventually worked his way up to the majors, where he has spent the past 25 years.
“He was always my mentor,” Hernandez said. “As soon as I was able to realize what he did and when he left Cuba and why he left — he didn’t talk much about it — as soon as I was 14 or 15 years of age, I was seeing what it did for us.”
Angel Sr. died in April 2012.
In December, when Angel Jr. returned with a church group, he took his father’s ashes with him and spread them at Playa de Guanabo. Angel Jr. also chose the spot to be baptized.
Then came Monday’s trip, and a chance to return again.
“It was so emotional I could not eat before the game,” Hernandez said. “I fought back tears in the locker room. It was just surreal, nothing like in the states. I kept telling myself in a blink of an eye, I’m in Cuba and now I’m going to umpire a game.”
Hernandez could not help but think of his father.
“In my mind, he was there,” he said.