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Yet nobody from Tiny's neighborhood in Miami Gardens can quite believe he signed up. The 26-year-old, born Nelson Dean Clark Jr. but given the sarcastic nickname as a child, has long been a shy kid who seems embarrassed about his weight. It's only when Tiny is in his official capacity as a Manatee that his loquacious alter ego — the supersized dance fiend, in all of his grass-flattening glory — emerges.
As a child visiting his grandmother's house, Tiny used to sweetly con Grandma Mae into making him dinner when he'd already eaten with his parents. Mae is famous for soul food that might make a cardiologist weep: swamped-in-cheddar macaroni and cheese, heavily battered fried chicken, and exquisitely rich sweet-potato pies, which she makes 25 at a time and serves with a glass of partially frozen whole milk. Tiny tended to turn every meal soupy with condiments — and his body rapidly inflated.
But if there was any activity Tiny always loved more than eating, it was dancing to Michael Jackson. At age 7, he would wear penny loafers and a single glove — any kind of glove — and moonwalk across his grandmother's sleek floor. And though the short kid surpassed 200 pounds in elementary school, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and worshiped Mr. Marlin, outfielder Jeff Conine. Tiny was on a wrestling team when he was younger and played football for Miami Norland Senior High School until a doctor advised that with his snowman-like frame, he was risking breaking his neck. "I think that really broke his heart," Mae says.
Tiny weighed more than 400 pounds in his early 20s. His parents are security guards at Miami International Airport, and he followed them into the business, donning a square badge at Land Shark Stadium. When his father, Nelson Sr., received the Manatees' tryout flier in his email, he instantly thought of Tiny and forwarded it. "I was very surprised that he followed up on it," Dad says. "He's always been an extremely shy person who's more comfortable dancing in secret."
Tiny is a man of few words. Asked to explain what he gets out of the Manatees, he murmurs only that he "just wanted to help get some fans out to the games." But as the largest Manatee, he has become the dance troupe's superstar. He is recognized on the streets of Miami and mobbed at the gates of Land Shark Stadium. For the first time in his life, his weight — the yoke that had him picked on in school and exiled from sports — is his ticket to glory.
And for Tiny, an aspiring sportscaster, there is perhaps no greater thrill than being allowed into the tunnels of Land Shark Stadium to share air with the cleated demigods he grew up worshiping. He's not alone: A few of the most sports-crazed Manatees get downright giggly when they speak of mundane player sightings such as utility player Ross Gload talking on his cell phone between innings.
The fascination, it seems, is mutual. Marlins and visiting players tend to crowd the front steps of their dugouts when the Manatees take the field. "I think it is just inherent to be in a zone and focused on the game," says Marlins pitcher Chris Volstad. "But it is hard not to notice the Manatees."
When the Yankees came to town this year, Derek Jeter spotted the troupe making its way to a tunnel exit just before a performance. He called over Tiny by name. "I've seen you on TV in New York — I like your stuff," Tiny says the superstar told him. "Go do your thing!"
And after an August game against the Cubs, a visiting player even tracked down the Manatees in their locker room. Veteran outfielder Alfonso Soriano showed up in full Chicago uniform, shaking hands and expressing his fandom for their shtick. But he had an ulterior motive: The Dominican native, banished to a chilly land of kielbasa and pierogi, cornered a few of the Spanish-speaking Manatees and interrogated them about the best places to get more familiar fare in Miami.
"We probably talked about food for half an hour," says 340-pound Jose "Cuban Pete" Marquez. The Manatees sent the uniformed millionaire off with a list of Latin restaurants. "He definitely knew the right guys to ask."
A Manatee never dances on an empty stomach. Just before a Saturday-night game against the Houston Astros, the tin foil comes off a buffet table in the troupe's wood-trimmed locker room. Thick lasagna, boxes of pizza, and a salad dressed in oil: The men, in varying stages of undress and costume, attack it with the gory relish one might expect. They often get the same spreads as the players, a fact that gives the Manatees a sort of pride. But it's doubtful Hanley Ramirez has ever stacked a paper plate like Cuban Pete does now: a precarious skyscraper of cheese and starch that spans the vertical distance from the top of his gut to his bearded chin.
The Manatees change in what is essentially the hangout and warm-up spot for all of the Marlins' sideshow entertainers. The Mermaids, the team's svelte female cheerleaders, periodically skip in and out of the locker room like a giddy army, kicking to the sound of their coach's Richard Simmons-like shrieks: "Five, six, seven, eight — boom, hop, one, two!" Wearing gigantic black shoes and costume pants held up by suspenders, a dwarf wanders in. He's Lil' Billy, the miniature sidekick of the Marlins' fish mascot, and he's here for pizza. Chocolate Thunder, the formally trained Manatee, sleeps face-down on the carpeted floor, as is his preperformance ritual.