By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Allie Conti
By Chris Joseph
By Kyle Swenson
Twelve fat men gather in heavy-breathing anticipation at the mouth of the third-base entrance to the field. It's Disco Night — the Village People, after presumably having been removed from some far-flung crypt, are booked for the post-game concert — so the crew is decked out in neon pimp suits, Afro wigs, and peace-sign necklaces.
Miami Gardens is balmy this Saturday night in August, and the Marlins, hosting the Chicago Cubs, have recovered from an early-innings meltdown to narrow their deficit to 6-5 in the top of the sixth.
Chicago third baseman Aramis Ramirez whiffs on a third strike, ending the frame. The players trot to the dugouts.
This between-half-innings moment belongs solely to the Manatees — Major League Baseball's only plus-sized male dance team. An introduction booms over the P.A. system, and our heroes stampede onto the grass beside the third-base line, ordering two tons of jiggling flesh into spots marked by bits of tape.
For half a second, they just stand there, as if to let admirers drink in their physiques. They are a motley crew in terms of race and height — the shortest among them stands five feet eight inches, the tallest six-foot-eight — and their body types range from big-boned to Marlon Brando's Last Years. The largest among them, named Tiny, weighs 435 pounds, a molten mountain of a young man piled improbably atop dainty size-nine water shoes. If cops were investigating a rash of Cracker Barrel dine-and-dashes and Halloween-store burglaries, the police lineup might look something like this.
In homage to the post-game band, the Manatees begin their routine to the bar mitzvah classic "Macho Man." A flabby pirouette precedes an in-unison lion roar. Then the men lovingly kiss their own biceps. The dance troupe labors in slow motion, with one exception. The man with the stage name Chocolate Thunder, his face frozen in a Broadway grin and caked in glittery makeup, moves with the double-speed of a Madonna backup dancer. He's a classically trained dance instructor who might get steady gigs if it weren't for his 275-pound frame. With a floppy teal fedora bouncing atop his head, he's Baryshnikov trapped in Barry White's body.
The sound of glass smashing blasts over the P.A. system. The dancers freeze in a constipated lurch for a second of silence before the opening chimes of a 50 Cent track reanimate them. They twirl their fingers and rotate their hips, a Shakira-esque move that brought them much grief during locker-room practice. Sultry is the dance concept these men have the most trouble pulling off, yet — sigh — it's what the audience demands. As the Manatees tease their girths, bellies wobbling in circles like dough undulating in a Cuisinart, the fans gasp.
Rihanna's "Live Your Life" brings the troupe to its triumphant final step: a zealous groin thrust that might make Ron Jeremy blush. The sixth-inning routine lasts roughly half a minute. After the game — a wild one in which the Marlins end up losing after ten innings — the big dancers will take the field for a similar, preconcert performance. For a scant 60 seconds of showtime, the men spend at least five hours rehearsing. They get paid $40 each.
There's no doubt the payoff is worth it to these unlikely ballerinas. As the dust settles, they bask in a split second of booming ovation before rumbling back through a tunnel and toward the locker room, already tittering with self-critiques.
The fans have given the group their highest praise: Not until after the Manatees leave the field do people head en masse toward bathrooms and snack stands.
"All I ever said is that you can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence." — Bill Veeck
In 1956, the patron saint of baseball shenanigans landed in South Florida. As the flamboyant owner of the St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox, Bill Veeck once sent a dwarf up to bat and sparked a Comiskey Park riot when his Disco Demolition night — fans were invited to smash vinyl records — lost control. When he became vice president of the minor-league Miami Marlins, the Magic City had been a longtime baseball bush town — a hellishly hot road-game destination at the end of an ass-bruising all-day bus trip.
But Veeck dreamed of bringing his team to the bigs. Using his flair for carnival-style promotions, he sold so many tickets that the major leagues began to salivate over the Miami market. In a stunt minutes before the opening-day game his first year here, his freshly signed ace, 49-year-old Negro League legend Satchel Paige, was flown in to Miami Stadium by helicopter.
Veeck's tricks didn't pay off. Not until 1993, seven years after his death, did South Florida finally get a big-league club. But even two MLB championships later, the Florida Marlins are still haunted by a distinct and undeniable minor-league aroma. Perhaps it's the drab turnpike-exit football stadium the team calls home, the transient fan base, or the skinflint player payroll, which perennially ranks at the bottom of the league. Whatever the reason, a trip to the chasm-like arena in Miami Gardens often feels like an excursion to watch the greatest triple-A team ever to play the game.
Running a major-league outfit in a city such as Miami has advantages, though. If a front office in Cleveland were to try the build-a-championship-team-and-then-sell-off-the-stars-in-the-offseason business model that former owner H. Wayne Huizenga pioneered in 1997, angry mobs would surely torch the stadium before the next spring.
And the Marlins marketing team has been able to experiment with promotions that might enrage temple-of-baseball purists elsewhere. "Baseball's a very traditional sport in most cities," explains Sean Flynn, the Marlins' vice president of marketing. "Here, we're free to introduce concepts that might get too risqué for other markets."
In 2003, the Marlins rolled out the Mermaids, Major League Baseball's first cheerleading squad. Caribbean baseball games often feature sideline pompom shakers, so the average Miamian was unfazed by the addition. "The general sentiment was, 'What took you so long?' " Flynn says. "We got only a handful of angry letters, most of them from baseball purists and feminists in nature."
Thus emboldened, Flynn's marketing team began developing a concept involving a troupe of overweight, baseball-crazy men — the embodiment of the couch potatoes the Marlins were struggling to lure to games. First the marketers discussed squeezing the John Goodman-esque mascots onto plaid couches throughout the stands, perhaps holding remotes in their hands, wearing beer-can helmets, and gobbling bags of snacks. They shelved the idea after considering that the last thing the Marlins wanted to do was encourage watching games from a couch.
Flynn's marketing impresarios weren't the first in pro sports to have an epiphany involving fat guys. Since 2003, basketball-court floorboards in Chicago have been creaking under the feet of the Bulls' rotund male cheerleading squad, the Matadors. But the idea clashed with baseball's prevailing chew-spit-and-frown atmosphere, and several stalwart members of the Marlins front office had to be persuaded to accept the Manatees before a tryout was scheduled. If nothing else, Flynn had the financial specs on his side: That first year, the amateur performers would be paid only in food — via a locker-room buffet.
As Steve Bauer saunters through Land Shark Stadium wearing a baby-blue manager's shirt and a vendor's badge on his 275-pound frame, the shouts of adulation follow him like he's Mean Joe Greene in a Coke commercial.
Most call him by his Manatees moniker, Mr. Mantastic. A few recognize him from his former gig, remarking, "Hey, it's the dancing peanut guy!" Steve knows these are his true fans — those who knew him in his hardscrabble days, when he did the hustle as he hawked $4 bags of legumes.
His favorite word is awesome, and he uses it to describe the only two things that deserve that characterization: baseball and dancing.
Asked to expound on his love of the game, Steve appears overwhelmed with emotion. "Hockey's great, football's great, but baseball — it's just awesome," the 36-year-old Detroit native explains in a Midwestern chirp. He has close-cropped thinning blond hair and wears nondescript eyeglasses. "It's not just the sport, which is the greatest sport ever made, but it's walking into the stands and seeing the field and hearing the peanut guys call out... It's all just so awesome!"
Conversely, if Steve doesn't like something, he has a phrase for that too: "It's killing me!" Like being stuck behind concrete walls, talking to a reporter, as the Marlins play the Rockies just outside: It's seriously killing him.
When Steve was growing up, his father bestowed a papal reverence upon Tigers outfielder Alan Trammell. But Dad was broke, so when they went to games, they sat in cheap seats behind a big orange pole. The obstructed view killed Steve, but he's a die-hard sentimentalist: He swears that if he had all the money in the world and Tiger Stadium still existed, he'd buy season tickets behind that pole.
When Dad retired to South Florida in the '90s, Steve followed him, although he's not sure why. He spent ten years waiting tables and tending bar, eating discounted grub, drinking beer, and gaining weight. He had no car and was chronically single — but at least he had the Marlins. He would often take a bus to the stadium from his apartment in Davie and spend all of his money on a bleacher ticket. After the game, Steve would simply walk the 15 miles home, his head swimming with the intricacies of the awesome game he had just witnessed.
Then the team held an open call for vendors and Steve was hired, a gig so freakin' awesome for its proximity to a baseball field that he felt guilty accepting his first modest paycheck. He began performing disco moves as he hawked peanuts and soon became well-known among regulars. Steve is a bit of a narcissist: He liked to search "dancing peanut guy" on YouTube and bask in the praise below the fan-filmed videos of him, accolades such as, "This is hilarious! Hell, yeah!"
And then, in February 2008, Steve stumbled upon an opportunity to increase his stardom exponentially. He received an email from the Marlins P.R. department featuring a photo of a large, bearded man in an unbuttoned Marlins jersey, his hairy belly proudly exposed, pointing at the camera in a sendup of Uncle Sam. The virtual flier proclaimed, "Become a BIG part of the Marlins!"
"It was just, 'Oh my God, that's awesome!' " Steve recalls. "It was almost like there was a light from heaven shining down on my computer."
On a Sunday afternoon in February 2008, Steve joined 14 giddy, plus-sized hopefuls packed into a studio at the stadium. Filmed by news crews sensing the easiest three-minute segments of their careers, sumo-wrestler bodies heaved to the sound of T-Pain's Auto-Tuned voice.
Nobody lumbered away disappointed. At the end of the audition, a dance coach announced that everyone who had shown up made the team. Turns out the Manatees are a testament to self-selection. "It takes a unique individual to want to do this," Flynn says. "There are basically three types of guys it might appeal to: the Marlins nut; the guy who is an exhibitionist, an attention-monger; and a trained dancer who has no outlet to perform because he's a little oversized."
A few of the men at the tryout apparently thought better of the idea and quit the team before it began. Others succumbed to injuries as the season wore on: knee problems, bad backs, hamstring issues, and the dreaded fatigue. The next season, another tryout further winnowed the group. The men who have been lured to the Manatees form a collection of South Florida's more intriguing oddballs. They come from every walk of life, with no bond besides large waistbands and a strange urge to gyrate in garish costumes for little money.
The oldest Manatee was 62-year-old Abraham J. Thomas, a 311-pound Miami Gardens preacher who danced last season as Big Rev. He wore tails and a top hat, the outfit of an old-time pulpiteer. He has published several books: a rumination on Miami-Dade County, a children's novel, and Murderer, a 167-page account based on a dream he had in which he killed somebody. Abraham never quite jibed with the Manatees' prevailing levity. At one point, in a questionnaire for the Marlins' official website, he was asked for his ideal last meal — a prompt for a simple fat-guy-and-food joke. But Abraham snapped, "I'll leave those questions for those who are on death row. However, I do know that I'm going to die, and perhaps sooner than later." The preacher has had trouble with his back, and before this season, his doctor forbade him from dancing.
Then there's the 360-pound Incredible Bulk, who wears green body paint and massive Hulk gloves when he dances. He's French-Canadian IT guy Jean-Pierre Comeau by day. He speaks of his "fattitude adjustment" — when he decided, last year, to stop being ashamed of his girth — as though it were his very own Malcolm X-picking-up-a-Koran-in-prison moment. "I realized that I'm a healthy, big, fat guy," he explains. "I am not saying I celebrate being fat, but I feel happy and content the way I am."
And the troupe has provided a precious opportunity for performers who possess talent and training but would never fit into a pair of tights. Wesley "Mac" Boozer — the Scottish Manatee — is a former off-Broadway actor who couldn't get roles. Liberty City-born Mark "Chocolate Thunder" Robinson is a 275-pound ballet and modern jazz instructor who can do a split without wincing.
Mostly, though, the men who have joined the Manatees are the embarrassing-uncle-at-the-wedding-reception dancers. They are the shameless goofballs who might break into the worm on the kitchen floor if somebody plays Lil Wayne at a party. "Professionally, I don't think he's a good dancer," says Gabriela, the wife of 48-year-old Timothy "Flash" Koteff, who got his sardonic nickname as a schoolkid after gasping through a 12-minute mile. "But people would always gather around him when he was dancing. He likes to be the center of the show."
As soon as the Manatees concept was announced, the predictable politically correct backlash began. One blogger called it a "glorification of obesity." Another, at Big Fat Deal (bfdblog.com), a pro plus-size site, labeled the Manatees a "fatty minstrel show." That condemnation is difficult to dispute when Mr. Mantastic opens his shirt to expose his painted beer gut as Weird Al Yankovic's "I'm Fat" blasts in the stadium.
But the team takes pride in its routines, according to the Bruce Wayne behind Mr. Mantastic. "It would be different if we were just bumping bellies or something," Steve says. "I mean, I do paint my gut, but I also work hard to master my moves."
In a Cooper City dance studio, Tiny, wearing a dingy Marlins T-shirt and billowing maroon sweatpants, studies himself in the mirrored wall as he struts backward on the wood floor. A leggy woman hangs on to each of his arms, and they yank possessively. He sways like a tubby temptress on Geisha-sized feet, a blubbery grin on his face. His gigantic colleagues, all dressed in workout clothes, circle the love tug of war with expressions of mock jealousy as Lenny Kravitz blares from a boom box. Gina Francis, the Manatees' dance coach — possessing a diminutive frame but a drill sergeant's voice — barks a critique, and they do the sequence again.
"He's the prototype," says Funk Master, the self-described "ghetto Manatee" in baggy shorts and sunglasses, as he admiringly watches Tiny. "He's who the Marlins were looking for with this thing."
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.
But it seems unlikely there will be a performance tonight. A torrential downpour is battering the stadium, and flat screens in the locker room show stands dotted with hapless people in plastic hoods. The news is eventually bellowed throughout the stadium tunnels: The game has been canceled. The Manatees moan as they pack up. The routine they had prepared for tonight, which included some especially complicated booty-quaking, had already been put off after a rain cancellation earlier in the season. It comes with the territory for the Marlins, who are among the league leaders in weather postponements every summer.
These days, each scrapped game is a reminder of the team's retractable-roof stadium, slated to open in 2012. And, if the hype is to be believed, it will finally give Miami a true big-league identity. Which begs the question: Will the Marlins need goofy behemoths tramping on the field in the new, top-dollar palace? The front office so far has stayed mum.
"I don't know if they're going to want us," Mr. Mantastic says before adding, somewhat cryptically, "It doesn't matter. Either way, we'll be there."
As he prepares to exit into the downpour, the tallest Manatee — six-foot-eight-inch Coach, by day a Miami-Dade physical education teacher — somberly leans into his Hawaiian colleague, Big Kahuna. He has an urgent query regarding the rain cancellation: "We still get paid, right?"