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.