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."