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All-male, plus-size cheerleading squad set to debut for Florida Marlins

The baseball team sees the 'Manatees' as a way to bring back fans. The men find it liberating – 'I'm just a big ham having fun,' says one.

By Jacqui GoddardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2008

Not a pompom crowd: Choreographer Vanessa Martinez-Huff (back) directs auditions for the ‘Manatees’ baseball cheerleading squad. The men will perform at Marlins home games on Friday and Saturday nights. ‘I’m just a big ham having fun,’ says one.

Robert vignon/florida marlins/ap

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Miami Lakes, Fla.

Joseph the Manatee is ordinarily a slow mover, on account of his ample girth. He has some vigorous activity ahead of him, though, and has been out foraging for food, anxious to fortify himself.

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Others are gathering around, issuing noises of greeting and nodding in envy as he grazes his snack. Some wrinkle their noses to take in the smell, some wiggle their whiskers. A rare breed with a gentle demeanor, there is something in the way they move that their handlers are sure will endear them to the crowds.

As their trainer arrives, ready to put them through their paces, Joseph finishes off the last few morsels. "Ready for action," he declares, licking the last traces of ketchup and fries from his lips and crumpling the empty McDonald's bag. For 300-pound Joseph is no manatee, but a Manatee – one of an all-male, plus-size, cheerleading squad for Florida's baseball team, the Marlins.

"We're among the biggest fans in south Florida. And I mean that literally," jokes Joseph Love, as he and his teammates make their way to an upstairs room at Shula's Athletic Club, a private gym in Miami Lakes, Fla., owned by another of the state's sporting giants, Don Shula.

It is here that the Manatees – named after the plump marine creatures also known as sea cows – have been rehearsing twice weekly for the past five weeks to work on their routines, ready for tonight's season opener against the New York Mets at Miami's Dolphin Stadium. After that, they will perform at every home game on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The Marlins franchise doesn't refer to them as cheerleaders, but as a "dance/energy squad" and the first of its kind in Major League Baseball. Trim waistlines and high-kicking skills of the kind displayed by the team's more conventional cheerleaders, the Mermaids, are out. In putting together the Manatees, club officials advertised for owners of "big bellies with the biggest jiggle."

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The Manatees range in age from their early 20s to their early 60s, and in build from tubby to something more. But while their weight undeniably adds to the incongruity of the act, the idea is not to laugh at the Manatees because they are big. Rather, the charm is in the delightful absurdity of their performance; the sight of 14 ordinary guys, who would otherwise be spending the game in the stands with their peanuts and Crackerjacks, strutting and swaggering to the beat, striking inane poses, and occasionally bumping into each other when they forget a move.

"They're showing people not to take life – or themselves – too seriously," says their choreographer, Vanessa Martinez-Huff, who declares herself impressed with the enthusiasm with which her recruits have applied themselves to the challenge. "One of them said to me, 'I'm OK with people laughing with us for what we're doing, but we don't want to be laughed at because of our size,' and that's a good philosophy."

That's not to say that the Manatees' repertoire does not include a few ironic digs at their portly proportions. One routine is danced to "Peanut Butter Jelly Time," a rap song, and features the well-fed lineup smacking their lips, lolling their tongues, and rubbing their bellies in time to the beat.

"My motto is, 'It's Thanksgiving Day every day,' " quips Jeff Stern, an accounting teacher who at his heaviest weighed 350 pounds three years ago but has since slimmed down to 280 pounds. "I'm a meat and potatoes guy. And if I was in a seat watching the game, I'd get through some wings maybe, some nachos, chili, and chips. So when I'm out there dancing, I'm doing myself a favor."

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