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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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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.

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.

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"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."

During Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," some of the squad clearly can't remember which way, resulting in much hilarity. When the lyrics of Flo Rida's song "Low," featuring the rapper T-Pain, urge them to get "low low low," 6-foot, 3-inch, 325-pound Abe Thomas, who at 61 is the oldest of the Manatees, does his utmost to oblige.

"I have a bad back. After practice, I have to stay in bed for a day and chill out," he explains, clutching at a support brace strapped around his middle. But he is gamely joining in with the routine, looking dapper in a bowler hat and gold-rimmed spectacles as he bobs to the music.

He works as an assistant pastor at a Methodist church in Miami Gardens, where he inspires youth with his self-penned motivational storybooks about a boy named Skeeter who overcomes various life challenges. "When I saw the advertisement about the Manatees, I knew I fit the bill and that I shouldn't let my health situation hinder me. I have to overcome and endure," he says. "One of the most important premises in my book is that who you are, your size, how you look, has nothing to do with what you can accomplish. If you have hope and dedication and are willing to put in the hard work and perseverance, it's an accomplishment."

With a twinkle in his eye, he reminisces about how, as a child, he longed to run away to join the circus. "Now, this is my circus," he says.

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For the Marlins franchise, which has struggled with dwindling attendance in the years since its 2003 World Series win, the Manatees are part of a marketing ramp-up aimed at re-invigorating a following.

"They have a super amount of passion, they can come out and really bring a charge to the stadium, make sure people have a good time," says Sean Flynn, the club's vice president of marketing. "People will relate to these guys because they're ordinary fans giving it their all."

But like Mr. Thomas, security officer Nelson Clark's motivation runs deeper. He is nicknamed Tiny, though he tips the scales "between 415 and 430 pounds." The 24-year-old, who blames his cuddly figure on a love of hot sauce and an overgenerous lunch lady at his school cafeteria, says that he wants "to show that big people can dance, too, big people can move, we have what it takes to make it just like skinny people."

"I used to be picked on a lot at school, I would be embarrassed. I was sick and tired of being big," he says. "Seeing the Marlins do this, it actually made me glad.... I'm showing kids who are heavy and big like me, Don't let nobody get you down, go out there and show you can dance, don't be shy, don't have low self-esteem."

His trim younger brother Brandon, who works as a model, reveals proudly: "It kind of makes him feel good. He doesn't like going out in public much because people look at him, but now this has made him feel really confident."

George Gonzalez, known as Disco George, hopes "to inspire other large men to get off the sofa and boogie down." He is wearing war paint on his face, blue Mardi Gras beads, and a whistle with flashing lights around his neck.

He used to be thin, he says, but that was in his bachelor days, when he would go out dancing several times a week and his job was more active than his current role as a desk-bound account manager for a computer sales firm. Now he is 278 pounds.

"I put 110 percent into this Manatees thing," he says. "I'm just a big ham having fun. And it's contagious. Like a smile."

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