The Florida Marlins Manatees shake two tons of booty

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 to 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.

Classically trained "Chocolate Thunder" leads the crew in practice.
C. Stiles
Classically trained "Chocolate Thunder" leads the crew in practice.
As the Jumbotron attempts to squeeze them in, the Manatees salute their disco gods and finish with triumphant gusto on a Saturday night.
C. Stiles
As the Jumbotron attempts to squeeze them in, the Manatees salute their disco gods and finish with triumphant gusto on a Saturday night.

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This between-half-innings moment belongs solely to the Manatees — Major League Baseball's only plus-size male dance team. An introduction booms over the PA 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 9 teal 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 back-up 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.

The sound of glass smashing blasts over the PA 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, pre-concert 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.

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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.

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