Cheering’s expansion team
Robert Ramos bumps when he should grind. If he’s supposed to walk like an Egyptian, he gets down in a low swagger. With Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” blaring, Ramos isn’t sure which way that is.
Even when telling a joke about his lack of dancing prowess, his timing is off.
“My girlfriend says that if it wasn’t for no rhythm, I wouldn’t have any rhythm at all,” he says, furrowing his brow when that doesn’t sound right.
But Ramos and 15 other men will be dancing before an expected 45,000 fans at the Florida Marlins’ home opener Monday at Dolphin Stadium. They are the Manatees, Major League Baseball’s first plus-size male cheerleaders.
The Marlins are hoping the squad -- which is named after endangered marine mammals that resemble pale walruses without tusks -- will bring fans into the park. Despite two World Series championships in its 15-year existence, the National League East team had the lowest average game attendance in the majors last year, fewer than 17,000. It posted a disappointing 80-82 season amid rumors, since squelched, that the team was for sale.
The idea was to connect with fans who are most comfortable watching baseball on a couch near a beer cooler. So when Marlins marketing executives posted a notice on the team website and held tryouts, there were no upper or lower limits on weight.
The chosen Manatees tip the scales at 225 to 435 pounds.
“There are more people who look like them than have those perfect bodies,” says Sue Friedman, a charter member of the Marlins Fan Club.
But can manatees learn to dance?
At the first practice, in a second-floor studio at the Don Shula Sports Center, Ramos hung back from the others decked out in black and aqua -- the Marlins’ team colors. A shy 6-foot, 270-pound man whose decision to join the Manatees shocked his near and dear, Ramos stood like a wallflower until choreographer Vanessa Martinez-Huff clapped the practice into session.
Modeling each step in front of her panting apprentices, Martinez-Huff watched their moves in the studio mirror, halting the music every few beats to correct missteps. Her motions were smooth and her voice cheery.
In her eyes was a look of stifled panic.
But she shook it off, determined to shame the men into synchronized movement.
“I see people leaving to get hot dogs!” she admonishes them. “You want to keep them in the stands! Do you want to lose out to a hot dog?”
“Can they bring me one?” asks Steve Bauer, a 280-pound food service vendor, drawing high fives from the other Manatees.
Tim Koteff, a 47-year-old from Deerfield Beach, infuses the routines with unexpected vigor and panache for a 5-foot-8 frame carrying 225 pounds. Mark Robinson, an event coordinator in an orange do-rag, shows off a split that brings groans from men who have trouble bending their knees.
George Gonzalez and Brian Seik -- who refer to themselves as Disco George and White Lightning -- dance to the music in their heads more than to the rhythm of the opening number.
“I’m doing this for the guys like me, the regular guys who haven’t been that active lately,” says Gonzalez, a 39-year-old computer firm account manager who weighs 130 pounds more than when he graduated from high school. Disco George has already made a name by dancing spontaneously at Miami Heat basketball games. He’s fleet of foot for a large man.
Seik follows his own constant motion in the studio mirror. A single father and marketing salesman with a protruding gut and a knee brace, he says his 8-year-old daughter, Heaven, isn’t cool with her father flaunting his girth in public.
“She’s like, ‘Oh, Daddy, no!’ But she’ll deal with it,” he says, making a note to put something aside for therapy in case he’s wrong.
Two weeks and three practices later, Ramos and the others arrive at Dolphin Stadium for a taping of the Spanish-language breakfast TV show “Despierta America” -- Wake Up, America.
Ramos is wearing a neon aqua ball cap and has added a matching terry cloth wristband.
A rental car agent, Ramos is on his cellphone, telling a colleague he can’t help him solve a problem right now. He hasn’t told anyone at work that he’s a Manatee. His mother is still in shock; his girlfriend, a seventh-grade English teacher, is mortified.
“She doesn’t like people saying we’re fat,” Ramos says. “She doesn’t think I’m that bad, so she thinks I’m humiliating myself by being out here.”
Two of the original 16 Manatees have fallen to preseason injuries -- including Seik, whose knee went out after the last practice. They’ve been replaced by Fernando Fundora and Serafim Heredia, aka the Big Kahuna and Bulldozer.
The squad gets through its number for the taping with relative precision. Martinez-Huff’s eyes are wide with disbelief when her charges stay on beat. The Manatees seem to have found their groove.
But once the camera is off and practice resumes, so do the blunders.
Jeff Stern, a 52-year-old accounting teacher, keeps starting left when he should go right. Abraham J. Thomas, the oldest Manatee at 61, doesn’t do knee-bends out of fear he won’t be able to get up again.
At 320 pounds, Joseph Love takes his Manatee membership seriously. He looks shattered if he turns the wrong way. When the others rest, he goes over the steps alone.
For all their effort, the guys will get two tickets to every home game, a staff pass to the stadium, free parking, game-day meals, their Manatee uniforms -- for starters, black shorts and long T-shirts -- and other minor perks.
Love, a casino security guard, wants to make the Manatees something more than a gag that wears thin after a game or two.
“I’ve been a fan since Charlie Hough beat the Dodgers on the first day. I met my wife at a Marlins game. We had our first kiss during a Derrek Lee at bat,” he recalls. With a rakish eyebrow flutter, he says: “Lee got a double. I got a home run.”
After practice, Martinez-Huff calls a huddle to get a list of sizes and nicknames for the uniforms. (The squad will perform once per game for the first few weeks, then more frequently if the fans respond.) Dress rehearsal is just three days away, she reminds them, and they’ll be introduced alongside the firm-bodied Mermaids and a peppy teen cheer group, the Minnows.
All long legs and flowing hair in their skin-tight tap pants and halter tops, the Mermaids flutter by with their silver pompoms on rehearsal day. The Manatees are getting a pep talk from Martinez-Huff, but as they eye the Mermaids, they have that “What were we thinking?” look on their faces.
As they wait their turn to perform, Ramos and Heredia swap Iraq war stories. Ramos served in the ongoing war, and Heredia is a veteran of the 1991 invasion. Both blame their weight gain on the sedentary years that followed their service.
Their reverie is interrupted by the stadium announcer.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Florida Marlins present the Manatees!” Ramos has lost his standing as the least rhythmic. Stern, the accounting teacher, turns the wrong way for the umpteenth time, muttering, “I’m an idiot!” Bauer and Robinson collide when the two lines of dancers are supposed to change places.
The reality of performing on opening day is starting to dawn on the big men. Love laments every gaffe with a disapproving shudder and roll of the eyes. Thomas is so winded he heads for the men’s room as soon as the team is off the field. But Gonzales dances off, grinning, oblivious to his less-coordinated colleagues’ concern.
Ramos assumes the crowd will be laughing with them, not at them. Besides, he has an ulterior motive for his newfound exhibitionism: He’s already sweated off the first few of the 50 pounds he gained while recuperating from injuries suffered in Iraq, and he hopes to lose enough to eventually be too thin for the squad.
Ramos looks forward to opening day with renewed confidence. He has improved his moves and made progress at home: His girlfriend, at first too embarrassed by his moonlighting, has agreed to accompany his mother to the game.
“She’ll be there for opening day,” Ramos says. “It’ll probably be the last baseball game she ever goes to.”