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Cheering's expansion team

COLUMN ONE

Two World Series wins haven't been enough to draw fans to Florida Marlins games. Enter the Manatees.

March 29, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. — 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.

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