- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

If the ground shivers and shakes this season at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium, it won’t be because of anything the rebuilding Florida Marlins do.

Undoubtedly reasoning that their chances of success are thin, the Marlins plan to counter that by recruiting seven to 10 fat men, jolly or otherwise, for a dancing/cheerleading squad called the Manatees. At first glance — as well as second and third — this dubious strategy would seem unlikely to put more fannies of any size in the stadium’s usually unoccupied seats.

A team flier said the club is seeking “big bellies with the biggest jiggle” for the squad. The first tryouts were held Sunday, and fortunately no heart attacks were reported. We can only hope the horsehide gods didn’t interpret these antics as a rain dance, since South Florida already gets much more than its share of summertime showers.

Referring to the, er, dancers as manatees might not be the best idea either. Real manatees are 1,200-pound mammals sometimes called sea cows that are not noted for their agility and sometimes get caught in boat propellers.

How’s that for a winning image?

“We’re looking for super fans,” Marlins vice president of marketing Sean Flynn said, meaning it literally.

The Marlins will be the first baseball team honoring, if that’s the word, America’s expanding waistlines, although the NBA’s Chicago Bulls have fielded a big-man dance troupe since 2003. And there shouldn’t be any shortage of candidates.

According to the Miami Herald, Men’s Fitness recently rated the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area seventh nationally in its annual list of the nation’s fattest cities. The magazine also said 21 percent of South Floridians are obese and the area has more fast-food and pizza restaurants than any other locale.

Can’t you see a muscular 195-pounder trying out for the Manatees and being told, “Sorry, son, you’re too fit. When you put on another 70 pounds, come back and see us.”

It’s ironic that the Marlins are recruiting during spring training because few ballplayers report overweight. In days gone by, most veterans would sit around all winter and then head for Florida to shed 15 or 20 pounds by working out in rubber suits. You don’t see that happening anymore. The salaries are too large and the competition for roster spots too fierce.

Of course, some tubby athletes have managed to survive. The sainted Babe Ruth waddled around the bases after swatting home runs in his final seasons. William “Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears didn’t get his nickname by selling iceboxes. And John Daly probably holds his breath when he tees up, hoping his stomach won’t hide the sight of the ball.

Baseball history reminds us of a 230-pound outfielder named Bob “Fats” Fothergill, who was traded to the Red Sox in 1933. In those days, Fenway Park’s left field had an incline called “Duffy’s Cliff” in honor of retired ball hawk Duffy Lewis. One day Fats climbed the hill in pursuit of a drive, lost his balance and rolled back down. Too bad ESPN wasn’t around back then.

The expansion Senators of the mid-1960s featured a plump first baseman known far and wide, if you’ll pardon the expression, as Bob “Fat” Chance. Chance didn’t have to run very much because he seldom got on base — his batting average one season was .175, not even close to his weight. And the mere sight of him around the bag was enough to bring tears to the eyes of manager Gil Hodges, a former accomplished first sacker for the Boys of Summer Dodgers.

But, heck, maybe I’m reading this all wrong. Maybe the Manatees will be wildly popular because everybody is sick of seeing beautiful, sexy women gyrate at sports events. Maybe they’ll inspire the Marlins to win 100 games and the World Series. Maybe Weight Watchers will go out of business.

One more thing: Members of the Manatees won’t be paid for performing at weekend home games, but they will get free tickets.

Plus, I assume, all the beer and hot dogs they can consume.

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