Brevard County Manatees
The Brevard County Manatees of Viera, Florida played twenty-three seasons in the Florida State League. Over that time span, they served as Class A-Advanced affiliate of three major league teams: the Florida Marlins, Montréal Expos, and Milwaukee Brewers.
The Manatees were founded as an FSL expansion team in 1994, the same year that Space Coast Stadium in Viera (near Melbourne, FL) was opened–with the primary purpose of serving as the then-fresh Florida Marlins’ spring training facility. As is common in the Florida State League, the minor league club that occupied the spring training site in the summer also served as an affiliate for the Grapefruit League user.
From a brand identity standpoint, it’s hard to think of a better example of a team built for its time. Not only were the Manatees able to ride the tailfins of Marlins Mania, but they captured the marketing zeitgeist perfectly with their choice of teal as a primary color. In the nineties, it was increasingly clear for minor league clubs that they could usually make extra merch money by creating cutesy animal identities. This is purely anecdotal, but manatees were a popular animal in 1994, not unlike how narwhals would rise to prominence about twenty years later. The Manatees went all in with marketing efforts, calling themselves the ‘Tees for short and featuring a mascot named Hugh the Manatee.
Brevard County operated in the Florida Marlins’ farm system for the first eight years of their existence, and the Manatees helped develop several key cogs for both of the Marlins’ World Series championship (1997 & 2003) rosters, including Edgar Rentería, Álex González, and Josh Beckett. Other notable Manatees during the Marlins years include Brad Penny, Scott Podsednik, Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett, and Jason Grilli.
A major change for the Manatees came following the 2001 season, when the Marlins and the Expos had to swap spring training facilities as part of the complicated agreement made between MLB and Jeffrey Loria when he bought the Marlins and sold the Expos to Major League Baseball. As such, the Marlins linked up with the Expos’ FSL affiliate (the Jupiter Hammerheads) and the Manatees had Montréal as a new parent. The ‘Spos and ‘Tees were were linked for three seasons, and some notable future big-leaguers from that time include Grady Sizemore, Chad Cordero, and Chris Young.
After the 2004 season, the Expos moved to Washington, DC. Despite the Nationals continuing to have their spring training at Space Coast, they understandably chose to make their Class A-Advanced level affiliate the local Potomac Nationals of the Carolina League. This left the Manatees without a parent club, and they eventually partnered with an MLB team that does their spring training in Arizona–the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Manatees were with the Brewers for a total of twelve years, and during this time they were able to find their sea legs with a post-Marlins identity. The team colors were changed to navy blue and red, and new uniform styles were created. The basic design of the primary logo was kept intact, but re-colored. One unfortunate development during this time is that the on-field mascot got a new suit and inexplicably changed its name to the decidedly lame Manny the Manatee.
During their lengthy time with the Brewers, many future All-Stars took to the field in Viera, including Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, Lorenzo Cain, Jonathan Lucroy, Jeremy Jeffress, Scooter Gennett, Mitch Haniger, and Brandon Woodruff. On the branding side, one especially notable part of the Brewers era was that the ‘Tees had jerseys that said the word “Brevard” in the same cursive script that Milwaukee uses for “Brewers” on their uniforms.
After about twenty seasons, the Manatees were just sort of there. Their attendance was mediocre, and each season saw Space Coast Stadium age a little more. The death knell for the Manatees came when the Nationals announced that they were building a new spring training facility (in conjunction with the Astros) in West Palm Beach and would be leaving Space Coast. In the wake of this departure, the Manatees were sold to an ownership group that moved the team to the Atlanta Braves’ spring training complex in Kissimmee, where they are now known as the Florida Fire Frogs.