Sunday, September 09, 2007

66ers fans also love this team 

Posted by Sasha at 1:00 AM ET

Leonor Vivanco, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun
Photo Gallery: The girls of summer
Video: 66ers dance team

SAN BERNARDINO - Players wield their mighty bats, ready for the perfect pitch. Boys slide on their gloves, ready to catch a foul ball.

Fans bite hot dogs and gulp down beers at Arrowhead Credit Union Park, ready to cheer on the Inland Empire 66ers. They're all ready, filled with the anticipation of a good time in the friendly confines of the San Bernardino ballpark.

Baseball - the all-American sport.

It is here on this field of dreams that the girls of summer also come out to play. Fifteen young women are a league of their own, ready to entertain the loyal fans. They are the 66ers dancers.

"When it's baseball, we live, breathe and eat baseball," said Norine Flores of Corona.

Many young women on the team have been dancing their whole lives. Others were cheerleaders in high school. Some even majored in dance in college. Like the ballplayers, the dancers dream of making it to the big leagues and becoming a Laker or Charger girl. These young women are teammates, too, tied together by their passion.

"I love making friends with all the girls because we're all interested in the same thing and we all click because we all have the same thing in common - our love for dance," said Karina Vitelli, 23.

They cherish the friendships they've made while performing at 66ers home games.

"It's the friendships that I love. All the girls - we're bonded," said Flores.

She met her best friend, Jessica Rael, on the team in what started as an unlikely friendship. Flores is 29 and Rael is 21. They got off to a rocky start two years ago when Flores, doing promotions for the park at the time, bluntly told Rael, a dancer, that she shouldn't wear a certain shade of red lipstick. But then Flores expressed interest in learning the team's dances. Rael admired her because she could dance, and encouraged her - and even taught her some moves. Now the duo is inseparable. It was because of a high school friendship that Donee Dattilo accepted the job as the head cheer coordinator. Dattilo and Byron Marquez, the 66ers' director of business relations and president of family outreach program, went to junior high and Fontana High School together.

"I always loved cheering. I was on the drill team in high school and there was nothing local for me after high school," Dattilo said. "I put myself in those girls' shoes."

She said she wanted to make sure the girls had this as a dancing outlet and decided to help with the team. Ranging in age from 18 to 30 and living from Brea to Redlands, the dance team is an evolution of the Spirit Girls in the late 1980s, when San Bernardino's ballclub was known the Spirit. The Spirit Girls were in charge of audience participation. The current dance team officially began four years ago. Feeling they may be too old for dance recitals, the dancers find comfort in performing at the ballpark.

"After high school, you're like, what are the opportunities to dance?" said Vitelli.

The blond Moreno Valley resident found that chance with the team. A talented dancer, Vitelli tried out for a spot on the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers dance teams. She was a finalist.

"I live to perform. I love performing," Vitelli said.

The minor league is a steppingstone to major league teams and so is this dance squad. Some of the young women fret over whether they'll be too old to be a 66ers dancer, just as athletes worry about whether their playing days are numbered. That's why Dattilo pushes education as a priority for the squad.

"Unfortunately, you can't dance all your life," she said.
"Most of them know there's life after the dance team," she sadi.

Although the dancers spend many hours at the stadium and get paid $25 a game, it isn't a full-time gig. But they do work everything else - full-time jobs and social lives - around it. These dancers are spunky, friendly, beautiful and petite. Their smiles to the crowd are effortless. There's no catfights or egos. Wearing baseball jerseys, they shimmy, spin, clap and kick their legs to the beat of Gloria Estefan's "Conga" blaring at the stadium. Ted Gerry of Mira Loma asked the dancers for their autographs during the game.

"I think this is fantastic. What they do here is very entertaining," said Gerry, 57. "What it does is it brings fans into the game."

It's the fans whom they credit for keeping their spirits up. When they're not performing, the dancers are often surrounded by fans. Bianca Santoni was bashful around the dancers. The 4-year-old girl had just finished one year of ballet classes.

"A couple weeks ago we were here and she was like, `Daddy, the cheerleaders!' She got their autograph," said her father, Pedro Santoni.

Her mother, Maria Santoni, said, "She wants to take pictures with them all the time. They're like her idols."

Bianca shook her hips as the dancers stepped to the "YMCA." Usually the dance team hosts a cheer camp for local kids in the summer but didn't this year due to scheduling. But they plan to hold a dance clinic once the season is over.

"It's great to show them that you can do other things besides just being at school or playing sports, like dance can be fun too," said captain Nicole Green, 23, of Riverside.

Green, who tried out for the Clippers, enjoys interacting with the crowd.

"I think a lot of them love us and when we're not here, they notice," she said.

Just as players practice for the games, so do the dancers. They dedicate three hours on Saturdays to practice, perform at home games - typically Fridays and Saturdays - in addition to going to school or working 40 hours a week at full-time jobs.

"The most rewarding is seeing them all happy and having fun," Dattilo said.

"They love to do what they're doing," she said.

When Maria Baldi auditioned for the first time for a professional sports dance team, she made it to the finals for the San Diego Chargers. The 20-year-old Cherry Valley resident enjoys dancing in San Bernardino.

"It's not so serious. It's just fun," Baldi said.

The young women agree it doesn't feel like a job. Their friendships don't end at the bottom of the 9th inning when the ball game does.

"Everybody gets along. When we're together, we talk about things you would talk to your sisters about," Baldi said.

Dattilo is viewed as the older sister who lends an ear.

"I care for them and I try to give them advice," she said. "I don't tell them how to run their lives."

The dancers find Dattilo easy to get along with.

"We talk to her about what's going on with guys and our life," said Lindy Schive, 22.

Practicing dance moves. Getting dating advice. Sharing beauty tips. Eating meals. Celebrating birthdays. These 15 young women do that all together. They're a tight-knit group, and they come to each other's rescue no matter how big or small the problem.

A flustered Rael was running late for the 66ers game and was freaking out because she forgot the white shoes she dances in and wasn't ready to perform her 90-second choreographed routine.

"Karina was doing my hair. I was doing my makeup and Lindy was lacing up my shoes and putting them on my feet," Rael, 21, said.

"We're all here for each other, ... I think we genuinely care about each other," Rael, of Redlands, said.

That was evident when Marquez announced he was leaving the 66ers after his 20 years split between being a player and administrator. He told the dance team members one by one.

"That's what the hardest thing is - knowing that they don't want me to go," he said.

He was instrumental in starting the dance team and keeping it going. Marquez, who has been diagnosed with cancer, called the young women "amazing."

"They're great kids," he said. "We're like family."

The dancers consider him their protector.

"I've been here for two years and he's kind of like a dad to us," said Schive, of San Marcos.

"We'll miss him, and we're sad to see him go but we still support him," said Stephanie Matsusaka, 18.

Dattilo has assured the team she's not leaving. But even baseball players don't know if they're going to be picked up next season.

"I think if Byron leaves - Byron is the whole reason there's a team - I think everybody is a little skeptical of what's going to happen," she said.

Though losses and the end of a season can be heartbreaking, there's always next summer.

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