Savannah Bananas peel away ‘unfun’ parts of baseball

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Fun-loving baseball team boasts 3 million followers on TikTok and a sold-out season.

When it was built in 1926, Municipal Stadium was a point of pride for the city of Savannah. Over the years, spectators filled its 4,000 or so seats to witness Franklin D. Roosevelt give a speech; baseball legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson play ball; and Mickey Mantle join the New York Yankees in an exhibition game.

But in more recent years, crowds dwindled. By the time minor league team the Savannah Sand Gnats ended its franchise in 2015, crowds barely numbered 200.

But now it has a new name, Grayson Stadium, and every game is a sellout. Fans come to watch owner Jesse Cole ham it up in a bright yellow tuxedo. To see performances by the senior citizen dance squad Banana-Nanas and the dad-bod cheerleading squad the Man-Nanas. And to witness ballplayers bust a move and perform acrobatic stunts for TikTok.

And, oh yeah. They come to watch the Savannah Bananas play their wacky brand of baseball.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Baseball’s ‘most fun’ team

The first thing to know about the Savannah Bananas is that it’s more in the entertainment business than baseball, said owner Jesse Cole.

“Our goal is to make baseball fun, and we look at every opportunity to entertain the fans,” Cole said.

To that end, games include antics like magic acts, infant races and appearances by Christmas-in-July Santa Clauses.

Even the players get in on the fun by dancing on the field and contributing to promotions before, during and after the game. They run through the stadium giving the crowd high-fives. They sign autographs for kids. But they’re also top-notch ball players.

At the time of publication, the Bananas are 34-14 in the Coastal Plain League, made up of collegiate players looking to hone their skills during the summer season. Last year, the team won the 2021 CPL championship, and each year they send a few players to the All-Star Game.

The team even created a new game called Banana Ball with a whole set of new rules. The game has a two-hour time limit, and the team that makes the most runs in an inning scores a point; the team with the most points wins. Players can’t bunt, but they can steal first base. And fans can catch a foul ball for an out. In extra innings, the defense consists of just a pitcher, a catcher and a single fielder.

Banana Ball is played in its own series by the Premier Team composed of 40 players divided between two teams, the Bananas and the Party Animals. Since the series concluded, 13 players from the Premier Team have signed professional contracts.

Front-seat season-ticket holder Rick Ellison has mixed emotions about Banana Ball, but he believes the Savannah Bananas are the best thing that has happened to Savannah in a long time.

“The fans get involved and they really cheer them on, and that makes those kids really want to play hard,” Ellison said. “It has developed over time, and it has really blossomed.”

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

How the Bananas came to be

Cole grew up playing baseball in Scituate, Massachusetts. At age 23, he landed the job of general manager for the Gastonia Grizzlies in North Carolina. While there, he tested out dancing players and grandma beauty pageants to make the audience experience more engaging, and the result was an increase in attendance.

In 2015, Cole was surprised by his wife Emily with a trip to Savannah where he discovered that the town’s minor league team, the Savannah Sand Gnats, barely attracted any fans. He saw potential in the historic city and stadium. When the Sand Gnats decamped for South Carolina to become the Columbia Fireflies, the Coles sold their house and emptied their savings to found the Savannah Bananas, along with Bananas president Jared Orton.

At first, few people bought into the concept. In the first two months, the team sold just one season ticket. But the Coles and Orton did whatever they could to sell tickets.

“To many people, baseball is too long, too slow, too boring,” Orton said. “You get nickel and dimed when you come to a ballpark. I said, well, what if we did the opposite? What if we made it nonstop entertainment from the beginning to the end? What if we actually eliminated all of our ticket fees, convenience fees and made it all-inclusive? We just put ourselves in our fans’ shoes.”

Word soon spread there was a new team in town and they were changing things up in a big way. Their attention-getting name helped. When they debuted their new name, it was the No. 1 trending tweet on Twitter that day.

By the end of the first season, the team sold out 18 of their 22 games. Today, every game sells out.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Who are the players?

Getting the players on board with Cole and Orton’s antics has been a process.

Players are coached on how to promote the team’s “fans first” philosophy, and there are rehearsals to get players out of their element and make an impact “bigger than baseball,” said Cole.

“We put them in situations that are different and they’re not used to, but every player here will tell you it’s more fun playing here,” Cole said. “The moments you’re going to remember are not a home-run, it’s not a strikeout, it’s those moments you interact with 4,000 fans.”

Players who flip the switch between game mode to entertainment show up 90 minutes before the game to greet fans. They deliver roses to little girls in the stands, and they take photos with fans throughout the night.

Pitcher Jared Donalson, an Albany native attending Georgia Southwestern, said that playing for such a large and involved crowd made him feel like a “superstar celebrity” and helped elevate his game. He improved his slider and learned to recover quickly from bad innings, all while wearing a kilt in a recent game.

“I think this puts baseball in a good direction because it’s always been so serious as America’s pastime, you don’t really need to get out of your comfort zone,” Donalson said.

Nolan Daniel, a pitcher from Dublin, has been with the team for three seasons and made the All-Star team this year. In addition to improving his skills, he’s learned to never say “no” since chances are, dancing on the dugout is sure to make someone else’s day better.

“If you’re not having fun, then there’s no way that people watching would be having fun,” Daniel said. “If someone’s not having good body language in the dugout, it brings everybody else down, the same way if somebody’s upbeat and rocking the whole time, it feeds off everyone.”

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Social media virtuosos

A big part of the team’s success can be credited to social media and the pandemic.

The team’s marketing director, Kara Heater, said the team’s growth on social media took off at the start of the pandemic, when — like sports teams around the globe — the Bananas continued to play games but in a stadium with limited-size crowds. That’s when the social media team got aggressive about posting top game clips, players’ dance moves and other silly antics that occurred both on and off the field.

“For us, it was just this matter of making content that makes people smile, that makes them forget maybe what they’ve got going on in their personal life, and then also content that makes baseball fun,” Heater said.

The team’s TikTok grew from just 100 followers at the start of summer 2020 to over 100,000 by the end of 2020. Today they have nearly 3 million followers.

Coming up with the team’s entertainment bits and media posts is serious business. Every week the entertainment, marketing and video teams meet to brainstorm new ideas. And each social media platform has its own niche. The best plays are posted on Twitter, while TikTok content targets the Gen Z audience. But there’s something for everyone, from baseball purists to those who say they don’t like the sport.

The planning meetings produce more than 60 ideas a week, but just a few are chosen, workshopped and scripted. Not all ideas go to plan, but some crush expectations, receiving more than 2 million views on TikTok.

Among the most popular clips are when the pitcher stops the game and busts into a dance with the second baseman and centerfielder, then suddenly pitches the ball and gets a strike while the batter is distracted.

Heater said the goal is to make sure fans coming to their fourth or fifth game in a season are “not going to see the same shows. There’s going to be something new to keep them entertained.”

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Making Georgia proud

Cole’s primary goal when starting the team was to save baseball in Savannah. In the process, the team has helped enrich the city.

They partner with local businesses such as Service Brewing Co. for Savanah Bananas Beer and legendary ice cream parlor Leopold’s for banana splits. And they hold fundraisers and raffles for local charities and nonprofits including the St. Andrew’s School and Habersham YMCA. Over the past six years, the team has raised more than a half-million dollars for dozens of community organizations.

The team has also brought in some of the best players across the state, helped them improve their skills and given them a taste of what it’s like to play in front of big, enthusiastic crowds. The team also draws in dozens of Atlanta residents each game, Orton said.

Indy Stanley, a catcher and outfielder from Cumming, said this summer was “the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life.” The coaching significantly bettered his game. The fans made him feel like a role model. And he learned to talk with anyone and everyone.

He recalled a recent game against the Macon Bacon when he heard a voice from the stands shouting his name. It was a young boy. The family approached Stanley saying the boy idolized him and wouldn’t stop talking about him the entire game.

“You realize the impact that you can have,” he said. “I feel like a much, much greater thing is trying to impact the lives of children and to be a good role model for them.”

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