SAVANNAH, Ga. — Their goal is simple: Make baseball fun.
The Savannah Bananas are a collegiate summer team that plays a circus type of baseball. The Bananas have played in kilts, had a hitter on stilts, danced in tutus, and tossed team-mandated underwear into the stands.
Tonight, they are playing an exhibition game by Banana Ball rules, which were invented to make baseball more exciting for fans.
“It’s going to be fast. It’s going to be quick and it’s a lot of fun,” promises Jesse Cole, the Bananas’ owner and wired ringleader who always wears a banana yellow tuxedo and top hat and races 37,900 steps around Grayson Stadium.
Cole, 37, says the wild success of the Bananas is because fans always wonder what’s next.
Some rules are revolutionary, such as if a fan catches a foul ball, the batter is out. Others are radical: No stepping out of the batter’s box. No bunting. No mound visits.
Walks are called sprints. After ball four, the batter freely sprints around the bases until each defensive player touches the ball.
Scoring is very different. If a team wins an inning, it is awarded a point. The first team to 5 wins.
This format gives the home team the opportunity to celebrate multiple walkoffs.
Otherwise, the game goes nine innings with a two-hour time limit. If it’s still tied there’s a showdown tiebreaker. Just the pitcher vs. the hitter, with one fielder to chase down the ball and prevent an inside-the-park walkoff.
Purists will call Banana Ball heresy, but fans love the nonstop entertainment on and off the field.
“Whatever is normal, we do the exact opposite,” Cole says.
That means the dancing girls on the field are the Banana Nanas, mostly in their late 60s. There’s a pep band just like at football games, and a dancing first base coach who does a flip that would make Ozzie Smith jealous.
The Bananas are a social media phenomenon. Their TikTok account has 643,000 followers, more than any team in Major League Baseball and they don’t even show highlights. The sellout streak is over 100 games (including COVID-restriction capacity) and there are 8,000 fans on the waiting list for 4,000 seats. Merchandise has been shipped to all 50 states.
Before batting practice they have a brainstorming entertainment meeting with the players who come up with new ideas. Twenty-eight events are scripted before the game, but because of a rain delay the Bananas characters and crew easily entertain the crowd for more than two hours. The players even roll up the tarp and Bananas president Jared Orton rakes the infield.
Outside, the faithful line up hours before game time. Teri McMahon of Jacksonville, N.C, and her family drove 5½ hours to soak up the carnival atmosphere.
“I’m excited to see something different in baseball for the fans,” says McMahon. “We brought our gloves to get some outs for the Bananas.”
Despite recent tweaks, Cole says major league baseball is too traditional to change.
“It’s too long, too slow, too boring,” he says.
According to baseball-reference.com, as of June the average MLB game this season was 3 hours and 8 minutes. That’s unacceptable, says Cole.
“It’s outrageous,” he says. “We’re in a world now where everyone wants things quicker, faster. Baseball is getting longer. There’s a serious problem there.”
Tonight’s game against the Catawba Valley Stars takes a crisp 1 hour 45 minutes. Nobody leaves early.
Cole has come a long way from Scituate, Mass.
He was a South Shore Baseball Club star at age 5 and an honorary Red Sox batboy. At Scituate High School he was a three-time Patriot League All-Star and became an assistant coach in the Cape Cod League, when Garrett Richards was a pitcher for Cotuit.
At Division 1 Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., he was the ace and big league scouts were watching him. His dream was to pitch for the Red Sox. But then came the three tears in his shoulder and surgery with Dr. James Andrews (who saved Roger Clemens’s career in 1985).
He tried and tried but never came back.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Cole says. He studied the masters: Bill Veeck, Walt Disney, and P.T Barnum, and worked his way up from intern to general manager and owner of the Gastonia Grizzlies, another summer team, in 2014.
Cole proposed to his wife, Emily, with a ring in a hollowed-out baseball during the last game of 2015.
To celebrate the couple went to Savannah, where they took in a Savannah Sand Gnats (Mets Single A affiliate) game.
“It was eerie,” says Emily. “There was nobody there.”
Jesse fell in love with the decaying, ancient ballpark. The Red Sox held spring training here in 1932 then went on to lose 111 games. Babe Ruth hit a home run here as a Boston Brave and Henry Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Bob Dylan, and FDR all appeared here.
When the Gnats flew away in September 2015, Cole bought the new franchise in the Coastal Plain League, to begin play in 2016.
They sold only two season tickets in the first three months. Things looked bleak. They were overdrawn and losing money. The Coles sold their house and got a cheap duplex and slept on a blowup mattress.
The Coles’ fortunes changed on Feb. 25, 2016, when they announced the winner of a contest to name the new team. One fan suggested the Savannah Bananas.
“No team is named after a fruit,” says Cole.
Initial reaction here was negative, but social media went crazy. “Everybody was talking about us,” says Cole. Plus, fans were buying tickets and merchandise.
They even won the Coastal League championship that first season.
Bananas coach Tyler Gillum says he recruits high-energy players and wants to end the season “in a pig pile.”
So far, it’s working.
“We’re the best in the league right now,” says Gillum. “We’ve got really good players that are also really good on the entertainment side.”
Being happy helps, too.
Curtis R. Sproul, an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University, invited Cole to speak to his business management class in the spring of 2019.
“I thought that he was crazy,” says Sproul. “They’re playing better because they’re having a lot of fun and it is helping them improve mentally, which then transfers into an improved physical performance.’'
It’s not for everyone
Not everyone is a supporter.
“I would rather just play baseball,” said one Banana who was outside the stadium for the 5:20 p.m. parade of players, and characters, to greet arriving fans. Probably he didn’t want to dance in a tutu.
“The dancing gets more applause than the baseball,” says Cole, who named his company Fans First Entertainment. They do all the little things, such as sending a pitcher into the parking lot with an umbrella to greet fans arriving in the rain.
Outfielder Ty Jackson says Banana Ball is a special treat, even if it’s hard to remember to stay in the batter’s box.
“We do it just to keep the fans entertained and to watch how fast baseball can actually go and how fun it can be,” Jackson says.
Catawba coach Marvin Speaks was a pitcher drafted by the White Sox in 1970, and drafted by Uncle Sam the following week and shipped to Vietnam. During his attempted comeback he blew out his arm.
Asked if he thinks baseball takes too long, Speaks smiles.
“When my team is ahead, I think baseball is too slow,” he says. “When we’re behind, I think it’s too fast.”
He doesn’t like not being able to visit the mound. He also objects to having 4,000 extra fielders in the house for the home team, seeking foul ball outs.
“They’ve got a lot more fans than we do, so I’m sure that they are going to drop theirs,” he says.
But that’s not necessarily true.
The first foul ball snared in the Grayson Stadium stands was hit by a Savannah Bananas player. The crowd booed him mercilessly.
“We threw him out,” says Cole. But then they quietly snuck him back in.
On this night, foul balls prove elusive — one guy muffed a stinging line drive that left him shaking his hand — and the crowd got shut out, mostly by the high protective netting.
The actual game is a joy to watch.
Not one hitter stepped out of the box. The pitchers, fearful of those sprints that turn into sure doubles and in one case a triple, throw strikes and the Bananas win, 3-2.
There are elements of a Harlem Globetrotters game. Bananas starting pitcher Kyle Luigs tells the Stars what pitch he is going to throw and they still can’t hit it, even the Eephus pitch.
In the middle of the game, everybody dances to the old Ben E. King hit “Stand By Me,” with players and Cole dancing on top of the dugout.
Nick Clarno, the first baseman who plays with his glove in his mouth and fields ground balls barehanded, is having too much fun.
Twice Clarno comes to bat and smashes two banana cream soda cans into his mouth, and then snaps his bat like a toothpick over his knee. He also delivers two walkoff hits.
The walkoffs are exhilarating. Players rip off their shirts and race through the grandstand or do the Lambeau Leap en masse behind the backstop. The crowd goes nuts.
Clarno says Banana Ball is more fun than MLB.
“I’d say it’s more entertaining, probably besides the 450-foot bombs they hit,” he says. “But we’ve got guys here who can hit 450-foot bombs, too.”
Banana Ball is a bargain. The $18 ticket includes all you can eat food and drink and free parking.
Cole and friends also put together a professional Savannah Bananas team that he plans to tour with. They sold out two nights in Mobile, Ala., this spring with their “One City World Tour.” Old friend Jake Peavy threw out the first banana.
The Bananas plan to double the amount of Banana Ball games in 2022 because of the high demand.
At the end of the night there’s fireworks and a dance parade, as the crowd shimmies home.
Everybody acts like family.
“If baseball was like this, it’d be a lot more fun,” says Taylor Turcotte of Bay St. Louis, Miss.
One very polite young boy summons the courage to ask Bananas pitcher Christopher Dearman if he would please sign his cap.
“I’ll sign yours,” said Dearman, kneeling to be on the same level as the boy, “if you sign mine.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.