Bananas could be just what baseball needs | News, Sports, Jobs


By Paul Newberry

The Associated Press

SAVANNAH, Ga. — More than 90 minutes before the first pitch, it’s already clear that this isn’t just any baseball game.

The crowd queuing outside the main gate slowly begins to part, clearing the way for a cheering group to guide the home team – adorned in bright yellow uniforms – through an exuberant gauntlet.

Once the players reach the lobby outside the historic Grayson Stadium, they launch into a hastily choreographed dance routine accompanied by the melody “Hey! Baby.”

Welcome to Banana Land, home of baseball’s most outrageous and entertaining team.

Savanna bananas.

When you’re done laughing at that moniker, we’ll get to a more serious issue: this amateur side from the little-known Coastal Plain League could be at least part of the cure for what’s plaguing the national pastime.

“Are you ready to have some fun?” » Bananas owner Jesse Cole, dressed head to toe in yellow, asked a group of fans to come to the stadium for a recent game. “Enjoy the show.”

What a show it is!

There’s the Banana Baby, a baby who is introduced to the crowd as Simba in the “The Lion King,” lifted skyward by a parent while the entire team kneels in reverence around home plate.

There’s the Banana ‘Nanas, the senior dance team.

There’s Maceo, a choreographer who doubles as the team’s breakdancing coach (his tortured convulsions in Miley Cyrus’ first base box “Wrecking ball” were a personal favorite).

Savannah’s batters strut and strut to the plate, a violation of baseball etiquette that would draw an immediate stir in the major leagues, but is part and parcel of the spectacle in Banana Land.

There are the players who roam the stands between almost every half-inning – handing out roses, tossing T-shirts and hopping atop the dugout to lead the crowd in song.

Oh yeah, there’s also an actual baseball game in the middle of all the shenanigans. (The Bananas, for what it’s worth, entered the weekend with the league’s best record at 12-4).

“I’m so excited” said Frances Squyres, who traveled from Los Angeles to attend her first Bananas game. “It feels like one big party – that also has baseball going on.”

With apologies to Shohei Ohtani, Bryce Harper and the World Series-winning Atlanta Braves, the Bananas might just be baseball’s most compelling story.

It’s no laughing matter.

Of course, some of the more over-the-top skits might be a bit too much for the big leagues, and it’s hard to imagine a way for stars like Ohtani or Harper to have the kind of close interactions that are possible in a league. summer school.

But surely there are lessons to be learned from a team that bucks the trend of baseball struggling to attract new fans and that so many young people view as an out-of-touch relic favored by their grandparents. .

“I really think if this were implemented in MLB it would help the game grow,” said Jestin Jones, a right-handed pitcher who plays collegiately at St. Leo. “This little town of Savannah, almost more people come here than for MLB games.”

Indeed, Savannah has sold out every game at the old Grayson Stadium since its founding in 2016, when it joined a league that essentially allows college players to stay in shape during their offseason.

The Bananas’ antics garnered nationwide attention, with fans pouring in from more than 30 states (and even other countries) each night, and a waiting list for tickets that Cole said reached 50,000.

“We are not in the baseball business. We are in the entertainment business,” Cole said under his yellow bowler hat, which goes well with his yellow tuxedo. “We can never be the best baseball team in the world. We are not major leaguers. But could we be the funniest team in the world? That’s what I wanted to attack.

He attacks it with a fast-talking enthusiasm worthy of a wild-born carnival salesman-slash-barker who counts PT Barnum, Walt Disney, Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil among his inspirations.

Every corner of Grayson Stadium’s aging walls provides an opportunity to have fun and move goods.

A random cupboard in the hall has been transformed into a “The smallest bookstore in the world” (Occupation: 1), selling titles written by Cole and his wife, Emily.

A storage room next to the house’s clubhouse has been transformed into an accessory closet, where a collection of toilet seats hang on the wall, bins are filled with wigs of all shapes, sizes and colors, and Cole quickly move from one row of costumes to the next. rhyme or reason, everything from French maids to sharks.

When recruiting players for the Bananas, their personalities are just as important as their skills.

“It’s not for everyone” said pitcher Blake McGehee, who recently transferred from Ole Miss to Louisiana-Lafayette. “But once you get here, you sort of adapt to it. It’s just the culture here. If you come in and you’re not that outgoing, you’re not an artist, you change quickly.

When Cole meets with a player before the game, he advises the youngster on certain moves he should try when stepping up to the plate, all in an effort to gain more views on TikTok.

Social media is a big part of Cole’s marketing skills, and he sure could teach the big boys a thing or two. The Bananas have 2.8 million followers on TikTok, more than four times that team from Atlanta. You know, the one who captured a World Series title.

Cole has even bigger plans, also starting a pro team that’s basically baseball’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters. “Banana Ball” as he dubbed it, includes rules such as a two-hour time limit for games (hmm, that sounds pretty appealing.) and taped outs when a pop fly is caught in the stands by a fan.

The pro team went on a sold-out tour of seven minor league baseball diamonds ahead of the regular season. Cole said he has received requests from several major league teams who want to bring Banana Ball to their stadiums in 2023.

“I believe Banana Ball is the future of what we do,” Cole said, “Because it completely breaks the rules and barriers of how the game was.”

When minor league baseball abandoned Savannah after the 2015 season, largely due to the city’s reluctance to build a new stadium, the Bananas stepped in to fill the void.

Turns out the rickety 4,000-seat stadium – which opened in 1926 and hosted both Hank Aaron (as a minor leaguer) and Babe Ruth (in an exhibition during his final season in the leagues) major) – was not an obstacle at all. .

(That’s another lesson for the big leagues: you don’t necessarily need the newest stadium to draw crowds.)

Cole, his wife and a crew of twenty-somethings pulled an old picnic table into the abandoned stadium and set up shop, calling potential ticket buyers and finding ways to make a night at the Bananas more than just a game.

From these humble beginnings, they quickly became a resounding success. One room in the stadium is now dedicated to social media staff, another to receiving a steady stream of orders from around the world for shirts, caps and other products.

The formula, in Cole’s mind, is obvious.

“Every decision we make has the fans first,” he said.

Bananas are a perfect fit for Savannah, a Georgian coastal town that rose to prominence in the 1990s with the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

These days, Savannah is overrun almost every weekend with tourists, revelers, and bachelorette parties. Bananas quickly became a star attraction amid the eccentric revelry.

“Good vibes. Make everyone laugh”, Maceo, the dance coach, talked about his role. “Banana Land is about weirdness – and I’m here for it all.”

Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry&ap.org



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