Are the savannah bananas a real baseball team? When fans come home from seeing the Savannah Bananas play, founder Jesse Cole hopes they take away one thing: “That was the most fun I’ve ever had at a baseball game.”
People around the world have gone bananas for the exhibition baseball team playing and entertaining with their own set of rules since 2016. That includes allowing players, coaches and umpires to break out into elaborate dance routines and other circus-like antics in the middle of the game.
“GMA3” reporter Will Ganss caught up with the team in Staten Island, New York, earlier this month along their sold-out tour.
“As a fan who played ball my whole life, I was bored by moments in the game,” Cole, clad in his signature banana-colored suit and bowler hat, told ABC News. “I said, ‘How do we make it nonstop entertainment, nonstop fun that fans literally can’t look away?’ You have to watch what’s happening. And so it’s just nonstop entertainment, and that’s what makes it a lot of fun.”
When they’re not on the road, the Savannah Bananas play to sold-out crowds at home in Georgia at Grayson Stadium – the former home of Mets-affiliated minor league team, the Savannah Sand Gnats. They’ve also become a social media sensation, racking up more than 10 million followers and 200 million likes across all of their platforms.
When Cole and his wife, Emily, first came to Savannah, they didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome, according to a YouTube video put out by the franchise looking back on their story in 2019. Some in the community were skeptical about the newcomers. Cole and his small team recall cold calling people to drum up excitement and ticket sales, but things were slow at first.
The couple says they had to sell their home and drain their savings to keep their dream afloat. It was a huge gamble, but it ultimately paid off.
After they launched a contest for the public to come up with a name for the team, everything changed, Cole says. Choosing the name Bananas received a lot of media attention, and not all of it was positive.
“We were crucified. However, we got attention. People were talking about us. And so the first few weeks afterwards, the publicity nationally was huge. Locally, they were ripping us apart, but everyone was talking about us,” Cole says in the video.
Where are the Bananas playing?
Billing itself as a “World Famous Baseball Circus,” the Bananas will play games in 33 cities in 2023, including 30-plus at Grayson Stadium. The team opened the season Feb. 17 in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Cole expects to play before more than 500,000 fans over the next seven months, and ticket demand is so strong that the Bananas have implemented a lottery system. According to Cole, several ballparks have requested additional games, some asking for a weeklong series.
A number of Bananas’ games will be played in spring training facilities and minor league ballparks with capacities of 4,000 seats or more. The Bananas played in front of 7,700 fans for two nights at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the spring training home of the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. Cole aspires to play in Major League stadiums in 2024.
What is ‘banana ball’?
‘Banana ball’ is baseball but with nine rule changes, all aimed at speeding up play. The game is scored unconventionally, with teams tallying points for innings won rather than runs scored. There is also a two-hour time limit – no inning can start after the 1 hour, 50 minute mark.
Other “banana ball” rules include prohibiting mound visits, bunting and stepping out of the batter’s box between pitches. A fan favorite involves ruling a batter out if a ball he fouls off into the stands is caught by a spectator.
Aside from the rules, “banana ball” features a litany of hijinks, from dancing base coaches and umpires to pitchers on stilts to hitters wielding flaming bats.
Where did ‘banana ball’ come from?
Cole introduced “banana ball” in 2018 with secret test games against college teams Lander and Wofford in Greenwood, South Carolina, a three-hour drive from Savannah. The debut game finished in 99 minutes.
The first public trial came the next year in Savannah. Cole took the game on the road for the first time in 2021, playing a series in Mobile, Alabama. Last year, the Bananas played “banana ball” games in nine cities, including Savannah.
Who do the Savannah Bananas play?
The opponent varies from game to game. Cole fields a second team, the Savannah Party Animals, which often plays the foil to the Bananas in much the same way the Washington Generals do to famed basketball barnstorming team, the Harlem Globetrotters.
However, the Bananas will play 11 challenger teams in 22 games in 2023. The rivals include the Major League Baseball Alumni all-star team and several minor league teams.
Who plays for the Bananas?
The season-opening roster includes six players selected in the Major League Baseball draft earlier in their playing careers, including 76-year-old pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, who is in the Boston Red Sox hall of fame.
Several other former Major League stars will make guest appearances for the Bananas this season. Cole lists Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and World Series winner Jonny Gomes as regulars. Others who have made Banana cameos in the past include Jonathan Papelbon and Effingham County native Josh Reddick.
Cole said different retired Major Leaguers contact him about joining the Bananas “every week.” Bananas policy is not to announce the cameos ahead of time, however, so “fans never know who will make an appearance,” Cole said.
What else makes the Savannah Bananas popular?
A Bananas’ visit is more an event than a game.
Cole, his staff and the team aim to create a fan experience, with pregame and postgame parties that feature a pep band, a male cheerleading squad known as the “Man-Nanas” and a “Nanas” dance team comprised of senior-age women. The yellow tuxedo-wearing Cole is the ringleader and the players frequently join in to shake hands and sign autographs.
The Bananas also work hard at entertaining between innings, with player dance routines, stunt displays and the salute to the “banana baby” of the game, which involves a newborn in a banana suit.
What about those tickets?
The Bananas sell every ticket for the same price: $25, with no additional taxes or fees. Tickets are sold through a Bananas-owned ticket exchange, known as iSportsTix. Currently there are no tickets for sale through the Bananas due to the response to the pre-sale list.
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