The opposite of normal: How the Savannah Bananas became best story in baseball

·12 min read
Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole high fives fans as they stream into Grayson Stadium for Banana Fest.
Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole high fives fans as they stream into Grayson Stadium for Banana Fest.

SAVANNAH, Ga. — It’s three hours before the first pitch, but the Savannah Bananas already are well into their pre-game routine on a hot, humid day in June.

On the field at Grayson Stadium, players take batting practice and scoop ground balls. And just outside the lines, other players practice dance routines and watch as the first-base coach works on a stunt that involves launching himself in the air, twisting over three chairs and a picnic table with a player laying on top, and, hopefully, sticking the landing.

He does.

“If you ask more people, the Savannah Bananas are the best thing in baseball right now,” says Bananas manager Tyler Gillum as he hits ground balls to infielders.

Gillum, an assistant baseball coach at South Mountain Community College, is biased, of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Attending your first Bananas game is like seeing Times Square for the first time. You don’t know where to look, and you’re sure to miss something.

Savannah Bananas players greet fans waiting in line before the gates open Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Savannah Bananas players greet fans waiting in line before the gates open Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Players dance and participate in promotions before, during and after the game. The Bananas have a pep band, their cheerleaders are either women over 65 — the Banana-Nanas — or a heavyset guy who is in worse shape than the “Dad Bod” printed on his shirt suggests.

Part of the pre-game entertainment includes players leading the sold-out crowd — all games are sold out — in singing “Hey Baby.” Like the girl in the song, everyone wants to give the Bananas a whirl these days, or to be whirled by the Bananas.

Today, the Bananas have 2.8 million followers on TikTok, more than any Major League Baseball team, 594,000 on Instagram and 96,000 on Twitter. They’ve been featured on several national television networks, and owner Jesse Cole, who always wears a yellow tuxedo in public, is in high demand for podcasts and as a speaker.

The demand for the Bananas is so great that the organization created a spin-off version of baseball called “Banana Ball” that features dramatic rule changes, including a two-hour time limit, no visits to the mound, a called strike for stepping out of the batter’s box, earning a point for winning an inning and no bunting.

The idea, Cole says, was to get rid of as many boring baseball plays as possible.

Banana Ball debuted two summers ago with a “world tour” that’s only stop was Mobile, Alabama.

Former Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes was named the head coach for the Banana Ball world tour, in which the Savannah Bananas will take their unique baseball/carnival format on the road.
Former Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes was named the head coach for the Banana Ball world tour, in which the Savannah Bananas will take their unique baseball/carnival format on the road.

The 2022 team was managed by former Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes and its tour was seven stops. There are plans for Banana Ball to continue to grow in 2023, and its barnstorming tour could include a stop at a spring training site in Arizona, Cole says.

Clearly, the Bananas have tapped into something other baseball teams haven’t. But what? Cole laughs, which he does often, then pauses to consider the question.

“It’s something different, unique and fun,” he says. “When you have a game like baseball that is so well known, such a traditional game, but to many it’s become a little too slow, too long and too boring. We’ve been able to find something as an alternative.

“A lot of people have enjoyed seeing the players have fun, and I think that’s what it’s meant to be. When you’re a kid, you came out to the game to have fun. And I think that’s what is happening in Savannah.”

Growing Bananas

Grayson Stadium was built in 1926, seats 4,000, is sold out for the summer and there are 60,000 people on the waiting list for Bananas tickets. The ticket window at Grayson is a lonely place because you can’t buy tickets there. They’re only available via the online waiting list, and receiving an e-mail that your turn has arrived is cause for celebration.

“I brought three people here from out-of-town last week,” says Keith Royal, a Savannah resident since 1999. “They had never been to a Bananas baseball game, and they’re like, ‘I just watched an entire show for like $20 and the baseball game hasn’t even started yet.’”

Close to 4,500 fans were in attendance for Banana Fest at Grayson Stadium.
Close to 4,500 fans were in attendance for Banana Fest at Grayson Stadium.

Most tickets are general admission and cost $20. That includes all the hot dogs, cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, popcorn, chips, water and soft drinks you can eat and drink.

Tall domestic cans of beer are only $6, and cocktails, including the dangerous “Slippery Banana,” are $10.

People begin lining up to enter hours before the game is scheduled to start. They race to stake out seats, then fill paper sacks with concessions. The show already is under way.

On this night, it begins with a song from “Princess Potassia,” who is wearing yellow, of course. The new few hours are filled with an array of promotions that includes a toddler race, pies in the face, players dancing and a competition for ladies of a certain age to join the Banana-Nanas for a night. The eventual winner ended her routine by twerking. Game over.

The Banana Nanas in action. The Savannah Bananas will play in Montgomery's Riverwalk Stadium on March 25 and 26, bringing their signature wild antics, music, dancing and other fun.
The Banana Nanas in action. The Savannah Bananas will play in Montgomery's Riverwalk Stadium on March 25 and 26, bringing their signature wild antics, music, dancing and other fun.

The song played during the seventh-inning stretch isn’t “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” it’s “Yellow” by Coldplay, of course.

“We’re always looking for little moments that might be down time and get rid of those little moments,” Gillum says. “How can we make connections with fans? And how can we constantly entertain?”

The Bananas are the brainchild of Cole and his wife, Emily, who bought the Savannah franchise in the Coastal Plain League, a summer collegiate league featuring wooden bats, in 2016.

Both had worked in minor league baseball for a few years — Jesse proposed to her on the field in Gastonia, North Carolina — so they were accustomed to marketing challenges. But not one like this.

They found a stadium, and a team, in disrepair. They invested every dime they had and sold one season ticket in the first two months.

The franchise needed a jolt, and they figured a new name might do it. So they held a contest to rename the team and Bananas won. People in the community laughed and scoffed, but soon after the new name was revealed, Savannah Bananas was trending on Twitter.

A thunderstorm delayed the start of opening day, but 4,000 fans stuck around for the delayed start, and similar crowds have been at Grayson ever since.

Managing Bananas

One of Cole’s many mottos is “if it’s normal, do the opposite.” And it takes a special kind of baseball man to be willing to roll with that.

On the day I meet Gillum, Grayson Stadium is bustling. Employees are stocking the team store. The Dippin’ Dots cart is being wheeled into place. A drill team due to perform is working on its routine. The Banana-Nanas are arriving. The only quiet place is a storage closet that's been converted into "The World's Smallest Bookstore." The capacity is one, and the only books on the shelves are Cole's "Fans First: Change The Game, Break the Rules & Create an Unforgettable Experience."

Savannah Bananas coach Tyler Gillum greets Bill Leroy on the field before the start of the Banana Fest at Grayson Stadium.
Savannah Bananas coach Tyler Gillum greets Bill Leroy on the field before the start of the Banana Fest at Grayson Stadium.

Gillum is in his office, accessed via a few steps down from the dugout. The clubhouse and the office would make those in the movie “Bull Durham” look palatial. An uneaten sandwich is on Gillum’s desk and his boots are under it. A new player has reported and Gillum’s trying to get him outfitted while making sure everyone else is doing what they are supposed to do.

“Are they throwing BP?” he asks an assistant coach, who tells him yes.

“Good, we got fungoes going?”

Again, yes.

Gillum can now resume answering questions, including this one: What does he look for in a Banana?

Gillum has an acronym for it: OKG. Our kind of guy.

An ideal Banana, Gillum says, is talented, tough, hard-working, selfless and outgoing. He wants a guy who isn’t afraid of big moments on the field, or to karaoke off of it.

About a thousand players expressed interest in playing for the Bananas, but they aren’t a fit for everyone. Gillum uses his own knowledge of players and his coaching connections to find just the right guy. Those connections, he says, are his “honey hole.”

It’s not unusual for a coaching friend to call and say, “Hey, I think I’ve got a Banana for you.”

The Bananas joke around during games, but not when they are actually playing baseball. In 2021, they went 40-10 and won the league title. They were rewarded with championship rings the size of a toddler’s fist. They were 21-8 heading into Saturday evening's game.

“Some people think we only recruit guys who do dances, or who are crazy and outgoing,” Gillum says. “That’s part of it, but you’ve got to be able to play. We’ve had 32 players drafted in the last five years and two big leaguers so far.”

This is Gillum’s fifth summer leading the Bananas, and he’s marveled as the franchise developed from a local phenomenon to an international one.

Four infants and their parents take part in what the Savannah Bananas call The Slowest Race, at the team's baseball game against the Wilmington Sharks, Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Four infants and their parents take part in what the Savannah Bananas call The Slowest Race, at the team's baseball game against the Wilmington Sharks, Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Gillum’s a baseball lifer. He played in high school and college. For the last 11 years, he’s been an assistant coach at South Mountain CC, where he also is the health and wellness program director, and he’s spent summers coaching in the Cape Cod League and the Texas Collegiate League.

To coach at those levels, you have to love the game, and Gillum does. He also is an innovator who is willing to try new things, whether it be an infield drill or a way to make baseball more entertaining to fans.

That’s why he immediately hit it off with Cole when he first interviewed with the Bananas owner. The two had read many of the same books and listened to the same podcasts. Both dream big.

“I want to impact one million lives,” Gillum told Cole in that interview.

“Well,” Cole responded, “I think we have a chance to do that together.”

For a hardcore baseball coach, or player, adopting a Banana mindset isn’t easy, and it’s not for everyone, Gillum says.

The Bananas who compete in the summer league aren’t paid salaries, although some have benefitted from NIL deals with the team. Some live with host families, who also provide some meals. Playing in the CPL usually requires a financial commitment by the players and their families.

Becoming a Banana also requires peeling away the protective layer of your comfort zone.

It’s not normal to wear cowboy boots with your uniform, as Gillum, who is from Oklahoma, does for home games. Or to imitate Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own.” Or to have a pep band play your walk-up song to the plate, and then actually follow you to the plate. Or to dance in front of 4,000 people, or agree to participate in promotions like “banana in the pants,” in which fans try to toss bananas into the expanded waistbands of players’ pants.

And few baseball teams post two lineups in the dugout: one for the hitting order and one for telling players when and where to be to participate in promotions.

Savannah Bananas catcher Bill LeRoy has a nickname for each camper as he gets them ready for batting practice on Tuesday at Grayson Stadium.
Savannah Bananas catcher Bill LeRoy has a nickname for each camper as he gets them ready for batting practice on Tuesday at Grayson Stadium.

“It was a shock, to say the least,” says Bill Leroy, recalling when he first joined the Bananas as a summer player five years ago. “I fell in love with it and I’ve been here since.”

Leroy played four summers with the collegiate Bananas and joined the organization full time afterward. His duties include helping to run camps for kids — all three scheduled for this summer are sold out — and playing with the Banana Ball team.

“We don’t take baseball too seriously,” he said. “It’s not a job, it’s not a business. It’s a game that kids play and that’s what people love about it.”

What can MLB learn?

While the Bananas’ popularity has soared, Major League Baseball continues to struggle to retain its audience. The games move too slow and last too long. To a TikTok generation, and to many others, there is too much downtime and not enough to look at. Connection with the players is minimal.

Contrast that with a Bananas game.

“We greet our fans at 5:30 (for a 7 p.m. game),” Gillum says. “We do the ‘Hey Baby’ dance out front and then we give everybody a high five, a handshake or hug. H3 is what we call that.

"That’s starts the never-forget moment right there, becoming part of the Banana nation and the Banana family.”

Cole knows MLB will never adopt some of the “Banana Ball” rules and shtick. The two-hour time limit. The “showdowns” that end games that are tied. A player arriving to the batter’s box in a kid’s electric car while “Ridin’” plays over the sound system. Players participating in promotions during games.

But doing everything you can to fill dead time? To increase the pace of the game? To improve the connection between players and fans? That can be accomplished, Cole says, and baseball could start by eliminating some rules, including some of the unwritten ones.

“Speed of the game is the easy one to look at,” Cole says, “but No. 2, it’s allowing players, and encouraging players, to express themselves and to have more fun. If you flip a bat after a home run or do a celebration after a strikeout, you’re not getting drilled the next at bat. And neither is the next guy.

Members of the Savannah Bananas Premier Team warm up before the start of Banana Fest.
Members of the Savannah Bananas Premier Team warm up before the start of Banana Fest.

“I think now we’re in a TikTok world and highlights and fun are encouraged and seen by everybody, and baseball can jump on that. We’re trying to look at every moment of the game, from a hitter’s walkup to a pitching celebration to a scoring celebration, and take them over the top.”

For the Bananas, there is no top, at least not an identifiable one because they’ve flipped the game upside down. People can’t wait to see what the folks who brought them a grandma beauty pageant, a stuff-the-porta-potty contest, a first-base coach leaping over a picnic table and chairs and toddler races will come up with next.

“People who come to the ballpark,” Leroy says, “they want to smile, they want to experience joy, and that’s what playing this game is all about. We do everything in the world that we can to take care of that.”

Reach Kent Somers at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Follow him on twitter @kentsomers

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Savannah Bananas putting on a show that MLB would be smart to watch