SAVANNAH, Ga. – It’s a scorching summer afternoon in South Georgia. Mid-90s. No shade. No breeze.
It’s shorts weather for everyone — except the man on the baseball field decked out in a beaming yellow tuxedo and matching top hat.
Jesse Cole, owner of the wildly popular Savannah Bananas baseball franchise, likes to say that normal is boring. And sporting a vivid yellow tuxedo that he sweats through in minutes — Cole owns seven of them — in the dead heat of summer screams that this is anything but a normal Wednesday afternoon.
“Every day, people think we’re crazy. And I like that,” Cole said. “Every night, we do five to 10 things we’ve never done before in a live crowd on the field. Every single night. And a lot of them don’t go well. But when they do it, it’s pretty special.”
A little more than six years ago, Cole and his wife emptied their savings accounts and maxed out their credit cards to bring a baseball team to a Savannah community reeling from the loss of its longtime affiliate team.
Now, the Bananas are one of the biggest attractions in all of baseball, utilizing the powers of social media and an anything-goes, risk-taking process to bring an experience to the masses like never before. If it’s normal, Cole’s not interested. But do a viral TikTok dance, walk up to the plate wearing a Jason Voorhees mask or bellyflop in a kiddie pool in the on-deck circle, and now you’ve got his attention. The requisite for being a Bananas player isn’t just being a baseball player, it’s being an entertainer, too.
“The goal is simple: Make baseball fun,” Cole said. “And so, everything we do, we celebrate more, we have more fun, we dance more. That’s what the game was supposed to be. When we were kids, we played to have fun. That’s what it should be now. And so hopefully, everyone pays attention. A lot can happen when you’re having fun.”
The Bananas cram every bit of theater they can into a night of baseball, so much that they’ve become a must-see experience across the country — provided fans can get a ticket which, isn’t easy these days. The Bananas have sold out every home game since the 2017 season and currently have a waiting list of nearly 70,000 for tickets.
For those who can’t wait to take in a Savannah game, there’s always eBay, where a $20 Bananas general admission ticket — which includes all-you-can-eat hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, chips, soda and water — can soar into the hundreds of dollars.
The name that changed it all
In the fall of 2015, Savannah had just seen its minor league team, the Class-A Sand Gnats, relocate to Columbia, South Carolina, leaving it without baseball for the first time since 1972. The Sand Gnats had called Savannah home since 1984.
It wasn’t an easy breakup with the city. The team was relocated after efforts failed to land significant upgrades or a new facility to replace the 4,000-seat Grayson Stadium (built in 1926). How was Savannah going to replace affiliate-level minor league baseball (the Sand Gnats were the Mets’ Class A affiliate from 2007-15)?
Enter Cole and his group, Fans First Entertainment.
Cole and his wife, Emily, moved their idea into historic Grayson Stadium and began the monstrous task of trying to bring interest back to Savannah in baseball. But asking fans there to support a new team stocked with anonymous college players was a tough sell. Fans wanted none of that.
“Every day, people think we’re crazy. And I like that. Every night, we do five to 10 things we’ve never done before in a live crowd on the field. Every single night. And a lot of them don’t go well. But when they do it, it’s pretty special.”Jesse Cole, Savannah Bananas owner
A vote to rename the team shook things up. Fans picked the name Bananas (the other choices were the Anchors, Ports, Seagulls and Party Animals), and that garnered immediate national interest. But to keep that momentum going beyond just a news cycle, there had to be something that stuck. Cole — all business when it comes to the business of fun — crafted a hit with staying power.
The real Bananas were born.
So was a new brand of baseball, rife with a model to emulate for professional teams. The Bananas have used social media to maximize their visibility and get in front of all types of audiences. The Bananas have 2.8 million followers on TikTok, more than the Braves, Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox and Yankees — combined (2.75 million).
The Bananas sold out all but eight of their 25 games in the 2016 debut season, and they’ve sold out every game since.
“We were just hoping to get people excited to come to a ballgame in Savannah, let alone sell out every game,” Cole said. “Now, we’re getting offers from major league teams to go play at their stadiums and do our Banana tour all over the world. Never would have imagined this.”
Why so popular?
Why is there such a demand for the Savannah Bananas, a team composed of college players from across the country, including two from the area (Mandarin grad Ty Jackson and Flagler College pitcher Gage Voorhees)? It’s not for the actual baseball, although the product on the field is quite good. The Bananas have won the Coastal Plain League’s Pettit Cup twice since their inception in 2016 and generally have current or former players taken in the Major League Baseball draft.
Four thousand people pack into Grayson Stadium on game nights for an experience that would be difficult to find outside of a circus. For those who aren’t in the stands, they’re engaged through various social media channels, a major component of the Bananas’ popularity. If there’s a schematic on how to get the most out of social media, the Bananas have nailed it. They have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, 302,000 on Facebook and 609,000 on Instagram.
There, fans are able to see all the Bananagans, like Tuesday night’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in July. Infielder Caden Green, a sophomore at Auburn, led the Bananas out on the field on horseback. All the players were wearing kilts and clutching bats, a scene reminiscent of something pulled from “Braveheart.” The Banana-Nanas, a 65-and-up women’s cheer team, and the Man-Nanas, a dad-bod cheerleading squad, take turns dancing on the field.
Jackson, who will play for Florida A&M this fall and ranks third on the team in hitting (.329), said the Bananas are such a draw because fans know they’ll leave the stadium satisfied. And they’ll seldom be able to predict what’s coming next.
“A hundred percent. I feel like the fans come because of the way we play, and the passion,” Jackson said. “I feel like people are starting to realize that and that’s what’s drawing in the crowds.”
Jackson, with a streak of banana-blond hair under his ball cap, has become one of the most visible and popular of the Bananas. He’s outgoing, talkative and always on the lookout for a new hook to bring to the game. And in the social media era, he’s gone viral time and again. On TikTok, Jackson has nearly 56,000 followers, numbers that surge by the thousands when the team sends out a clip of something wild he does.
Voorhees said that sports in general could learn a thing or two from how the Bananas operate because they put an emphasis on the experience for the fans just as they do the competition.
“I think there can be a lot more fan involvement. I think a lot of these MLB games and pro teams, they kind of focus on, ‘Oh, how can I sell this to people?’ Instead of, ‘How can I make my fans happy and want them to come back?’” he said. “Of course, there are pro teams that don’t do that well, people don’t really want to go out there and watch. Say we lose a game, people still have a great time out here and they have something to remember.”
Always something going on
Even in the two-and-a-half hours before a 7 p.m. first pitch, it’s a nonstop show.
A band plays for select fans as they enter the stadium and walk past a nook billed as the World’s Smallest Bookstore for a meet and greet and autographs with the players. In shallow left field, Cole’s wife and Bananas owner, Emily, is handling groundskeeper duties for the day and trimming the outfield grass — with scissors.
If a player is on the schedule for a certain act or needs to refine their plate entrance or scoring celebration, they’re likely on the field practicing it during that window.
On this blistering hot Wednesday, a Savannah version of “Dancing With the Stars,” appropriately titled, “Dancing With the Bananas,” is on tap. The baseball players and their female dance partners work on their routines for a significant amount of time for acts that they’ll perform later that night. But they’re required to finish up within the allotted hour before 5:30 p.m. rolls around.
That happens to be one of Cole’s favorite parts of Bananas home games.
“You’ve got to be out there and see it,” Cole said. “You can’t miss that part of it.”
Fans line up on both sides of the sidewalk in front of Grayson Stadium and hook around in front of it. Cole, in his bright yellow tuxedo and top hat, leads the team down the sidewalk, through the crowd and to the front of the stadium. He asks the crowd how far they traveled to the game. Very few were from Florida or Georgia.
Then, it’s on.
They sing and dance. One player does flips. A confetti cannon pops and blasts yellow streamers out of it, all while singing a highly choreographed version of ‘Hey Baby, Will You Be My Girl.’ It’s the first of three renditions of ‘Hey Baby’ during Bananas home games.
Sawyer Mandel traveled all the way from Orange County, California, for his first Bananas experience. He said after the pregame song and dance routine that he was even more pumped to be at the game. Mandel was counting down the time until the gates opened to see what players did during the game.
“All the dancing they do, all the fun stuff about it, it’s fun,” Mandel said. “So excited!”
His friend, Brody Paszczykowski, first saw the Bananas on social media and said actually being in Savannah was an unbelievable experience.
“I was looking at funny baseball pictures [online], then I see Savannah Bananas,” he said. “Then, I searched them up on YouTube and now I’m here. I like all of them. I’m shaking [with excitement].”
Chris Gallo, a St. Augustine resident who brought his son Chase with him that day, said that a friend in New Jersey first told him about the Bananas two years ago. He’s been to between 15 and 20 games since and said he’ll continue to come back and bring his kids. What makes the Bananas experience so special?
“Just the dancing,” Gallo said. “Jesse Cole is amazing, the owner. I went through some surgery, he sent me a personalized message about [recovery]. It was cool.”
Is it real baseball?
When people hear the name, they’re intrigued. Who names a sports team after fruit anyway?
Google the Bananas and you’re likely to find players in kilts or playing on stilts or doing splits in the batter’s box. Or you’ll see players holding up a baby dressed as a banana emulating Simba in the “Lion King” and a pitcher stopping to lead a dance that the entire team takes part in.
“Coming in here, I was actually kind of a shy person as far as like going out and being out there in front of a bunch of people. And doing the player dance … has just like opened me up to be more confident in myself and more able to do things in front of other people.”Gage Voorhees, Bananas pitcher, Flagler College senior
All of those are correct, but the Bananas play two variations of baseball, which players are quick to point out.
The Bananas play in the Coastal Plain League, a 48-game summer wooden bat league comprised of college players from around the country. Players don’t get paid. Cole said that when he first started the Bananas, he had to pry commitments from college players to get them to join the team. Now, Cole said, more than 1,000 players reach out to the team annually to try and play.
“We teach as much the entertainment as we do the baseball,” Cole said. “And that’s what makes it special.”
So, yes, the Bananas do play real baseball in a real league with players who could have professional futures. Last year, seven former players and one current player were selected in the Major League Baseball draft. Those players were taken between the third and 14th rounds, a showcase of what kind of talent the Bananas are able to bring in annually. That gets easily lost because there’s so much theater and engagement around it that it almost doesn’t feel like real baseball.
And that’s the point.
Jackson said it’s a blend of competitive baseball and treating fans to some good theater before games or between innings that sets what they do in Savannah apart from what’s done everywhere else. It’s still baseball, but it’s baseball with no downtime that offers something new every time out.
“I feel like it’s like the younger generation trying to bring fun into the game,” Jackson said. “Like Fernando Tatis, Ronald Acuna, stuff like that. ... Wild and roaring. Once the first one comes across, everybody’s up off their feet. Everybody’s going crazy. Fans throwing shirts around and stuff like that. It’s crazy.”
Voorhees, entering his senior season at Flagler, said his first season in Savannah has been one of personal development as much as developing on the mound.
“Coming in here, I was actually kind of a shy person as far as like going out and being out there in front of a bunch of people,” Voorhees said. “And doing the player dance … has just like opened me up to be more confident in myself and more able to do things in front of other people.”
Before landing with the Bananas, Voorhees would have had a challenging time with what he did during a June 25 game where he was tasked with taking a young Bananas fan on her first ice cream date. Voorhees walked up into the crowd, found the young girl named Piper, gave her a yellow rose and walked her down to a table that was set up on top of the Bananas dugout for some ice cream.
It was quite the night for this sweet Bananas fan when Gage Voorhees took her on her first date in the middle of the game🥰 pic.twitter.com/3zHN9bRgE7— Savannah Bananas (@TheSavBananas) June 26, 2022
The crazy stuff
The other type of ball that Savannah plays is something Cole named Banana Ball, which has the framework of baseball, yet is nothing like it. That’s the version where you’d see a player on stilts at the plate or doing a split in the batter’s box. Pitchers dance. Nothing zany is off-limits.
And that’s why it’s so popular.
Some of the highlights of Banana Ball:
- There’s a two-hour time limit on games.
- Absolutely no bunting. If a batter bunts, he’s thrown out of the game.
- The team that pushes the most runs across the plate during an inning is awarded a point. The winner is the team that has the most points at the end of the game. First team to 5 points wins.
- If a fan catches a foul ball, it’s an out.
- Extra innings don’t exist. If there’s a tie, there’s a faceoff between the batter and a pitcher (and usually no fielders). The batter has to put the ball in play and clear the bases before he scores or is tagged out.
Banana Ball is played after the CPL season, and the team takes it across the country with a different set of players. It was borne out of the wild success of the actual baseball Bananas and continues to grow. Cole said he’s spoken to Jumbo Shrimp owner Ken Babby about potentially having a game in Jacksonville. By that time, who knows what Cole and the Bananas will come up with.
“One day we’ll put a bull in the bullpen because you need to have a bull in the bullpen. You know, we’ll have our players skydive to their positions eventually,” Cole said. “I’ll have a ball monkey delivering baseballs to the umpire. We’ve got a lot of ideas.
“Nothing’s too crazy in Bananaland.”