Legends On Deck

One Night in Bananaland

On July 3rd, my son and I made the trip from Orlando to Savannah to see the Savannah Bananas play.  Thanks to the generosity of a season ticket holder, we landed great seats right behind home plate.  We were also given a warm welcome (and full access) by the Bananas staff and we were fully immersed in the festivities. A Bananas game is unlike any sporting event I’ve ever witnessed (and I have been to many).  It has taken me a little time to wrap my head around everything, but I will do my best to bring this experience to life.

Fans First

Everything the Bananas organization does from the moment fans walk up to the gates until they leave the ballpark, is entirely focused on entertaining them.  When my son and I pulled up to the ballpark at 4:30pm (an hour before the gates open) there were tailgaters in the parking lot and a line at the front gate.  The show began promptly at 5:30, when the owner, Jesse Cole, was joined by The Banana Band, The Man-anas (Dad Bod Cheerleading Squad), the Banana Nanas (dance team), Splits (team mascot), the Potassium Princess and several players presented a song and dance welcome to the fans.  The gates opened and the party unfolded from there.

As fans entered Grayson Stadium, the band continued to play, accompanied by the dance routines of Maceo Harrison (First Base Coach).  The game was not scheduled until 7:00, but unlike most ballparks, Grayson Stadium fills up early.  One of the best features of a Bananas game is that the basic ballpark fare is included with the modest price of a ticket.  Hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, chips, soda and water.  There’s plenty of additional options available as well.  However, it does allow a family of four to actually attend a game for under $100 (unheard of today).

The Ambassador

The fans are eager to express their enthusiasm for the Bananas.  Take Tris Meyers, member of the Man-anas.  He was one of the first to greet us as we arrived at the ballpark and serves as one of the most effective ambassadors for the team.  Originally from Houston, Tris grew up attending Astros games at the old Astrodome.  He’s a father of six (and grandfather), an Army Veteran and original member of the Man-anas (2019). He developed his “Man-nandalorian” character last season (see helmet).

When asked why he thinks the Bananas are so successful he was quick to respond.  “It’s fans first; we go out of our way to make sure fans get what they want.  It’s the relationships we build with the fans.  I make it a point every game to meet someone new.”  That can couldn’t be more true.  Every time I saw Tris, he was either leading cheers or mingling with fans.  Tris and Man-anas, along with the Banana Nanas (a senior citizen women’s dance team) are a huge part of the show.

George and Tris

The Atmosphere

It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere of a Savannah Bananas game because it is unlike any other live event.  There are certain elements of major college football game with the marching band and cheer teams.  The introductions of the team is reminiscent of the NBA.  During pre-game and between innings on the field entertainment takes what many minor league teams do to a whole new level.  As someone who lives outside the gates of Disney World, there’s a certain Disney element to the entire presentation.

Generally, a baseball game includes some downtime.  You can run off to the concession stand between innings.  Often times when visiting a new ballpark, I will walk the park in the middle innings to explore.  At a Bananas game, leaving your seat means you’ll miss a lot of action.  There were sing-a-longs and marriage proposals.  And you never know when the “Man in the Yellow Tux” (Jesse Cole) will be hyping up your section and snapping group selfies.

The Music Man

Way at the top of the grandstands, “Shark” is providing the voice and sounds of the ballpark.  Introducing the players, cuing up the music and adding the sound effects (the Ric Flair “whoo” was my personal favorite) is a critical task in Bananaland.  Mark Ebiss is a radio program director by day and Banana’s PA announcer / DJ on gamedays.  He commutes from Brunswick, about 80 miles south of Savannah.  He’s long had a passion for the game and PA announcing, going back to his role with the Stockton Ports and Modesto Athletics, while in California.

Shark has been with the Bananas since their inaugural season in 2016.  He has his work cut out for him in his role with the Bananas.  Shark provides the soundtrack to the entire show.  “Saturday was the most intense and fast moving Banana Ball game we’ve had to date.  I literally didn’t have a chance to breathe.”  He loves the gig though.  “It’s a lot, but I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.  I’ve gotten the feel for the game and the situations.”

Banana Ball

If the excitement generated in the ballpark wasn’t enough, Saturday night’s game was played by Banana Ball rules.  It was an exhibition match-up and didn’t count as a Coastal Plain League sanctioned game.  The Bananas defeated the Catawba Valley Stars (Great South League) by a score of 3-2.  Kudos to the Stars, who played by Banana Ball rules for the first time.

While the game had a two hour time limit, they completed nine innings in an hour and 45 minutes.  The rules prohibiting hitters from stepping out of the box and restricting mound visits certainly increased the speed of the game.  The wildest aspect of the game was every time a batter drew a walk, the most alert players were able to take extra bases and put themselves in scoring position as the defense had to move the ball around the field.

Banana Ball rules have both fans and foes among the Bananas faithful.  Talking to one fan who called himself a baseball traditionalist, he said he was fine with Banana Ball for exhibition play, but believed traditional rules should be maintained for league play.  He and his wife added that they love what Jesse Cole has done with the Savannah Bananas and the enthusiasm they’ve created for baseball.

Banana Ball plays a critical role in the future of the organization.  If things go as planned, you might have the opportunity to catch a Banana Ball game in a town near you.

The Tradition

Despite the fact that the Savannah Bananas are avant-garde in so many ways, they’re also steeped in the tradition of baseball in Savannah.  Historic Grayson Stadium has been host to many minor league franchises and exhibition games over nearly a century.  The franchise loves to boast about the visits by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle.  It also came to my attention that the Boston Red Sox held Spring Training when it was called Municipal Stadium in 1932.

Minor league affiliates of the Indians, Athletics, Pirates, White Sox, Braves and Cardinals all spent time at Grayson Stadium.  Prior to the arrival of the Bananas, the Sand Gnats (Mets Single-A) played at Grayson from 1996-2015.  This is another unique part of the Bananas story.  The Sand Gnats left largely because they were looking for a new ballpark.  The Bananas, on the contrary, have embraced (and celebrated) the old ballpark.  They’ve added seating along the First Baseline to expand the capacity.  The charm of Grayson Stadium meshes well with the historical appeal of the city of Savannah and also adds to the allure of the Bananas.

The Bananas Way

There are a lot of components that contribute to the success of the Savannah Bananas franchise.  It takes certain types of players and coaches to make the whole thing work.  The expectations placed on the players goes beyond the average college baseball experience.  You’ve got to buy into the whole show.  The players are part of the entertainment.  They dance, they partake in pre-game and between innings activities and they interact with the fans.  They also appear to enjoy the heck out it.  The Bananas players are experiencing a Summer they’ll never forget.  The fun they’re having just exudes from them. Could be a big reason why they’re now 25-3 in league play and have already clinched a playoff berth.

George and Coach Gillum

Head Coach, Tyler Gillum, has been with the club since the 2018 season.  He’s a coach (and faculty member) at South Mountain Community College (Arizona) and leads the Bananas during the summer months.  Gillum is an Oklahoma native who sports his signature cowboy boots with his uniform.  What I found most impressive about him (and his players) was their participation with fans after the game.  Gillum mingled with fans, signed merchandise and snapped photos with kids following the firework show.

Peeling It All Back

There are few franchises in all of sports that truly stand out entirely from the pack.  Who would have thought that such a unique franchise would be found in a summer collegiate baseball league.  There are so many facets to what the Bananas have created, it’s hard to sum it up in one article. What I say with confidence is that every front office executive at the MLB and MiLB level should witness a Bananas game for themselves.

There’s many elements to the Savannah Bananas success story, but central to all of it is the “fans first” philosophy that runs through everyone involved in the organization.  Every person I talked to, including ushers, concession workers, dance crew, band members and all up to Jesse Cole himself, exude genuine pleasure in playing a part in show.  The Savannah Bananas are a true original and it’s a fantastic thing for the game of baseball.

Editors Note

Thanks to the warm hospitality I received from the entire Savannah Bananas crew, I was able to have access to the entire ballpark while covering the game.  Due to an unexpected SIM card error in my camera, I lost the vast majority of the amazing photographs and videos I took.  This in a truly unfortunate situation, but I hope my article helps brings this experience to life.  My son (5 years old) was also incredibly thrilled to have been given this up close experience.  He was able to play a part as well, as the “Home Run Hitter” prior to the start of the game.  He hit a ball and the entire Bananas infield fumbled it around as he ran the bases (with 4,000 fans cheering him on).  A memory he will never forget!  When we left the ballpark he told he wants to own a baseball team when he grows up.  I told him he’ll have to find his own version of the yellow tux.

George and the Bananas players during the pre-game festivities.

Brian Koss
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