Who are the Savannah Bananas?

And just what the heck is Banana Ball?

June 16th, 2022
Design by Tom Forget. Photos by The Savannah Bananas.

Drive to historic Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Ga., and you'll immediately be struck by a sense of grandeur. After passing old brick buildings lining Savannah's downtown, you'll pull between the ancient Spanish moss-covered oak trees that surround the park. With the sounds of gloves popping and bats cracking, you could be forgiven if you thought you were having a beautiful dream.

Instead, you are about to witness a type of baseball you have never seen before. You have found the Savannah Bananas. You have reached Bananaland.

Unless you've avoided the internet like a luddite hermit, you've certainly seen the Bananas. They’re viral in a way few things are these days. They’re the hottest TikTok dance mixed with an "Avengers" premiere dressed in banana-colored uniforms. And they’re led by their yellow tuxedo’d owner, Jesse Cole.

Photo by The Savannah Bananas

But before you think this is just some summer theater in stirrups, it’s important to know that they've got some serious ball-playing abilities, too.

So, just who are the Bananas? And what in the world is Banana Ball? Let's peel back the story on the team made in Bill Veeck's image and answer every question you may have.

Who are the Savannah Bananas?

The Bananas are a viral sensation. A member of the Coastal Plains League -- a collegiate wood bat league about one rung below the Cape Cod League -- the Bananas are also famous for their Banana Ball games. Those games, featuring alternate rules and a different roster, are played outside the college league.

OK, I’ll bite. (Get it?) What is Banana Ball?

Banana Ball is the brand new version of the sport invented by Cole. He designed the game to be played faster -- squeezing everything into just two hours -- highlighting only the things fans love about baseball and cutting out the things they don't. That means players aren’t allowed to step out of the box at all during their at-bat, and if a hitter tries to bunt, he’s kicked out of the game.

These are the games from which the best viral moments come, including a batter playing Guitar Hero for his own walk-up song or the team's signature 3-2-2 dance when the pitcher, middle infielders and center fielder come together for a mid at-bat choreographed dance. (The name comes from its timing on the second pitch to the second batter in the third inning.)

"From the beginning, it was simple: We exist to make baseball fun," Cole said recently from inside the stadium's air-conditioned lounge. "The name of our company is Fans First Entertainment."

Cole speaks in a rapid patter, as if he has too many words and not enough time to get them all out. And that's despite waking up at 3:30 a.m. so he could write down 10 new ideas -- something he does every morning -- go for a run, get his kids ready for their days, and then come to the stadium.

He knows that not all of his big ideas will work and that's fine. He points out that while most baseball fans know that Pete Rose has the record for the most hits, they usually have no idea that Reggie Jackson is the Major League record holder for most career strikeouts.

"Because he's not known for strikeouts," Cole said. "He's known for three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. He's known as Mr. October, he's a Hall of Famer. My point with all this is that people don't remember the failures, they remember the hits."

What are the Banana Ball rules?

  1. Every inning counts. Rather than counting up a cumulative total of runs at the end of the game, each inning is like its own mini-game. Imagine each inning as a “game” in a tennis set. This also means every inning can end with a walk-off.
  2. Two-hour time limit. A new inning won’t begin after the one-hour and 50-minute mark. If they fail to reach nine innings in that time, they fail to reach nine innings and the game ends with whichever team has won the most innings.
  3. No stepping out. If a batter steps out of the box, he is given an automatic strike.
  4. No bunting. Pretty self-explanatory -- and there's absolutely no wiggle room.
  5. Batters can steal first. If the pitch gets away from the catcher at any point during the at-bat, the hitter is free to run to first.
  6. No walks allowed. If a batter is walked, he can keep running the bases until every fielder touches the baseball. Usually that means the team congregates around second base and they play a game of hot potato.
  7. 1-on-1 Showdown Tiebreaker. Should the game be tied after two hours, they go into a sudden-death Showdown. The batter steps into the box and faces off against a pitcher, catcher, and one lone, solitary fielder. The batter will try to hit the ball and race around the bases before he can be tagged out.
  8. No mound visits allowed. Hey, what do those coaches say beyond, “Throw some strikes, bud"?
  9. If a fan catches a foul ball, it’s an out. A whole new reason to bring your glove out to the ballpark.

Who do they play during these games?

Banana Ball games are usually played against the Party Animals, a team created and recruited by the Savannah Bananas. Basically, think of the Bananas as the Harlem Globetrotters and the Party Animals as their Washington Generals. However, the Bananas have also held exhibition games against teams like the Kansas City Monarchs on their most recent tour and they’ll play Banana Ball then.

They don’t play with those rules during the college season?

No. While the team will still push the boundaries more than other clubs -- and happily pay any fines they accrue along the way -- CPL games are played using traditional baseball rules. Not only because other teams may want to bunt (for some reason) and don’t want to play with a winner for each and every inning, but also because other teams may not enjoy going up against a team of goofballs.

"I think there's more wiggle room to be had there, but at the same time, nobody likes to get beat by the dancing team," Kyle Luigs, who has played for both the college and the Premier team before taking over the Bananas academy, said. "Tempers flare. It's a competitive game."

This is frustrating to Cole, though.

"When we go into our college summer season, no matter how much entertainment we have -- dancing coaches, dancing players, the pep band, the Banana Baby, all of it -- fans will still leave games early, every single game," Cole said. "To me, your product's not that great if people will leave in the middle of it."

This sounds incredibly hard for the players. It has to hurt their on-field performance, right?

Actually, the opposite! The team won CPL league titles in 2016 and 2021, and one study by Georgia Southern professor Curtis Sproul found that the players perform better with the team than back at their respective schools, with players improving their batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

"I'm a living breathing testament of that, because in four years of university ball, and in the five years here, I've had a better ERA every year," Luigs said. "The only thing that's different is the environment here and what we do here, versus what we do at school ball and it being more business-like. I think it takes your mind off the game. It makes it a kid's game. It's not so much, 'Oh, God, if I don't get a hit here, if I don't throw a good inning, they might pull my scholarship,' or something like that. Most of the time, I'm trying to remember dance moves versus what I'm doing pitching-wise. And I think that's great."

Thirty-three former Bananas have also been drafted by Major League clubs, with Rylan Bannon and Beau Sulser being the first two to reach the big leagues.

Do the same players play for each team?

No. The Bananas that play in the Coastal Plains League are all college students -- primarily consisting of DI, DII, and Junior College players from the Southeast. The Banana Ball players are on the “Premier Team." College players would lose their eligibility if they played for the Premier club, but many of the players -- like Luigs and catcher Bill Leroy -- played for the college team before graduating.

Where do they find these guys?

Well, at first, the Bananas recruited players the way any team would. But as the team's fame has grown exponentially, players now come to them. More than 1,000 players reached out to join up with the team this season. Cole will also spotlight some players he specifically wants to go after because of their off-the-field talents, like singer-songwriter/baseball player Dalton Mauldin.

What is the tryout like?

"Everything in our trial was basically centered around what we wanted to do, like, how well can you pitch?" Luigs said.

But then there were the extracurricular elements involved.

"Can you bring any trick pitches, trick things you can do in the field?" Luigs added. "And then we had stuff like a TikTok station. Like, how good could you learn a TikTok dance and be able to do it? Then a special talent station, a fun interview station and all that kind of stuff to see like your true personalities. It's a lot of stuff like putting guys through it and actually seeing if they can do it."

It can be tough to stay on the team, though. Many players are on short-term contracts ranging anywhere from a few days to two-to-three weeks.

Luigs, a Banana, holds a banana.

Where did the Bananas come from?

You can thank Cole's wife, Emily, for accepting his marriage proposal. One week after he proposed, she took the two of them on a trip to Savannah where the then-Sand Gnats, at the time a Minor League team for the Mets, played. The two fell in love with the city and so, without another trip back, made plans to buy a team should the Sand Gnats move.

Soon enough, when the Sand Gnats did, the Coles jumped in and purchased an expansion club in the Coastal Plains League that debuted in 2016.

"Went very quickly from zero debt to over a million dollars in debt," Cole said. "That proceeded to get worse because we only sold a handful of tickets in our first few months. And by January 2016, we'd overdrafted our account, were completely out of money and had to sell our house and empty our savings accounts, sleeping on air mattresses. That was six years ago. That's where we were."

Since then, the team has grown quickly. The club has a remarkable 50,000 people on a waitlist to buy tickets, which Cole notes with a smile, "just doesn't make sense."

It took a few years for Banana Ball to begin, though. The first experiments started in 2019 with exhibitions against Wofford and Lander University.

“The first game we played at Lander was nine innings and 99 minutes. Put that in perspective: nine innings and 99 minutes,” Cole said. “I asked the guys afterwards and they said it was the most fun they ever had playing baseball. So we knew right there it worked, [but we wondered], would this translate with fans?”

Who comes up with all these ideas?

Forget the idea of some faceless focus group. The Bananas are Cole's baby, so he's involved every step of the way -- including coming up with the stunts.

"'How do you do all these things and have energy all day?' I'm doing those things that fire me up," Cole said. "Even this [interview] fires me up. It's part of creating, sharing and growing."

Zack Frongillo then takes charge of the entire entertainment program at the stadium -- playing the part of writer, director and human-wrangler -- with a full marketing and content group that also takes part in conceiving new concepts. They have four full-time videographers and their schedules are made down to the second, with where they need to be and when to capture everything that happens.

"Zack and Jesse work very closely together to come up with a lot of our promotion ideas," Kara Heater, the club's marketing director, said. "And then we have these meetings where all three departments come together. We all come together and we plan out the biggest moments of each game. ... We're all bringing the ideas in. And then we kind of just go from there."

Players will bring their own ideas, too. Recently, one new player wanted to show off his Michael Jackson impression on his way to the plate, complete with sequined jacket and one, single white glove.

“Show me,” Cole said.

So, later that night, he did.

Michael Jackson at the plate? Photo by the Savannah Bananas

What can I expect from a Bananas game?

To put it one way, who knows? When I arrived at the stadium recently, there were 2,000 banana suits draped over every seat as the Bananas wanted to set the record for most banana suits worn in one place. There was no announcement about this beforehand, fans weren't told to come out to pick up their free banana suit. The costumes were simply there, ready for a few thousand people to get into the mood on a hot Savannah night.

You'll always get the players running into the stadium, accompanied by Cole and the Bananas' brass band, singing and dancing. It's why there was a line out the entrance that started two hours before the gates opened on a Tuesday evening.

There will be the Bananas Baby, where the players lift an infant over their heads to the music from "The Lion King." There's even a waiting list of new parents hoping that their kid will be picked.

The Banana Baby. Photo by The Savannah Bananas.

"We have women who are just finding out they're pregnant, like six weeks in, emailing us. 'Oh my gosh, can I please get my baby on the waitlist? I'm due in May of next year.' So, there is a big waitlist for Banana Baby. think it's already booked up for the whole season, which is crazy," Heater said.

Maceo, the dancing first-base coach, will show off acrobatic moves from his coach’s box, while the Banana Nanas, a group of line-dancing grandmas, will take the field and show off their skills.

"You've got 4,500 fans screaming and hollering for you," Karen Olenick, the leader of the Banana Nanas said. "They love us, it's awesome. When I dance for the resident's home, I may have 20-25 [people]. Children come up to me and say, 'I want my Mom to be a Nana.'"

The Nanas pose for the camera. From Left: Gail Case, Sharon Jacobs, Karen Olenick, Sharon Seng, Agnes Blantley, Barbara Floyd, Elaine Wilson

You may even see a big league star. Jonny Gomes and Eric Byrnes have recently played with the team. Spaceman Bill Lee -- a player made for the Bananas if ever there was one -- has been a regular contributor on the mound this season at the tender age of 75.

You'll also get plenty of moments that have never been seen before.

"We want fans to leave the ballpark and say, 'You won't believe what happened tonight at the stadium,'" Cole said. "So, as we've evolved through a lot of failures, now we do five to 10 new things every night, things we've never done in front of a live crowd. Five to 10, every night. It's 13 tonight."

What is the experience like?

"Bananaland is like a bubble," Gillian Bay, a former Bananas employee I happened to sit next to that night, told me. "Your real life doesn't go in the bubble -- like Halloween Town."

Beyond everything happening on the field, a new song starts up every 10 seconds or so. Forget walk-up songs, players may get clips from four or five different tracks in the space of one at-bat.

And then there's the food -- most of it like hot dogs, popcorn and soda come free with your ticket and are all you can eat. There's banana-flavored beer and banana-flavored cream soda. The team is experimenting with serving banana splits -- because how could they not? There's plenty of merch ready to be sold in any and all sizes, and even the smallest bookstore in the world with room for just one author: Team owner Jesse Cole.

"Bananaland is like none other. It's Jesse Cole's circus with a baseball game going on," Karen said.

What's next?

"World Tour" was not just a funny title for the small U.S. tour the Bananas went on earlier this year. That's Cole's big dream.

"I believe we will play around the world -- 100 percent," Cole said. "Do I believe we'll play places people never imagined you could play a baseball game? 100 percent. We're just trying to do what we believe is best for the fans. We can try everything, test everything. There is no ceiling -- and I'll tell you, that's a lot of fun."