And while the "grand old game" has been buffeted through the years by everything from artificial turf to designated hitters to the addition of robot umpires, it seems Major League Baseball better strap in because it's about to get hit by Banana Ball. Wait, banana what?
What Is Banana Ball?
That's right. We're talking about Banana Ball. What started out as a college summer league team in steamy Savannah, Georgia, has turned into nothing short of a baseball phenomenon. The Savannah Bananas (try saying that without smiling) have all but rewritten the baseball rulebook in terms of game day entertainment. A ticket (which can cost as little as $20) includes entrance to the game, parking and all-the-ballpark-food-you-can-eat, as well as nonstop family-friendly shenanigans from "play ball" to the final out.
The goal is engagement on and off the field. And that means major changes to the way the game is played.
Jesse Cole, who owns and operates the Savannah Bananas with his wife, Emily, believes fans come first (hence the name of his company, Fans First Entertainment). They came up with the rules for Banana Ball based on data, not the latest in sabermetrics or player stats. You can't miss him either. Cole wears one of his seven bright yellow tuxes (yes, yellow tuxes) to every game and he's always mixing it up with the players and crowds. It's part of the fun.
"I watch fans," Cole says. "We played nine innings in one hour and 50 minutes the other day. We know that 98 percent of our fans stay to the end of a Banana Ball game. We know our waitlist (for tickets) is about to hit 90,000 and fans are coming in from all over the country. When someone buys a ticket for 10 times face value on StubHub and fans are driving 20, 30 hours to come to a game and is still saying it's everything we hoped it would be, we're able to see that demand has been built."
The Rules of Banana Ball
Did he say they played nine innings in less than two hours? Yep. That's because the rules of Banana Ball are a bit different from those of a typical baseball game. There might be nine innings in baseball, but there are just nine rules in Banana Ball:
- Every inning counts. Win the inning, get the point. A team that gets the most runs in an inning gets a point. The first team to five points wins.
- Two hour time limit. (Even if Greg Maddux isn't pitching). If the game is tied at the end of two hours the game goes to the showdown to determine the winner. (See rule 7).
- No stepping out of the batter's box. If the batter steps out, it's a strike.
- No bunting. Why? Because it's boring. Batters who bunt are thrown out of the game.
- Batters can steal first. Wild pitch? Passed ball? Heads up on first!
- No walks. If a pitcher throws a fourth ball, it becomes a sprint. The hitter takes off running while the catcher must throw the ball to every defensive player on the field before the ball becomes live. The hitter tries to advance to as many bases as possible. How fun is that?
- One-on-one showdown tiebreaker. It's like "Family Feud" but each team picks a pitcher and hitter to face off. There's also a catcher and one fielder. The hitter tries to put the ball in play and score to get a point. It's a little complicated but the first team to five points wins.
- No mound visits allowed from anyone. No managers, coaches or players.
- If a fan catches a foul ball, it's an out. Get your gloves ready!
From Sand Gnats to Savannah Bananas
Cole says he and Emily love baseball. He grew up playing baseball; he played for Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but any chance he had of a baseball career was cut short by a shoulder injury. That's when Cole became a full-time spectator.
He and Emily met and fell in love while working for the minor league Gastonia Grizzlies in North Carolina, where in August 2014, Cole proposed in front of a sold-out crowd during the last game of the season (in a yellow tux of course). "Thank goodness she said 'yes,'" Cole says. "That would've been awkward for everybody."
A week later Emily surprised Cole with a trip to Savannah where they discovered the rundown, but beautiful, 4,000-seat Grayson Stadium, then-home of the South Atlantic League Savannah Sand Gnats (a former minor league affiliate of the New York Mets). The game was sparsely attended. A "completely dead environment" as Cole describes it. He called the league's commissioner and said if the team ever left, he wanted the market and the stadium.
"We could build something special here," Cole told him.
In 2015, the Sand Gnats folded up shop and Cole purchased the expansion rights. They held a naming contest for the new team, settling on the alliterative Savannah Bananas. People hated it — but they remembered it.
The team joined the Coastal Plain League (CPL), a college summer league like the Cape Cod League. The Coles also quickly found themselves in debt. Lots of it. But hey! It's baseball. If you build it, the fans will come, right? They did.
The team played standard nine-inning baseball in the CPL starting in 2016 (they won the league championship in 2016, 2021 and 2022), selling out every game. But by 2020, Cole began experimenting, eventually fielding a pro squad that played Banana Ball exhibitions against another exhibition team (the Party Animals) and college teams in the Southeast. Think of them as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.
Banana Ball Goes Viral
The crowds — whether home or away — went wild for the shortened game with its tweaked rules and hijinks, breakdancing coaches and kilt-clad ballplayers. They even present a beloved Banana Baby — an infant swaddled in a banana costume — to the crowd and raise them to the Banana Baseball gods. There's now a lengthy waiting list for parents eager to have their babies serve as Banana Baby.
All of these antics were captured on video and went viral — first on Facebook and Instagram and then exploding on TikTok. And there's nothing like having more than 3 million TikTok followers a to create a sensation. To put that in perspective: No team in Major League Baseball comes close to that number of TikTok followers.
This likely came as little surprise to Cole, who says he's deeply influenced by legendary dreamers like P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney. Every day he writes down 10 ideas and has since 2015.
"I've got 5,000 terrible ideas but the reality is that it's the ideas that keep us going, keep us fresh and doing things that people have never seen on a baseball field before," he says.
The Banana Ball World Tour
The Savannah Bananas soon found themselves splashed in the media from CNN to The New York Times to NPR. CBS This Morning and The Today Show came calling. A five-part original reality series called "Bananaland" is currently airing on ESPN+.
At the end of the 2022 season, which saw the pro squad split two games against the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Association, Cole made the decision to take his team pro, deciding to go all-in on Banana Ball. They held team tryouts and fielded two teams — the Savannah Bananas and The Party Animals. Cole hired MLB star and analyst, Eric Byrnes, to manage the 2022 Bananas team — and took both teams on the 2022 Banana Ball World Tour. They played 73 games in seven cities.
"We decided to leave the CPL and collegiate summer league to become a full-time professional baseball team playing Banana Ball," he says. "We exist to make baseball fun. Banana Ball is who we can do it best for our team and most importantly for our fans."
The 2023 Banana Ball World Tour schedule will be announced in early October, but the team is expected to visit more than 20 cities from February to September. Tyler Gillum will be head coach of the Bananas and Byrnes will continue to coach as well.
It's a lofty ideal but can it last?
"Who knows if this is a sustainable decision for decades to come," says North Johnson, former GM of the Gwinnett Stripes and now-retired 30-year veteran of the minor league baseball system. "The Bananas are not 'professional baseball' as we define it, but they don't really profess to be or want to be anything like MLB-affiliated baseball. The Bananas have found a fan market unlike any other in any form of baseball and they are running with it. Baseball needed a wake-up call and this certainly seems to be it."
"I think a lot of people are motivated and inspired by growth and profit; not me," Cole says. "For me it's at the end of the night, when the fans are leaving and the tuba player starts playing the opening notes of 'Stand By Me,' and literally our fans, our players, our cast put their arms around each other. I see the joy and smiles on their faces, I see every demographic and I want to bring that joy to everyone in the world. That's what drives me."