But first, a TikTok dance.
Beyoncé blares over the speakers and the bananas launch into a perfectly timed groove, capped off with a searing fastball just past the batter.
This phenomenon was born from a simple idea: “Baseball is fun. What if it was really, really fun?”
Staying in a “TikTok world”
This energy can be attributed to Jesse Cole, owner and founder of the team. Cole himself is a bit out there, with his signature yellow suit and seemingly endless capacity for creativity.
“We exist to make baseball fun and put the fans first,” he told CNN. “We challenge the rules and the way we do things on the baseball field.”
“Fans First” is Cole’s — and the Bananas’ — ultimate slogan. When they first started playing Savannah, Cole said he paid close attention to fans to see which parts of the game resonated the most. The team felt fans didn’t want to be sold at games, so they eliminated in-stadium advertisements despite the large loss of potential revenue. They saw that the game needed to be faster and more exciting. They saw opportunities to reach even more fans outside the stands.
“Baseball games are getting longer and slower, but our attention spans are getting shorter,” says Cole. “We live in a TikTok world. People can get amazing entertainment with just the tap of a finger. How do you create something that matches that?”
But Cole still sensed something bigger. Anyone who’s been to a ballpark knows that the crowd usually dwindles as the game progresses. With most MLB games lasting over three hours, baseball can be a test of patience for even the biggest fan.
For Cole, it doesn’t work.
“You don’t leave a great movie in the middle and you’re like, ‘That was awesome. I’ve seen enough of that!'” he says.
So in 2018, Cole created “Banana Ball” – a shorter version of a baseball game with slightly different rules to keep the energy alive.
It was a success, and this season the dedicated Banana Ball Premier team embarked on a sold-out “Banana Ball World Tour” of stadiums across the South East. The whole operation includes around 120 artists.
“It’s a whole baseball circus,” Cole says.
They keep the same energy for Coastal Plain League games. Everything is coordinated, from the third-inning TikTok dance break to the home run celebrations. The team holds what they call “Over The Top” meetings, where no idea is off limits. This is how they come up with ideas for their TikToks and ensure they maintain a balance between playing well and having a good time.
After all, it’s still baseball. And the Bananas are always there to win.
That banana know what
Baseball holds a special gravity in the sports world. It’s America’s pastime, after all, its dignity backed by a million little unwritten rules. Players can toil for years, only to see their careers take off or end the time it takes a ball to find a glove.
Getting them on board with a loud, yellow-tinged version of the game they love isn’t always an easy sell.
Bill Leroy, 23, was invited to join the Savannah Bananas five years ago after his sophomore year at North Georgia State University. Hailing from the small town of Dublin, Georgia, Leroy had never performed in front of larger audiences. He had certainly never been asked to dance for a camera or perform tricks in a game.
“For someone who’s loved baseball all their life, it’s a different culture,” Leroy told CNN. “Guys ask, ‘What exactly is that? What are we trying to do here? Is it even baseball? But then you get into the mindset and realize it’s really cool and fun.”
The real impact of this whole banana thing hits Leroy and the other players hard when they’re on the road. During a recent stop in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Premiere team was delighted to find a crowd of fans waiting outside the stadium to greet them, calling them by name. The team’s social media presence does a lot to endear them to fans around the world, but it’s in the game that Cole’s “Fans First” philosophy really comes into play.
For players like Leroy, the energy is contagious. It makes them play better and really makes them think about who they’re playing.
“We try to interact with fans as much as possible, sign autographs as much as possible,” Leroy said. “When they leave, we want them to have this idea that baseball can be played with joy.”
In order to pull it all off, players must be both artist and athlete. To ensure they achieve both goals, head coach Tyler Gillum coined a phrase, now painted on their bats and hanging in the locker room: “Flip the Switch”.
Leroy explains that once the switch is flipped, it’s all about focus. “Every minute of play [outside of play] is scripted,” he says. “So the idea is to go into the stands. Go crush it. Then flip the switch. Now you play. You may have to throw, you may have to run.”
No, it’s not the major leagues. It’s not supposed to be. In fact, Savannah Bananas fans would probably say Major League Baseball could learn a thing or two from the charming personalities and social media magic that turned this little Southern team into a national phenomenon.
“There was a time when I let the ups and downs and failures of the game ruin my joy,” Leroy said. “Sport has become such a business, so connected. And I don’t want to look back on my career and think, ‘Did I treat this like a business? It was done for fun.'”