But first, a TikTok dance.
Beyoncé blares over the speakers, and the Bananas launch into a perfectly synced groove, topped off by a scorching fastball right past the batter.
This phenomenon started with a simple idea: “Baseball is fun. What if it were really, really fun?”
Keeping up in a ‘TikTok world’
That energy can be credited to Jesse Cole, the team’s owner and founder. Cole himself is a little out there, with his signature yellow suit and seemingly endless capacity for creativity.
“We exist to make baseball fun, and put fans first,” he tells CNN. “We challenge the rules and the way we do things on the baseball field.”
“Fans First” is Cole’s — and the Bananas’ — ultimate catchphrase. When they first started playing in Savannah, Cole said he paid close attention to the fans to see what parts of the game resonated most. The team felt like fans didn’t want to be sold to at games, so they eliminated ads in the stadium despite the steep loss in potential revenue. They saw the game needed to be faster, more consistently exciting. They saw opportunities for reaching even more fans outside of the stands.
“Baseball games are getting longer and slower, but our attention spans are shorter,” Cole says. “We live in a TikTok world. People can get unbelievable entertainment with a flick of their finger. How do you create something that matches that?”
But Cole still sensed something bigger. Anyone who’s been to a baseball stadium knows the crowd usually thins as the game wears on. With most MLB games lasting over three hours, baseball can be a test of patience even for the biggest fan.
To Cole, that just doesn’t work.
“You don’t leave a great movie in the middle of it and say, ‘That was great. I’ve seen enough!'” 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 hit, and this season, the dedicated Banana Ball Premier team embarked on a sold-out “Banana Ball World Tour” of stadiums across the southeast. The whole operation includes about 120 entertainers.
“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 home run celebrations. The team holds what they call “Over The Top” meetings, where no idea is off limits. That’s how they get ideas for their TikToks, and make sure they maintain a balance between playing well and having a good time.
After all, it’s still baseball. And the Bananas are still there to win.
That Banana sais quoi
Baseball holds a particular gravitas in the world of sports. It’s America’s pastime, after all, its dignity upheld by a million little unwritten rules. Players can toil for years, only to have their careers take off or end in the time it takes a ball to find a glove.
Getting them on board with a raucous, yellow-tinted 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. Originally from the small town of Dublin, Georgia, Leroy had never played in front of a bigger crowd. He had certainly never been asked to dance for a camera, or perform trick plays in a game.
“For someone who has loved baseball his entire life, it’s a different culture,” Leroy tells CNN. “Guys ask, ‘What exactly is this? What are we trying to do here? Is this even baseball?’ But then you adopt the mindset, and you realize it’s really cool and fun.”
The real impact of this whole Bananas thing fully hits Leroy and the other players when they’re on the road. During a recent stop in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Premiere team was pumped to find throngs 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 far and wide, but it’s at the game that Cole’s “Fans First” ethos really comes into play.
For players like Leroy, the energy is contagious. It makes them play better, and it makes them really think about who they’re playing for.
“We try to interact with fans as much as possible, sign autographs as much as possible,” Leroy says. “When they leave, we want them to have this idea that the game of baseball can be played joyfully.”
In order to pull the whole thing off, the players have to be equal parts entertainer and athlete. To make sure they meet both goals, head coach Tyler Gillum coined a phrase, now painted on their bats and hung in the locker room: “Flip the Switch.”
Leroy explains that, once that switch is flipped, it’s all about focus. “Every minute of the game [outside of play] is scripted,” he says. “So the idea is, go into the stands. Go crush it. Then flip the switch. Now you play. You may need to pitch, you may need to run.”
No, it’s not the big 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 have turned this little team from the South into a national phenomenon.
“There was a time when I would let the ups and downs and failures of the game ruin my joy,” Leroy says. “The sport has become such a business, so tied up tight. And I don’t want to look back on my career and think, ‘Did I treat this as a business?’ It was made for fun.'”
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