YoIf you like baseball and use social media, chances are you’ve already come across Savannah Bananas. The team is something of a social media darling, especially on TikTok: the Bananas more than 6 million followers on the app significantly outperform all Major League Baseball franchises (as well as all NFL, NBA, and NHL teams).
The factors that drive Bananas’ online success are obvious. In-game player clips swinging flaming baseball bats, launching from the top of stiltsand perform choreographed dance routines They are tailor-made for social media. However, reducing the team’s popularity solely to their viral antics is dishonest. Even for this initially skeptical observer, the fun atmosphere surrounding a Bananas game is undeniably contagious.
“For the first time, I saw [no] fans on their phones during the game,” says pitcher Connor Higgins. “[Joining the Bananas] It was a no-brainer.” When Higgins spoke to The Guardian, he had only been with the team for eight days. “I have never had so much love from the fans. … I love how open people are, telling you their stories about how much the Bananas have meant to them.”
This year, the Bananas are leaning more than ever on their unique interpretation of America’s pastime, making it increasingly difficult to describe the team’s identity within professional baseball in a single word or phrase. For example, the Bananas are not a minor league team and never have been. From the franchise’s formation in 2016 through last year, the Bananas competed in the Coastal Plains League (CPL), a competitive summer college league that operates in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. It was while participating in the CPL that the Bananas began to introduce some of the traits that would eventually make them famous on TikTok. Yes, there was a pep band (a rarity in baseball) and players danced between innings but, for the most part, the game was still recognizably baseball as it always has been.
However, outside of the standard CPL season, the Bananas began playing exhibition games that featured significant rule changes: foul balls caught by fans were counted as outs, tagging was prohibited, stealing was allowed. first base and “walks” were replaced with “sprints”. among other modifications. (Worth a look the full list of rule changes, which are too numerous and nuanced to explain in depth here). Games played under this new set of rules were appropriately dubbed “Banana Ball.”
After the introduction of Banana Ball, the Bananas began to operate, in effect, as two separate teams under one banner: a traditional CPL-compliant baseball team and another exhibition side dedicated exclusively to Banana Ball. However, the fact that both teams played as the Savannah Bananas occasionally led to confusion: fans would show up expecting to see the Banana Ball they had seen online, only to discover that they were instead attending a standard CPL game.
“We were receiving so a lot of upset fans,” recalls Jesse Cole, the founder and owner of Bananas. When he talks about the team’s history, he speaks in the fast-paced, somewhat simultaneously focused and distracted manner common among startup executives. “They called us ‘hustlers’… We’re promoting a rock concert, and [the fans were] go see an opera… The most ‘fans first’ thing we could do was play Banana Ball at every game”. The Bananas thus disbanded their CPL team at the end of the 2022 season and now, as of this year, they focus exclusively on Banana Ball.
The Bananas appear to have timed their transformation well, even historically traditionalist Major League Baseball introduced multiple fan-friendly rule changes this year, an indication that many baseball fans believe the sport needs some changes. One metric to quantify the appetite for such a change is the Bananas’ increasing ability to sell games not just in Savannah, but across the country. In 2022, the Bananas toured only a handful of cities in the Southeast. In 2023, however, they will play in more than 30 cities from California to Maine, in addition to 30 home games at Savannah’s Grayson Stadium.
In many ways, Grayson Stadium is a charming but unlikely venue for an organization dedicated to upending tradition. Decades older than all major league ballparks except Fenway Park (in operation since 1912) and Wrigley Field (1914), Grayson Stadium has hosted such icons as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron; it even still requires a person sitting behind the outfield wall to manually operate the stadium scoreboard. However, the atmosphere in the stadium’s back offices is very similar to that of a 21st century start-up company, and then some.
For the unprepared, the Bananas offices can be overwhelming. While discussing business with some of the team’s front office staff, a bearded man wearing a kilt and Mandalorian helmet walks by with a German Shepherd puppy. The finance guy is dressed in a yellow cowboy outfit, while another unidentified employee is wearing the head of a beloved childhood dinosaur. The sparse presence of clipboard-wielding, headphone-adorned twenty-somethings makes it feel like the setting for a mind-blowing music video. This feeling that “anything can happen” often extends to playing on the field as well.
Although they are now fully committed to the Banana Ball rules, the Bananas schedule still consists of two different types of games. In most cases, the Bananas face off against the Party Animals, another touring team also owned by Cole. From time to time, however, the Bananas engage in “Challenger” games against other professional teams, offering a different, possibly more subtle product.
Due to the constant nature of their competition (and their shared showmanship), games between Bananas and Party Animals exist at the intersection of competitive backyard baseball and a particularly fun friend’s wedding. The Challenger games, however, introduce an element of the unknown, as well as a comedic/vaudeville dynamic into the visiting team’s relationship with the Bananas. This combination was on display during a recent Challenger game against the florence all of you of the Border League.
The Y’alls, used to playing plain old baseball, take some time to adjust to the carnival atmosphere of the game. During those first innings, the Bananas take several opportunities to combine their flair for theatrics with genuinely impressive baseball plays. A pitcher humorously greets the opposing player at first base before successfully picking it up for departure. After fielding a ground ball, shortstop Ryan Cox passes the baseball between his legs and kisses it before tagging out the baserunner. An outfielder catches a ball in the middle of a backflip to record the third out of an inning. Eventually, the Y’alls get used to the light-hearted atmosphere of the game and begin dancing, walking hand in hand to the turn at bat, and making behind-the-back catches on their own.
“I love it, man,” says Y’alls third base coach Michael Morris. “Getting to be a part of this environment is a really cool thing.”
Banana Ball’s appeal to fans (and, evidently, visiting players) is so obvious that it’s a little surprising that no other organization has successfully replicated Bananas’ formula for success. After all, charisma can’t be copyrighted, and one of the charms (or shortcomings, depending on the observer) of TikTok is that multiple parties can use the exact same trend to create nearly identical content for their respective audiences. However, doing it entertainingly is harder than it sounds: Bananas tactics are easy to imitate but hard to recreate. This writer recalls watching the players of a different summer league varsity team dance between innings (Bananas style) with as much charm as a vanity project.
The Bananas’ competitive advantage when it comes to likeability seems to lie in the sincerity of the players’ enthusiasm: just as the laughter of others can make you laugh, so too the joy of Bananas players encourages players. fans to enjoy. themselves. Every Bananas player The Guardian spoke to came across as not just happy, but genuinely delighted to be a part of Bananas.
Like many of his Bananas teammates, pitcher Christian Dearman used to play competitive baseball at one of the many independent professional leagues. However, having previously played on the Bananas’ CPL team as an amateur, he soon realized that purely competitive baseball couldn’t give him the same excitement as his time in Savannah.
“Our dream is to play major league baseball,” Dearman admits. But when we were up there [playing in the independent leagues]It just wasn’t as fun as playing here, and we didn’t have as much of an impact.”
There are also material benefits to playing Bananas, of course. Now that they’re no longer associated with the fan-only CPL, the Bananas are able to pay their players, and by all accounts, they pay well. Higgins, the pitcher with only eight days into his career as a Banana, estimates that he will earn twice as much as Banana as he would in minor league baseball. His estimate is well-informed: Higgins played Triple-A baseball (the highest level outside of the major leagues) in 2021 and competed in Australia’s top-tier baseball league last year. At 6-foot-5 (1.95 m) and 260 lbs (117 kg) with a 90-mph fastball (90 mph), he certainly has the physical gifts to succeed in competitive baseball. At the moment, however, he seems as delighted with what the Bananas are doing as he is with the reported 600,000 fans currently on the ticket waiting list.
“It’s more than baseball,” he says. “I could see myself doing this for a couple of years. … It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”