How The Savannah Bananas Turned Conventional Wisdom On Its Head
It’s an hour before the game and the parking areas closest to 93-year-old Grayson Stadium are filling up. Just before the game, the Savannah Bananas’ pep band marches onto the field. By the first inning, seats are scarce as team owner Jesse Cole, sweating through one of his seven canary-yellow tuxedos, roams the stands at the stadium, shaking hands and posing for photos.
The Bananas sell out every home game, as they have since early in their inaugural season. The fans come to be entertained, and the Bananas, who are but college players honing their craft for free in the Coastal Plain League, don’t disappoint.
The Bananas have a first base coach, Maceo Harrison, who break dances. There’s the Savannah Nanas, a senior women’s dance team, the Savannah Man-Nanas, male cheerleaders with dad-bods, the pep band and bizarre between-inning promotions. The head coach, Tyler Gillum, wears cowboy boots at third base. Grayson Stadium has become a place to party, something Savannah has always had an appetite for.
“Our whole mindset is: Whatever is normal, try to do the exact opposite,” Cole said. “I think our starting point with everything is, ‘What is the big problem?’ For many people, the problem with baseball is it is long, slow and boring. In Savannah, essentially baseball failed for 90 years. We went to a game there and they had less than 300 people. We looked at how to we create a circus where a baseball game breaks out.”
Savannah had been a member of the South Atlantic League nearly continuously since World War II. That is until 2015, when the Mets split for Columbia, S.C. It was the latest low point for the sport in Savannah. At that juncture, no baseball team in Savannah had averaged 2,000 fans a season since war hero Lou Brissie was pitching for the Savannah Indians in 1947.
Grayson Stadium was considered too old and dilapidated. The consensus in town was the game was too slow, the gnats were too prevalent and there were better entertainment options than spending a sultry Georgia evening watching 19-year-olds miss the cutoff man.
Then Cole, influenced by P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney and Bill Veeck, brought the Bananas to town.
“It was something where a lot of the more traditional minds were taken aback by it,” CPL commissioner Justin Sellers said.
Cole said that while league owners may have warmed a bit to the Bananas’ quirky ways, not everyone is on board.
“It bothers me that people said, ‘You don’t care about baseball.’ The other owners don’t like what we do, but that’s OK, because we’re playing a different game.”
In their first season, the Bananas led the CPL with 3,659 fans a game, an average of 1,681 more than the No. 2 draw, Peninsula in Holly Springs, N.C. This year the Bananas were averaging 4,206 fans. The Macon Bacon, a team that has adopted some of the Bananas’ promotional ideas, was second with 2,302 fans per game.
The circus atmosphere hasn’t hurt the team’s performance on the field. The Bananas won the league championship in 2016 and had the best regular-season record last season. This season, they won the CPL’s South Division and had the second-best overall record.
The players were awarded with Savannah Bananas swimsuits after they won the division’s first half of the season.
“A Georgia Southern University (professor) did research and found out we were the only team in the Coastal Plain League where our players hit better (using wood bats) in the league than they did in college,” Gillum said. “I think the fans bring a lot of energy, plus I think the positive energy that is around the ballpark every single night helps. In college, these guys are under a lot of stress, but in our environment, they’re a lot looser and having fun.”
That level of mirth and the chance to play in front of a packed house every game at home has helped Gillum recruit players.
“I probably had to turn down 1,000 players,” Gillum said. “It was unique recruiting. We were looking for guys who were energy givers. It’s fun just to be around these guys in the locker room.”
Of all the promotions the Bananas do, Gillum said the team favorite is the dance players perform during the second inning.
“Our guys get really serious about the dance and they’ve gotten pretty good at it,” Gillum said. “In the middle of BP, they start choreographing it and in the locker room, they lock in on it. And afterward, our guys on the bench watching the dance get really fired up about it. The guys get better at it as the season goes on.”
Cole is no stranger to college summer baseball. As a hard-throwing righthander at Wofford, he was the Terriers’ No. 1 starter and played two seasons in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
A torn labrum and rotator cuff ended his hopes of playing professionally, but also granted him time to delve into theater and improv, where he learned that no matter how crazy a production might seem, there needs to be a script and that the focus should be on how people felt after they left the event, one reason his company is named Fans First Entertainment.
“You want people leaving with high energy, saying, ‘Wow, I just saw a show!’ ” Cole said. In keeping with that theme, his players greet fans in the concourse outside the stadium after the game.
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In 2007, Cole was 23 when he became general manager of the CPL’s Gastonia Grizzlies. In 2014, he became the club’s owner. In July 2015, he signed a contract with the city of Savannah to bring a CPL team to Grayson Stadium and found he needed to go all-in to make the team succeed. He and his wife Emily sold their house in Charlotte and bought a fixer-upper duplex in Savannah to make ends meet.
“We were down to our last dollar,” Cole said. “I think we sold two season tickets the first two months we got here.”
The first breakthrough was the team’s name. He held a contest for the name and when it was announced as the “Savannah Bananas” in February 2016, the team started trending on Twitter and ticket and merchandise sales soon followed. The next breakthrough idea was having a dancing first base coach.
“For a long time, I’ve thought that you could do things between innings, but what do you do during an inning?” Cole says. “If a pitcher is out there walking three guys, it’s a long, slow inning and there’s nothing that’s entertaining about that. But the coaches are out there, essentially on stage, so what could we do?”
The first time Cole used a dancer as a first base coach, he thought about everything that could go wrong.
“I found a dancer who was unbelievable,” Cole said. “I told him to go to first base, and to stand in the coaching box. He wanted to know if he had to give signals. He didn’t know anything about baseball. I had to tell him to go out there only for our half of the inning. I was so nervous how this was going to go. Then, the first Michael Jackson song came on and he was doing a moon walk into a split and I watched hundreds of phones come up to take photos because nobody had ever seen something like that.”
His success has led to a book, “Find Your Yellow Tux,” a podcast and speaking engagements. While no big league team is likely to use a dancing first base coach, Cole said his philosophy of entertainment could be a lesson for major league baseball.
“We’d love to see MLB put a lot more focus on the fans and the experience and not just the game,” Cole said. “It’s a challenge because the owners are making more money than they ever have, and everything becomes wins and losses. I think what’s happening is they’re losing fans at the young ages, if you look at the attendance going down the last seven years. It’s a challenge because they’re making money, so why change? We’ve talked to people at the NFL and different sports, but no one from MLB has reached out.”
Sunday night, in what would turn out to be the team’s final game, fans lined up in the rain outside the gates waiting for them to open. Inside, University of Kentucky pitcher Alex Degan was a 6-foot-7 dancing machine, practicing his moves on the tarp while wearing his Bananas swim trunks.
Once the game started, after an hour and 15 minute rain delay, the Macon Bacon defeated the Bananas 7-3 in a first-round playoff that ended after midnight. The pep band played until the final fan left Grayson Stadium.