Image credit: (Photo by Mike Janes)
Let me describe to you a new game.
There’s a pitcher. He throws a ball to a catcher. There are other fielders. Nine in total.
There’s a batter. He tries to hit the ball thrown by the pitcher.
Yes, there are umpires and foul poles. A ball that clears the far-away fence is a home run.
Three strikes is an out. Four balls allows the runner to reach base.
Sound like baseball?
It’s not baseball.
Each game has a strict two-hour time limit. Innings end immediately if the home team takes a lead.
Each inning is a point. Win an inning, win a point. First team to five points wins the game.
A fan catching a foul ball counts as an out. Walks have a batter speeding around the bases while the team in the field tries to throw the ball around the diamond.
It’s baseball-like, but I promise you, you are more likely to enjoy this game if you don’t think of it as baseball.
Just try to enjoy it on its own merits.
Batters can’t step out of the box. Coaches can’t visit the mound.
Instead of extra innings, any tie at the two hour mark is settled by a batter-pitcher faceoff. Each one of these showdowns results in either a point (remember, first team to five points wins) or an out.
In this showdown tiebreaker there’s a batter against a pitcher and catcher (and sometimes one fielder, they are figuring this out as they go along). The batter is not looking to get a base hit, because he has to go all the way around the bases before he’s tagged out. Imagine a batter slapping a ball down the line and then racing to get back home before the pitcher can run the ball down and fire it to the catcher.
It’s crazy. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen on a baseball field.
But if you start thinking about what the Savannah Bannanas’ traveling team is doing as baseball, well, that’s where your brain may begin to fry.
If you’re a traditionalist, and I know that many of you are, you are going to hate this if you think about it as baseball. But if it was a new sport being invented in 2021 (which it really is), then Banana Ball could be a very fun night at the park. It’s barnstorming for the 21st century.
It’s fast. With very little downtime. It’s fun. And it’s something with a lot for fans and players to love.
And for Bananas’ owner Jesse Cole, the goal of this new sport is to bring a baseball-like game to people who have no interest in baseball.
Cole has heard the criticism before that he must dislike baseball to do this, even if he is the owner of the Savannah Bananas, a summer collegiate wood bat team in the Coastal Plain League. He was a college player himself. But if you accuse him of not being a fan of traditional baseball, he will completely agree with you.
“I coached in the Cape Cod League,” Cole said. “I remember sitting there with Mike Roberts. Josh Harrison, Garrett RIchards. I had the best seat in the house with the best players. I remember catching myself that I was bored. Playing baseball was an amazing thing, but watching baseball? I’d seen it all.”
The Bananas’ Coastal Plain League team is both an embrace and a rejection of baseball. Cole’s Bananas sell out pretty much every home game because they have taken the minor league baseball approach of selling a show to a whole new level. The players dance. The between-innings promos bleed into what’s going on in the field. But even with all that, Cole felt the desire to do something more—in part because he believes that baseball takes too long.
“I watch our fans,” Cole said. “Even with non-stop entertainment, half the fans are there at the end of the game. In a great movie or concert, no one leaves in the middle.”
And this is where Banana Ball comes in. While the Bananas remain a summer college wood bat team, the players for this new venture came from tryouts that emphasized entertainment as much as athleticism. The tryouts included taking batting practice, but also featured a bat flip competition.
“We’re looking for a marriage of ‘wow these guys can really play’ but they are also entertaining,” Cole said.
This year, the Bananas have sold every available seat for all four Banana Ball games. The test games in 2019 and 2020 have given Cole confidence that they’ve found something that engages fans.
Instead of games that go too long for many fans, Banana Ball has seen teams play nine innings in an hour and a half.
“When we tested it for three games, not one fan left early. We kept track,” Cole said. “We’re getting this off the ground with a one-city world tour. Look at all these MiLB teams that lost their affiliated teams. You have all of these minor league markets. There is a huge opportunity to fill a void to bring something more fun and entertaining. Maybe wll grow to a 10-game tour or a 20-game tour. Maybe eventually we will have a 50-plus game tour.”
For 2021 it’s a two-city tour: Savannah, Ga. and Mobile, Ala. The Bananas and the Party Animals will play in Savannah on March 13 and March 20 and then in Mobile on March 26 and March 27.
Banana Ball is likely to be very good for Cole and the Bananas. The players find the game fun. So do the fans. Bouncing from city to city will make it novel as well.
Whether this is good for baseball? That’s tougher to understand.
It’s not baseball. And it’s hard to see how Banana Ball will draw baseball fans. A non-baseball fan who likes this may not be inspired to go check out the longer, slower-paced baseball games.
But it’s something worth keeping an eye on, as innovation often breeds further ideas.