‘More than baseball’: how the Savannah Bananas became the greatest show in sports | Baseball

If you like baseball and use social media, you’ve likely already encountered the Savannah Bananas. The team is something of a social-media darling, especially on TikTok – the Bananas’ more than 6m million followers on the app significantly outnumber those of every franchise in Major League Baseball (as well as every team in the NFL, NBA and NHL).

The factors driving the Bananas’ online success are obvious. In-game clips of players swinging flaming baseball bats, pitching from atop stilts, and performing choreographed dance routines are tailor-made for social media. To reduce the team’s popularity solely to its viral antics, however, is dishonest. Even to this initially skeptical observer, the fun-loving atmosphere surrounding a Bananas game is inarguably infectious.

“For the first time ever, I saw [no] fans on their phones during the game,” says pitcher Connor Higgins. “[Joining the Bananas] was a no-brainer.” When Higgins spoke to the Guardian, he had only been with the team for eight days. “I’ve never had so much love from 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 into their unique interpretation of America’s pastime more than ever before, making it increasingly difficult to describe the team’s identity within professional baseball in just a single word or phrase. For example, the Bananas are not a minor league team, and they never have been. From the franchise’s formation in 2016 until last year, the Bananas competed in the Coastal Plains League (CPL), a competitive collegiate summer league operating throughout Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. It was while participating in the CPL that the Bananas first started introducing some of the traits that would eventually make them TikTok-famous. Yes, there was a pep band (a rarity in baseball) and players would dance between innings but, for the most part, the game were still recognizably baseball as it’s always been.

Outside of the standard CPL season, however, the Bananas began playing exhibition games which featured significant rule changes: fan-caught foul balls counted as outs, bunts were outlawed, stealing first base was permitted and ‘walks’ were replaced by ‘sprints,’ among other modifications. (It’s worth having a look at 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 christened “Banana Ball”.

After the introduction of Banana Ball, the Bananas began operating, in reality, as two separate teams under one banner – one CPL-compliant, traditional baseball team, and another barnstorming, exhibition side devoted exclusively to Banana Ball. Both teams’ playing as the Savannah Bananas, however, occasionally led to confusion – fans would turn up expecting to see the Banana Ball they’d seen online, only to find out they were instead attending a standard CPL game.

Dakota ‘Stilts’ Albritton of the Savannah Bananas pitches against the Party Animals at Grayson Stadium in May. Albritton plays the field, bats, and he pitches all while wearing a pair of stilts.
Dakota ‘Stilts’ Albritton of the Savannah Bananas pitches against the Party Animals at Grayson Stadium in May. Albritton plays the field, bats, and he pitches all while wearing a pair of stilts. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

“We were getting so many upset fans,” remembers Jesse Cole, the Bananas founder and owner. When discussing the team’s history, he speaks with the rapid, somehow simultaneously-focused-and-distracted manner common among start-up executives. “We were called ‘scam artists’… We’re promoting a rock concert, and [the fans were] going to see an opera… The most ‘fans first’ thing we could do was to play Banana Ball every single game.” The Bananas thus disbanded their CPL team at the end of the 2022 season and now, as of this year, 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 could use some shaking up. One metric for quantifying the appetite for such change is the Bananas’ ever-increasing ability to sell out games not just in Savannah, but around the country. In 2022, the Bananas toured just a handful of cities in the southeast. In 2023, however, they’re playing in more than 30 cities from California to Maine, in addition to the 30 home games they’ll play at Savannah’s Grayson Stadium.

In many ways, Grayson Stadium is a charming but unlikely headquarters for an organization devoted to turning tradition on its head. Decades older than every major league ballpark except for Fenway Park (in operation since 1912) and Wrigley Field (1914), Grayson Stadium has hosted icons like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron; it even still requires a person sitting behind the outfield wall to manually operate ballpark’s scoreboard. The atmosphere in the stadium’s back-of-house offices, however, is very much that of a 21st-century start-up, and then some.

To the underprepared, the Bananas’ offices can be overwhelming. While talking business with some of the team’s front office staff, a bearded man wearing a kilt and a Mandalorian helmet walks by with a German shepherd puppy. The finance guy is dressed in a yellow cowboy outfit while another, unidentified employee wears the head of a beloved children’s show dinosaur. The scattered presence of clipboard-wielding, headset-adorned twenty-somethings makes it feel like the set of a hallucinatory music video. This sense of “anything can happen” often also extends to on-field play.

Although they’re now fully committed to Banana Ball rules, the Bananas’ schedule still consists of two different types of game. In most cases, the Bananas face off against the Party Animals, another touring team also owned by Cole. Occasionally, however, the Bananas engage in “Challenger” games against other professional teams, which offer a different, arguably subtler product.

Owing to the constant nature of their competition (and their shared flair for showmanship), games between the Bananas and the Party Animals exist at the intersection of competitive backyard baseball and a particularly fun friend’s wedding. Challenger games, however, introduce an element of the unknown as well as a vaudevillian straight man/comic dynamic in the visiting team’s relationship with the Bananas. This combination was on full display during a recent Challenger game against the Florence Y’alls of the Frontier League.

The Y’alls, accustomed to playing straightforward, no-frills baseball, take some time to adapt to the game’s carnival atmosphere. During those early innings, the Bananas seize several opportunities to combine their gift for theatrics with genuinely impressive baseball plays. A pitcher humorously waves at the opposing player at first base before successfully picking him off for the out. After fielding a groundball, shortstop Ryan Cox passes the baseball between his legs and kisses it before throwing out the baserunner. An outfielder catches a ball mid-backflip to record an inning’s third out. Eventually, the Y’alls get accustomed to the game’s rollicking vibe and begin dancing, handstand walking to at-bats, and performing behind-the-back catches over 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.”

The Savannah Bananas play Banana Ball against the Catawba Valley Stars at Grayson Stadium. Banana pitcher Christian Dearman leads dancing to Stand By Me between innings.
The Savannah Bananas play Banana Ball against the Catawba Valley Stars at Grayson Stadium. Banana pitcher Christian Dearman leads dancing to Stand By Me between innings. Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images

The appeal of Banana Ball to fans (and, evidently, visiting players) is so obvious that it’s a bit surprising that no other organization has successfully replicated the Bananas’ formula for success. After all, charisma can’t be copyrighted and one of TikTok’s charms (or deficiencies, depending on the observer) is that multiple parties can use the exact same trend to create nearly identical content for their respective audiences. To do so entertainingly, however, is harder than it seems –the Bananas’ tactics are easy to imitate but difficult to recreate. This writer recalls watching a different collegiate summer league team’s players dance between innings (à la the Bananas) with about as much charm as a vanity project.

The Bananas’ competitive edge when it comes to likability appears to lie in the sincerity of the players’ enthusiasm – in the same way that the laughter of others alone can make you laugh, so too does the Bananas’ players’ joy encourage fans to enjoy themselves. Every Bananas player the Guardian spoke with presented as not just content, but genuinely delighted to be a part of the Bananas.

Like many of his Bananas teammates, pitcher Christian Dearman used to play competitive baseball in one the sport’s many independent professional leagues. Having previously played on the Bananas’ CPL team as an amateur, however, he soon realized that purely competitive baseball wasn’t able to give him the same thrill as his time in Savannah.

“Our dream is to play big-league ball,” Dearman admits. “But when we were up there [playing in the independent leagues], it just wasn’t near as much fun as it was playing here, and we didn’t make near as much of an impact.”

There are also material benefits to playing with the Bananas, of course. Now that they are no longer associated with the amateurs-only CPL, the Bananas are permitted to pay their players and, by all accounts, they pay well. Higgins, the pitcher only eight days into his career as a Banana, estimates that he’ll earn twice as much as a Banana than 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-flight baseball league last year. At 6ft 5in (1.95m) and 260lbs (117kg) with a fastball in the high 90s (mph), he certainly has the physical gifts to succeed in competitive baseball. At the moment, however, he seems as enchanted by what the Bananas are doing as the reported 600,000 fans currently on the waitlist for tickets.

“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.”