Savannah Bananas a SoCal hit with their unique brand of baseball

A foul ball soared into the crowd, a gleaming, red-stitched opportunity. But, when it landed in someone’s mitt, the surrounding Savannah Bananas fans began to boo. They weren’t supposed to catch that one.

LoanMart Field in Rancho Cucamonga was a full house Saturday afternoon. Fans in yellow jerseys, as well as Angels and Dodgers gear, lined up outside hours in advance in 94 degree Inland Empire heat to see the Savannah Bananas play Banana Ball.

The three-day bonanza was the first time the Georgia team played in California. The Bananas’ world tour tickets sold out in minutes and more than 100,000 people are still on the waitlist as the team travels to San Jose and Sacramento this week.

Derrick Espinoza, a high school teacher from Gardena, got tickets through a fundraiser for a travel ball team. He was about to travel to Georgia to see them when he heard the Bananas were coming to town and thought, “‘We have to go! Whatever the cost is, we have to.”

“Well worth it,” the 42-year-old Giants fan said Sunday. “Every pitch, something happens.”

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 06: Split, the mascot of the Savannah Bananas dances before the start of a banana ball game.

It’s time for Banana Ball!

So what is Banana Ball? It takes key thrills from baseball — the familiar crack of the bat, the field with four (bright yellow) bases, positions, strikes and outs — and adds nine rules to entertain and include the fans.

The game is fast-paced. A two-hour time limit starts when the fans yell “start the clock!” There are no bunts, no stepping out of the batter’s box. If you catch a foul ball, that’s an out. Kids sat poised in the stands with their mitts, eager to do their part and catch opposing team’s fouls.

There’s also an energetic, beaming man in a yellow suit and top hat. That’s owner Jesse Cole. He’s the ringmaster of the show that has amassed 7.2 million TikTok followers. Their world tour, which visited seven cities last year, spans 32 cities outside of Savannah, Ga., and brings them to the West Coast for the first time.

“The sport has been more than we’d ever imagined,” said Cole, “The support has been really special.”

The circus-style baseball game began two hours before the first pitch was thrown when the team welcomed fans onto the field for a meet-and-greet. Some players’ yellow and blue jerseys were covered in faded fan signatures as they scribbled their own autographs onto mitts, cards and fliers. Vincent Chapman, the dancing umpire, gave advice to a Little Leaguer in an Angels’ Denzer Guzman jersey.

Once the main gate opened and the crowd settled in, the real theatrics began. Bananas player Alex Ziegler balanced bats on his nose and ladders on his chin, the team crowdsourced a Banana Baby to dress in a banana suit and raise up like Simba in “The Lion King,” and the “Dad Nana” cheering squad roamed the aisles clad in yellow kilts.

Players mingled in the crowd, high-fiving and chatting with fans, signing merchandise throughout the game. Cole insisted he wasn’t too warm in his head-to-toe yellow costume.

“I’ve been wearing this for years. It’s part of it,” he said. “Whether it’s raining, whether it’s hot, whether there’s hail, thunderstorms, anything, we’re ready to put on a show and that’s what we do.”

Just before start time, the team line kicked to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” including pitcher Dakota Albritton on stilts. “Stiiiiilts!” one young boy in the swarm of fans called out to him earlier. “Are you pitching today?” He was batting for a change, which led to a spectacle of him bounding about 15 feet in the air to second base.

Part of the fun is that fans never know what will happen next. The team adds 15 new things never performed before a live crowd each night. Cole acts as ringmaster and leads the shenanigans, from baby races to fan kiss contests, between innings.

“It’s that obsession with the creative and the unique and the new things that keeps bringing back fans,” said Cole.

The Bananas had little to no separation with the crowd, fully immersing them in the experience. Chapman even accepted a nacho from a fan mid-game.

The team did choreographed dancing during plays and they blasted “Baby Shark” whenever someone stole a base, creating entertainment for every age group.

“You forget about how hot it is because you’re having so much fun,” said Christine Hyll, a 52-year-old Dodgers fan from Chino Hills.She got tickets for Sunday’s game through the second round of the lottery.

“This is pure entertainment,” said Andrew Dunn, another lottery ticket winner from San Diego when asked about the difference between a Banana Ball game and Padres games he attends.

Some made an international trip to play the game: retired Japanese professional baseball players Kento Sugiyama and Kenshi Sugitani. Josh Reddick, who won the 2017 World Series with the Astros, also made an appearance while disguised in a Spider-Man suit.

The purple California sunset highlighted with pink against the mountain backdrop may have briefly stolen the crowd’s attention Saturday night. But then a Banana got on base and Maceo Harrison, the dancing first base coach, backflipped in the coaches box. They cheered, captivated once again.

With one full inning left, LoanMart Field became a concert arena. “Yellow” by Coldplay erupted from the speakers and players on the field and fans alike raised their phone flashlights, swaying.

Like any great stage performance, the Bananas ended the night with a curtain call.

An upbeat remix of “Time of My Life” blasted on the stadium speakers as the crowd continued to file out and the Bananas peeled off into the plaza to continue what they’d been doing all along — mingling with the fans.

At 9:30 p.m., fans were still lingering in the stadium. A swarm of people gathered outside by the pep band and players who patiently signed autographs for another hour, even when it meant repeatedly bending down on stilts.

After entertaining fans for three days, the Savannah Bananas headed to the beach, hoping to catch some waves after Sunday’s day game.