Savannah Bananas: Meet the Man Behind the ‘World Famous Baseball Circus’

Savannah Bananas: Meet the Man Behind the ‘World Famous Baseball Circus’

Savannah bananas are celebrating
Malachi Mitchell – spinning in the air before a game in May – describes himself as the “fastest man in baseball”

When the World Series is over this week, either the Houston Astros or the Philadelphia Phillies will be able to justifiably call themselves the best baseball team on the planet.

But if you’re looking for non-stop fun, the choreographed, breakdancing, kilt-wearing, sometimes stilt-wearing, exhibition group that bills itself as the “world-famous baseball circus” take a bit of a hit.

“Every night we do 5-10 things that we’ve never done before, so you never know what’s going to happen,” says Bananas owner Jesse Cole.

Part baseball team, part viral sensation, the Bananas have amassed more than 82 million likes on TikTok and play to a perennially sold-out stadium.

And with on-field haircuts, team twerks and high school cheerleading among some of their stunts, bananas aren’t just about baseball.

But what is all this – and where did it all start?

Well, Bananas was founded in 2016 in Savannah, Georgia with the motto “fans first, always have fun”. They have since taken baseball by storm and spawned their own ESPN documentary series.

BBC Sport caught up with Cole after his side’s win Coastal Plains Championship Seriesexternal link – summer league for college players – for the second year in a row.

“We had a big vision”

Cole, 38, is a baseball fanatic. In 2014 — while working as general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies — he proposed to his now-wife Emily in front of a sold-out crowd at a game in North Carolina.

The next day, Emily planned a trip to Savannah, where the couple visited Grayson Stadium—then the home of the Savannah Sand Snipes.

“We saw this beautiful old ballpark, fell in love with this ballpark and heard the team was leaving,” says Cole, who is usually seen dressed in a yellow tuxedo.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we give it away?’ We had a big vision.”

Cole admits it “didn’t happen right away.”

When the couple were given the keys to the pitch in October 2015, everything had been removed and they used a storage space as their first office. Their staff team consisted of Emily, a 24-year-old team president, and three 22-year-olds straight out of college.

The club launched in the local community a month later, but there was huge skepticism – by the end of the year only one season ticket had been sold.

The Coles went all in – selling their house and committing their savings to the project. Jesse admits it was a “huge struggle”.

“The community was really wondering who we were,” he says. “We had a lot of convincing to do.”

They decided to hold a team name contest. More than 1,000 suggestions were submitted, and retired nurse Lynn Moses was the only person to suggest ‘Bananas’.

Cole says: “When he said it, we were like, ‘Wow. We can really have fun with this brand.”

It was a big turning point. The naming announcementexternal link in February 2016 it went viral.

“They saw all the fun we put into it”

Having initially only sold a handful of tickets, their home opener against Lexington County June 2016external link it was a complete sell-out, with just over 4,000 people in attendance. Those lucky enough to secure tickets were not disappointed.

“They saw our Banana Nanas senior dance team, dancers, our breakdancing coach and the banana band, and they saw all the fun we had,” says Cole.

Six years on, the club has a waiting list of around 75,000 single-match ticket requests.

Cole says the goal is to leave fans asking, “Did they really do that on a baseball field?”

“In some sports, there are barriers between the players and the fans, and we’re breaking down those barriers,” he says.

“A lot of these fans, especially the kids, look up to the players and how often do you get to meet them and interact with them? That’s a really big goal of what we do.”

Cole and his team reinvented baseball – creating a spin-off version called “Banana Ball”, which has several rule changes, including a two-hour time limit. The intention, says Cole, is to make it “more fun”.

“I wasn’t a baseball fan,” he says.

“It’s all about speed and excitement. So I think the goal was, ‘If you don’t like baseball, I think you’re going to love our shows.’

These shows will tour the country, with the club recently announcing they will be leaving the league set-up Play Banana Ball all year round.external link

“It’s a combination of talent and the ability to be an entertainer”

But with so much going on besides actual baseball, what does it take to be a Savannah Bananas player?

“You have to be very talented in baseball and you have to understand how to be an entertainer,” Cole says.

“If you’re just good at baseball, but you don’t understand how to be ‘fans first’ and how to put on a show, you’re not going to be a good fit.

“It’s a combination of talent and the ability to be an entertainer.”

It’s a combination that has helped Bananas reach hundreds of millions of views on their social media platforms.

“I never would have imagined that dancing pitchers would do so well,” Cole admits.

And he says as much as he reflects on the team putting out a series on ESPN, adding two words that nicely sum up the journey he and the team have been on.

“It’s wild.”

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