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Mudville: April 22, 2024 2:45 am PDT


SAVANNAH, Ga. – Fun. Music. Lots of music. Laughs. Freedom. Slippery Banana cocktails. Craft beer. All that and baseball, too.

Best of all, no cardboard cutout fans.

Real fans, real people. Real baseball.

That’s a pretty good night out during these shutdown days.

Here at BallNine we are all about enhancing the baseball experience through information, expertise and experience. We find fun.

This week we experienced all that at Historic Grayson Stadium, home of the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer league.

Did we mention parking was free and for my $18 ticket all my food (hot dogs, burgers, grilled chicken, chips, soda and bottles of water) came with the price of admission?

Watching baseball again in the fresh air with fans in the ballpark was a joyful experience.

Aren’t you jealous?

Everyone who walked into the classic brick ballpark, yes – there are steel pillars much like old Yankee Stadium evoking grand memories – had their temperatures checked. We wore masks as did club employees.

When we sat down and munched, masks came off and it was as close to normal as you can be this Covid Era of baseball.

Kevin Kernan and his daughter Kelly

Fans were able to socially distance on old wide berth benches (with backs) because only half the crowd of the usually sold out Bananas were allowed into the park.

The aisles that were closer together in the last third of the grandstand, every other row was blocked off.

Huge fans twirled above us of on this hot night for a comfortable breeze.

There were families, couples, friends, old people, young people and all kinds of entertainment as well as baseball.

There were circus acts, flaming swords and all. Not only a chicken dance led by two chicken mascots, but that soon broke into a WWE-like chicken fight with John Cena’s theme song, The Time is Now.

All part of the show.

The National Anthem was beautifully sung by the crowd of 1500 and later a military salute where the players actually stood in front of their respective dugouts and raised their hats in honor of the military men and women at the game and so much more, including the presentation of the Banana Baby – a Lion King moment at the start of the game – along with the challenge of the haka and a second inning stretch.

Yeah, it’s crazy.

Always a party here.

“ Macon Bacon…was the Do-Nut K player of the night ”

The Bananas have a Grandma Coach, an Intimidator Coach and a 6 1/2 year-old Strength & Conditioning Coach.

There are cowboy hats too.

The comedian/on field announcer gleefully announced that No. 33 on the opposing team, the Macon Bacon (managed by former Atlanta Brave Ryan Klesko) was the Do-Nut K player of the night. If that batter struck out in any of his at-bats all ticket holders could claim a free donut from Rise Downtown the next day. He did strike out and the announcer profusely thanked him as the player dejectedly walked back to the visiting dugout.

Of course, there are Launch Angle swings here too, but at least this summer the college players had a place to play with their college seasons cancelled.

This past Thursday was the final game of the year, so host families were welcomed onto the field for a group ceremonial first pitch.

This is much like host families in the Cape Cod League except there was no Cape League this summer.

College players love to play here because of the level of play, the packed house, the classic ballpark, and the fact they can have a lot of fun playing in a winning atmosphere.

The Bananas creed is Fans First, Entertain Always.

“We had over a thousand applicants this year for a 30-man roster,’’ Bananas owner Jesse Cole told BallNine. He co-owns the team with his wife Emily and they have a two-year-old son named Maverick.

“We are in it together,’’ Jesse said, noting 11 Bananas made the All-CPL team in 2020.

Jesse runs around the ballpark meeting fans, partaking in activities and was even spotted taking bags of trash out of garbage cans so the place stays clean.

Kevin Kernan with Jesse Cole (Owner)

Find Your Yellow Tux – How to Be Successful by Standing Out.

Did I mention he does all of this in a banana yellow tuxedo? He owns seven banana yellow tuxedos. Seven.

Brings to mind the Harry Chapin song 30,000 Pounds of Bananas.

Cole wrote a successful book “Find Your Yellow Tux – How to Be Successful by Standing Out.’’

Music played throughout but it was not deafening like many other parks, and the music spanned the generations, there was something for everyone and lots of dancing in the stands and on the field, all in a beautiful old ballpark.

It was like a middle school dance or as my daughter Kelly said, “like playing baseball inside an old juke box.’’

A little history about William Grayson Stadium.

It has that southern charm feel of walking into a brick ballpark from a bygone era.

It was originally opened in 1926 for the Savannah Indians.

A hurricane tore it apart in 1940 and it was rebuilt with a fundraising effort led by Spanish-American war veteran General William Grayson.

Hank Aaron played here and later scouted as a Braves executive when the Savannah Braves played here.

Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb played here as well.

So did Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle. The Red Sox used it as its spring training site in 1932.

The first integrated South Atlantic League game took place at Grayson Stadium on April 14, 1953.

The Cardinals had a minor league team here and eventually the team was renamed the Savannah Sand Gnats with the Dodgers, Rangers and Expos affiliates playing in the South Atlantic League.

It was a minor league home for the Mets for nine seasons. Jacob deGrom pitched here.

So did John Smoltz.

And remember, this is Braves country so it must be noted Dale Murphy played on this field as well.

As you walk through the main entrance there is a balladeer with a guitar, singing and playing in a corner by the team store – all game long, the same type of singer you would see in numerous Savannah bars.

That’s the first hint you are basically walking into a massive open-air bar. A bar that just happens to have a baseball game and circus attached.

There is no advertising on the outfield walls.

That has all been removed this year for a clean green look with a manual scoreboard, and the history of the teams that played here.

You are bombarded with fun, not advertising.

You are bombarded with fun, not advertising.

The bathrooms have their respective signs with a banana twist, of course.

This was the fifth season for the Bananas and their Fans First mantra is not just a saying, it’s what they do.

I’ve been to more than a hundred ballparks and this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had at a game.

Cole and his co-owner wife Emily met at Gastonia where she was the team’s Director of Fun.

They walk the walk and talk the talk.

Their entire front office team loves what they do and you could see and feel the smiles through the masks.

Baseball is supposed to be fun after all.

This is how it began.

“I was a baseball guy and played my whole life and coached in the Cape Cod League,’’ Jesse told me. “I had the best seat in the house sitting next to future major leaguers and All-Stars and I realized I was even bored on how long the game was and what was going on.”

 “I took over a failing team in Gastonia, North Carolina drawing 200 fans a game –  [I was] 23 years old and I was meeting with the community and everybody said, ‘I don’t like baseball, too slow and too boring,’ so I decided we have to go the opposite route if we want to try to create baseball fans to come to our games.”

“Immediately we said what would be the opposite. What if it was a circus so we started coming up with ideas of players doing choreographed dances every game, a breakdancing first base coach, a grandma beauty pageant and just started looking at all the ideas.’’

It’s a complete show that also includes a Richard Simmons-type character who leads the fans and team in exercise and a few innings into the game comes out with a French Maid and dusts all those “dirty, dirty bases’’ and the pitching rubber.

Your 2020 Savannah Bananas!

How popular are the Bananas?

Consider this from Jesse: “On TikTok we have more followers and more likes than every single Major League team but five.”

“I read every book on P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney there was to try to get inspired to not think of it as a baseball game, but as an entertainment venue.’’

He is the modern-day Bill Veeck, the White Sox owner who once sent up a batter that was only 3 feet, seven inches tall to hit in a Major League game.

“I’ve definitely been inspired by Bill Veeck,’’ Jesse said. “We are a collective team, we constantly have Idea-Palooza’s. What’s the next crazy fun thing we can do? Challenge the rule of industry. Look at what’s happening with Major League attendance. It has declined over the last seven years. It’s time for a change and we are trying to be a catalyst for that.’’

Jesse and Emily arrived here in 2016.

Before that the Sand Gnats weren’t drawing sand gnats, the owners wanted a new stadium, the city said no and they left for Columbia, S.C.

American success stories don’t just happen. They persevere.

The Coles had a new play for Grayson Stadium and the Bananas were born with the backdrop a college summer league.

“We came in bright eyed and ready to take on the future – my wife and I – and we sold only two season tickets in the first three months,’’ Jesse told me. “It got so bad a few months later we over-drafted our bank account and I will never forget that phone call. We had no money left. We had to sell our house. We emptied out our savings account and we were sleeping on an air bed just hoping that we could create attention.”

“We redesigned the baseball experience,’’ Jesse said. “We said what do people not like about the baseball experience? No. 1: Slow, boring. No. 2: You get nickel and dimed at every ballpark.’’

All you can eat, baby – including post-meal cookies plus all the entertainment you can squeeze into a nine-inning game.

There are discount coupons for beer, wine and mixed drinks and from the drinks I tasted, you are not cheated on the alcohol.

On those hot Georgia summer nights the ballpark is quite the visual experience as well. This wasn’t just a crowd of old men yelling at clouds.

This was a young crowd, too.

Friends out for the evening, plenty of table areas to sit and talk with the game on in the background between the on-field announcer doing his thing in the family friendly atmosphere.

The Official Man-Nana

You laugh, you dance, you smile. And there is no hard sell.

 “No one wants to be bombarded by ads at the game,’’ Jesse said. “That is not the Fans First experience.’’

They sell-out every game and have since the first season so that is 4,200 fans a night.

Again on this night, and this year because of Covid safety measures that number has been cut in half, “I’m pretty sure we are playing in front of more fans than any team in the entire country this year,’’ Jesse said.

I’m pretty sure he is right.

“We have had zero players test positive throughout the year, we haven’t had any direct tracing back to the fans. Everybody gets temperature checked coming into the ballpark and has to wear a mask coming in, we have social distancing and everything is outdoors … We’ve been very fortunate.’’

The Coles

Just a reminder.

Major League Baseball has been played in front of cardboard cutouts this year.

Zero fans.

Interesting how the Bananas could pull off something Major League Baseball could not.

And the Bananas win.

Players want to experience the wild experience.

When I asked how come no one else follows his model, Jesse laughed and said, “Too crazy.’’

Crazy like a banana.

Where else in baseball will you see a 20-piece pep band on the dugout? “It adds a lot to your energy,’’ Jesse said. “The other teams don’t have that.’’

Certainly no minor league baseball teams do, and no Manfred League Baseball teams have as much fun as the Bananas.

“There are a lot of minor league teams doing a lot of great things,’’ Jesse said. “But when they are told by Major League Baseball they can’t utilize the players, we can break down the barriers completely and have the players involved.’’

The players love to be involved in this show as they someday hope to get to The Show.

“The game is supposed to be fun,’’ Jesse said. “It’s not just corporate and about money. It’s supposed to be about the fans.’’

How is the level of baseball?

“That’s the crazy thing,’’ said Jesse, who was a pitcher and DH at Division I Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. He injured a shoulder against the University of South Carolina and that was it for his pitching career.

“I don’t talk about it unless I’m asked about it, but we’ve won more games than any team over the last five years, we won a championship, we go to the playoffs every year. We had a first-rounder of the Braves (in 2019), we had a second-rounder, a fourth-rounder, an eighth-rounder. The baseball is very good. We have some of the top college players in the country.’’

That first round pick was Branden Shewmake, out of Texas A&M.

Pitchers throw well into the 90s. Talent and fun live here.

The other teams in the league play typical standard fashion and the games in their home ballparks are like every other baseball game.

As a result, the Bananas sometimes slip on the road.

“It’s interesting, our record at home is much better than on the road,’’ Jesse said. “On the road our players aren’t actually used to the dead air. The players talk about it all the time saying it’s tough to get up for those games.’’

The plan is to take the show on the road and barnstorm in the future. Bring the funk and fun to other ballparks.

“No one is really doing that in baseball, bring the Bananas to the fans, we’ve had to turn away so many fans,’’ Jesse said. “Our wait-list is over 4,000 fans. There are a lot of cities that haven’t seen anything like this.’’

When you get the chance, go see the Savannah Bananas show – and the baseball, too.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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