It’s a cool spring evening at Arizona’s Peoria Sports Complex, where a sold-out crowd is ecstatic for a baseball game unlike any other. There are team kick lines, a shirtless weigh-in between rival players in the manner of WWE, many stadium sing-alongs, scripted player celebration dances, a twerking umpire, the “world’s tallest player,” Stilts, who really plays on stilts, and much more. This is Banana Ball, not baseball.
The Savannah Bananas fable is one of the great sports success stories of recent years. The once-struggling college summer league club went from being in tremendous debt to a social media celebrity and six consecutive years of sell-outs owing to the organization’s mantra: Fans First, which was founded in 2016 by the dynamic husband and wife combo Jesse and Emily Cole. Always entertain.
Since day one, they said they’d make baseball fun, Jesse, 39, adds. That’s all they’re trying to do.
To do so, the Coles look at the games from the perspective of their youngest fans, focusing on what keeps them interested and not wanting to leave.
They have little kids [a son, 4, and two daughters, 4 and 2], and they look at things through their eyes and attention spans, and they believe it’s the right thing to do, Emily, 36, adds. There are several baseball teams from which to pick. They’re offering something different for those who don’t want to sit through a three-hour baseball game with no music or dancing.
The Bananas’ crowd-pleasing performances are routinely featured on SportsCenter, they have a 9.5 million-person social media following, and there is a 1 million-person wait list for tickets.
“It is such a great time, and the energy around the entire park was insane!” adds Sebastian, 13, an Arizona fan and first-time Banana Ball game spectator. “The players were interacting with all of us, laughing and having fun. They are all really good too!”
The Coles’ current winning run was not easy to get by. Jesse and Emily met in 2010 while working for separate minor league teams and learned they shared not just a love for making baseball games more exciting and entertaining but also the goal of operating their own show.
They had this big dream of attempting to take what they’ve learned about making baseball fun to a bigger level, Jesse explains.
In 2015, they took a risk and purchased a Coastal Plain League club, relocated it to Savannah after the departure of the city’s minor league franchise, and established their firm, Fans First Entertainment.
They had bought the team, which was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, Jesse explains. And a couple of months later, after only selling a handful of tickets, they’re out of money.
The Coles cashed in their life savings, sold their house, and moved into a studio apartment, where they slept on an air mattress to keep it afloat.
Emily says they never thought it would fail completely because they were so optimistic. They just felt it so much.
They continued to think of ways to include the community and urged Savannah residents to vote on the new team name. The Savannah Bananas were born on February 25, 2016.
Once they announced the name, things began changing, as Jesse explains. Suddenly, folks recognized how amusing this name is.
The Coles’ dedication to making their games more enjoyable for every single fan in attendance—leading stadium sing-alongs, staging on-field games, encouraging players to interact with the crowd, hosting theme nights, and more—has resulted in what they call “The Greatest Show in Sports.” Their Fans First philosophy applies to everyone on staff, but it is most exemplified by the players, who are all former high school, college, or MLB draft selections receiving a second shot to live out their professional baseball ambitions on an increasingly popular platform.
“I thought I was done with baseball after my career at Stetson University,” Jackson Olsen, 25, the Bananas’ third baseman and fan favorite (with over 1 million TikTok followers), explains. “I kind of fell out of love with the game mentally.” And it was brought back by the Bananas.”
“Giving back to the kids is my favorite thing in the world to do,” says Bill Leroy, a 25-year-old catcher. “I swapped gloves with the kids over [in the stands] near third base tonight and played in the field with their gloves.” It’s a lot of fun.”
Since 2020, the Bananas have been competing against the Party Animals, a rival team developed by Fans First to take the game on tour around the country, in their own modified edition of the game, Banana Ball. Banana Ball has nine rules that are intended to minimize downtime while increasing spectator delight and amusement.
Despite the fact that their Banana Ball World Tours have sold out all three years, the Coles and players understand that their presentation is not for everyone. Baseball purists have been critical of the clubs’ various viral pranks.
Emily adds that if they had listened to every single naysayer, they wouldn’t be called The Bananas, and they wouldn’t have Banana Bal. Jesse always says, ‘If you’re not being criticized, you’re playing it too safe.’
Kyle Luigs, 25, invites cynics to come observe before casting judgment.
He adds that he likes conventional baseball just as much as everyone else. He believes they’ve simply discovered a better way to get fans to the stadium. Give them a chance before you write them off.
Regardless of the critics, the teams and staff are having a great time playing their style of ball.
“We enjoy every bit of it,” says Party Animals coach and player, Mike Vavasis, 31. “It’s not even an act we put on. We are literally just out there having a good time. We all genuinely love hanging out with each other; it’s almost like a brotherhood, and we all just enjoy it every day.”
The team’s trip to Arizona was a huge success. Hundreds of fans are still on site over an hour after the game has ended, taking pictures, collecting autographs, and chatting enthusiastically with the players and staff. Triniti, a 12-year-old local who went with her softball team, rated the event five stars: “This game was so much fun!” she said. “Stilts is my favorite player.” Stilts are my favorite!”
Dakota “Stilts” Albritton is a former high school standout who now pitches, fields, and bats on stilts, making him 10 feet tall. Growing up in Ellaville, Georgia, he could never have imagined such an adventure.
“I come from a town of 1,500 people, with one stoplight,” he explains. “I met more people tonight than I did my entire childhood.”
Albritton, like his colleagues, enjoys connecting with fans, particularly the younger ones.
“I enjoy talking to and meeting the children.” “I want to give them the experience I would have wanted when I was their age,” he adds.
With Banana Nation’s rising momentum and sustained success, the Coles have great plans for the future. Last month, they founded Bananas Foster, a charity close to their hearts and families that is committed to honoring the foster care community, spreading awareness, and inspiring others to become involved.
Emily explains that they have a four-year-old biological son and two daughters in foster care. She enjoys talking about foster care, but it’s a taboo subject in society that few people discuss. Their objective with Bananas Foster is to show individuals that they’re just regular people who are foster parents and that they, too, can do it.
Aside from the foundation, there are plans to start their own Banana Ball league, theme cruises, and much more. The sky is the limit (as is their naive optimism). When asked to summarize their travels so far, Jesse says he takes time every day to enjoy the simple things.
He adds that he looks at their players and what they built, and he looks at their happiness. Then kids, grandparents, and individuals of all ages come up to thank him, and every night those moments occur, and he thinks to himself, ‘Wow, it’s so much bigger than baseball. We’re just getting started.’
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