Savannah Bananas, A Whole New Ballgame
The man who added pyrotechnics to Comiskey Park, let the White Sox play in shorts and spearheaded the infamous Disco Demolition Night would no doubt be looking down on the modern state of baseball in the south with joy.
With teams like the Birmingham Biscuits, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and our own Savannah Bananas, the south is pioneering a new type of baseball. One that holds fast to the traditions of the game, but recognizes that modern audiences need a little bit to hold their interest. One that knows if you’re going to pry eyeballs away from smart phones, you need to up the ante a little – you need to package the game of baseball as family entertainment.
And that can take many forms. Sometimes it’s choreographed dance numbers featuring the players. Sometimes it’s the transformation of an entire stadium into something resembling a theme park. Sometimes, it can be as simple as inviting younger fans out to read a book in the outfield.
Whatever this new type of baseball looks like in your town, it’s clear that it’s a whole new ballgame down south.
And we have to believe that Veeck, who famously said he didn’t like to break rules but rather “test their elasticity” would approve.
"He was so ahead of his time in thinking outside the box and creating promotions for people that weren’t just baseball fans. "
Cole should know. His unique screwball approach to baseball owes much to Veeck’s example. The Bananas have made the weird, bizarre and absurd as much a part of the game at Historic Grayson Stadium as the seventh inning stretch. Races featuring spectators in banana costumes, Elvis impersonators, guys in negligees dusting off the bases… that which can happen at a Bananas game will happen.
“If it’s normal we like to do the exact opposite – that’s how we do things,” said Cole.
In Savannah, he’s seen it pay off huge. All but a handful of the Banana’s first-year games were played before sellout crowds, with tickets sometimes going for triple their face-value online.
Rounding the Bases
This madcap approach to the game is something Cole perfected as owner of the Gastonia Grizzlies. While the Bananas definitely have their own approach, in Gastonia Cole made the game the centerpiece of an entire entertainment experience. The Grizzlies’ new stadium, to hear Cole describe it, doesn’t sound so much like a ballfield as a three-ring circus.
“Imagine Epcot – that’s how we’re imagining this ballpark. Like how Epcot has the lake with all the countries around it, this will be set up with a bunch of different crazy neighborhoods,” said Cole.
Just how crazy? Cole can’t get into specifics yet, but suffice it to say if you’ve ever wanted to zipline across a baseball diamond, you may have your chance. “Literally you can come to the ballpark and do something completely different every time.”
What’s in a Name?
Of course, the one thing the Savannah Bananas have that the Grizzlies don’t is that name. The Savannah Bananas, chosen by popular vote, rolls off the tongue and places our hometown team among a pantheon of minor league baseball teams with insane team names.
In the Bananas’ division alone you have teams like the HiToms (a name chosen as a portmanteau of High Point and Thomasville, and not because some guy named Tom walked by while they were naming the team) and the Lexington County Blowfish (named after – and we are not making this up – ’90s rock band Hootie and the Blowfish). Zoom out to the rest of the Coastal Plain League and you have the Holly Springs Salamanders and the Wilson Tobs (mascot: a tobacco slug, because that’s how you keep kids from smoking).
Look around minor league ball in the south and you’ll find teams like the Richmond Flying Squirrels, as well as the aforementioned Birmingham Biscuits and the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
But then, that last one is actually not as wacky as you might think. According to GM Harold Craw, the name is a reference not only to the River City’s thriving shrimp industry, it’s also a sly reference to Jacksonville’s incongruous nature as a big city with a small-town vibe.
“We just wanted to do something unique and different that speaks to family fun,” said Craw. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We just want people to come with a smile and leave with a smile.”
If the Bananas changed the game through pure insanity, The Jumbo Shrimp took a different approach that places the emphasis on delivering an experience for the entire family.