Justin Sellers wants his teams to be as competitive as any other collegiate summer baseball league in the country.
The commissioner of the Coastal Plain League wants the best talent playing before engaged fans in great, entertaining atmospheres at packed stadiums.
"I want the best of both worlds," said Sellers, also the CPL's chief operating officer.
In short, he wants what the league had in the Savannah Bananas.
The Savannah organization announced Wednesday that after seven seasons in the CPL, it has folded its highly successful, original amateur team to focus year-round on its newer professional travel team that plays "Banana Ball."
More about the decision: Savannah Bananas fold collegiate team, focus on taking Banana Ball nationwide
This unorthodox version of the sport has in 2022 helped make the Bananas a phenomenon covered by national media and a force on social media, including 3.1 million followers on TikTok. Playing by their own rules, the Savannah Bananas Premier Team and foil the Party Animals have the freedom to turn the traditional game on its head.
"We can't play Banana Ball. We have to play traditional baseball," Sellers said Thursday. "Certainly we would have loved to continue the Savannah Bananas CPL team and continue to do what we do and develop the players that we've developed over the years. You try to work out the best outcome overall. We're accepting of what their decision is and wish them the best with it."
The Bananas had been part of the CPL since their inaugural season as an expansion team in 2016, winning the league championship that summer as well as back-to-back titles in 2021 and 2022. That's three crowns in six seasons. (There were no playoffs in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.)
That success on the field was mirrored by their perch atop the league attendance standings. The Bananas' brand of baseball blended with wild antics and crowd-pleasing interaction before, during and after games led to sellouts at Grayson Stadium every game since that debut campaign.
"They're the only one in the entire country to sell out the whole season (in 2022). Give them kudos," said Sellers, noting the 14 league teams combined for 96 sellouts, including 24 by the Bananas.
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Savannah averaged 4,256 fans in 24 dates for 102,133 in total attendance. The rival Macon Bacon — the only other Georgia ballclub in a league also represented in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — was closest with a 2,376 average and 64,143 total.
"Savannah's been very good to us. We appreciate all the fans down there," said Sellers, who would like the league to grow to 16 to 20 teams, including more ballclubs in Georgia, in the next five years. "We will miss Savannah being part of the Coastal Plain League."
Sellers has worked in the league for 21 of its 26 years and is a longtime associate of Bananas owner Jesse Cole, who in the past 15 years rose from an intern to general manager and owner of the former Gastonia (N.C.) Grizzlies ballclub, to his current title of owner of the Bananas.
"We have a lot of history with him," Sellers said.
Cole said Wednesday that folding the CPL franchise was neither an easy nor quick decision but one that was necessary to expand the schedule of Banana Ball games starting in 2023 from February to September to meet demand from fans. The team said there's a waiting list of 80,000 for ticket requests.
"We've had a great relationship with the CPL. They've been tremendously supportive since we started," Cole said Wednesday. "They helped us launch. Obviously, the success we've had has been because of their ability to give us a lot of unique freedoms in the game to have fun and do what we do."
The league helped nurture the Bananas, Sellers said, as they experimented with new, sometimes daring and over-the-top in-game promotions, marketing strategies, baseball etiquette — their total approach to their fans' experience at the ballpark and online as an entertainment producer.
"You have to have a league that was willing to not be a cookie-cutter approach with all of its teams but be flexible based on the market," Sellers said. "I think we accomplished that with them as well as some of our other teams."
Making room for Banana Ball
The addition and growing popularity of Banana Ball became a game changer in the dynamic, as the Savannah Bananas Premier Team made its debut in spring 2021 and ramped up its schedule in spring 2022.
Fans unable to attend Banana Ball exhibition contests or the collegiate team's league games at Grayson Stadium — where their antics were somewhat tempered from what the pro team can do — flocked to road games in the CPL.
While good for their opponents' gate numbers, the Savannah Bananas took heat from fans confused, disappointed and sometimes angered by the absence of the wacky show they had heard about or seen in viral videos online.
The Bananas explained on their website the differences between the collegiate league and Banana Ball games, and specified on their schedule details of each contest.
The collegiate team cannot bring the full Bananas show on the road, as it cannot supersede the home team's presentation and in-game promotions. The college kids played straight-up baseball with little of the flair of home games, and that was a problem for the Bananas organization.
"That created a problem for us because we can't play Banana Ball," said Sellers, explaining the league's obligation to college players and coaches as a developmental wood-bat league and showcase for professional scouts. "I can't convince a DI coach to send four guys to that team or to the league to play a sport that is not a college sport."
The commissioner said in terms of financial obligations, the Bananas have paid the same annual dues (which he declined to disclose) as the other league franchises, regardless of market. He also said, "The league doesn't take any cut of anybody's revenues."
Legitimate baseball team
Sellers would have liked Savannah to maintain both amateur and pro teams as it did the past two years, when the college squad showed skeptics they weren't "a circus" and excelled at baseball in a legitimate league, he said.
Instead, the Bananas opted to shut down the amateur club and open up the calendar, including the peak summer months, for Banana Ball games at Grayson Stadium and 20-plus cities on tour. The 2023 schedule is planned for an October release.
The team announced Thursday that Tyler Gillum, the two-time reigning CPL Coach of the Year with five seasons with the collegians under his belt, will be one of three head coaches of the Banana Ball squad. Gillum joins current Premier Team head coach Eric Byrnes, a former MLB player, and Adam Virant, who has coached Banana Ball games since 2021, including as head coach of the Party Animals.
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NathanDominitz
CPL attendance figures
Savannah: 102,133 / 24 / 4,256
Macon: 64,143 / 27 / 2,376
Peninsula: 51,137 / 24 / 2,131
Wilmington: 41,315 / 30 / 1,377
Lexington County: 38,875 / 29 / 1,341
Florence: 25,632 / 21 / 1,221
Wilson: 32,295 / 27 / 1,196
Morehead City: 29,007 / 25 / 1,160
Holly Springs: 34,649 / 33 / 1,050
Tri-City: 27,306 / 28 / 975
Martinsville: 20,317 / 26 / 781
High Point-Thomasville: 18,652 / 27 / 691
Forest City: 14,238 / 25 / 570
Asheboro: 13,694 / 26 / 527
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Bananas fold collegiate summer coastal plain league team