Savannah Bananas fold collegiate team, focus on taking Banana Ball nationwide

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The Savannah Bananas announced today that they will discontinue their collegiate amateur summer league team and play their unique Banana Ball format year-round both in Savannah and around the country.

Starting in 2023, the Bananas professional players will play every game with the unorthodox rules of Banana Ball. Rules include a two-hour time limit, no stepping out of the batter's box, no bunting, no walks, and foul balls caught by fans are outs.

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The 2022 summer season which concluded on Aug. 5 with a championship celebration on the field at Grayson Stadium was the last the Bananas played in the Coastal Plain League, a wood-bat league for college players with 14 teams in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina.

Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole high-fives fans as they stream into Grayson Stadium for Banana Fest.
Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole high-fives fans as they stream into Grayson Stadium for Banana Fest.

The Bananas were members of the 26-year-old league since the team’s inception in 2016, and have won three Petitt Cup championships, in 2016 and back-to-back titles in 2021 and 2022. That's three of six eligible seasons, as there were no playoffs in 2020 during the COVID pandemic.

Why the change?

While the Bananas college team was able to play its brand of entertaining baseball at home games, it played straight-up baseball on the road in deference to the CPL home teams. That left Bananas fans who traveled to the road games disappointed that the experience wasn't what they were expecting.

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“The Coastal Plain League has been a great partner over the last seven years," Bananas Owner Jesse Cole said in a press release. "They’ve helped us develop great players and even better people who have made an impact in our community. We are truly grateful of their support with this next step for the Bananas and Banana Ball.”

Banana players celebrate after beating Morehead City to win the 2021 Coastal Plain League championship.
Banana players celebrate after beating Morehead City to win the 2021 Coastal Plain League championship.

The shift to a year-round Banana Ball schedule gives the team the opportunity to schedule more games both in Savannah and around the country, in order to accommodate more Bananas fans. With 80,000 fans on the Banana Ball waiting list for ticket requests, this gives the Bananas freedom to create a schedule to take care of as many fans as possible.

The Bananas roster will now be made up of all professional players including former Bananas and MLB players. Former major leaguers who have played include Cy Young Award and All-Star pitcher Jake Peavy and World Series champion Jonny Gomes, while Eric Byrnes, an 11-year big leaguer, is head coach in 2022. Legendary catcher Johnny Bench participated as a first base coach for a game in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The Premier Team will play its designated foil the Party Animals as well as other professional teams, both in Savannah and across the country.

Focus on the fans

“Since we arrived in Savannah in 2016, we’ve been relentlessly focused on creating a better fan experience and have been watching and listening to our fans every step of the way,” Cole said. “We believe this is the most fans-first decision we’ve ever made as a company.

"For the past seven seasons, even with sold-out crowds and non-stop promotions and entertainment, we watched as fans still left our games early. With Banana Ball, we saw that 98% of the fans stayed until the end of the game. This was groundbreaking for the game of baseball. But most importantly, we heard from the players and thousands of fans that this was the most fun they had playing and watching baseball.”

Banana Ball was played for the first time as an exhibition game in 2018 where a nine-inning game was completed in 99 minutes. In 2020, the Bananas played Banana Ball in Savannah in front of Bananas fans before taking the game on the road for the first time in 2021 for a "One City World Tour." Both games at Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, were sold out, like the sellouts at all Bananas home games since midway through the inaugual season of 2016 through this summer.

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This past spring, the Bananas traveled to six cities on the “Banana Ball World Tour” and sold out every game. The tour was captured as an ESPN+ original series “Bananaland” that premiered on Aug. 19 on ESPN2. The five-part docuseries takes fans behind the scenes of the Banana Ball tour and airs every Friday on ESPN+ through Sept. 16.

During the tour, the Bananas played two games against the American Association defending champion, the Kansas City Monarchs, in front of record crowds at Legends Field.

What to expect

In addition to the Party Animals, the Bananas will play other professional teams from the top independent leagues in the country. Fans can expect more of these challenger games to be played year-round in both Savannah and on the road.

The Savannah Bananas celebrate with the Petitt Cup after beating the Wilson Tobs on Friday August 5, 2022 to repeat as CPL champions.
The Savannah Bananas celebrate with the Petitt Cup after beating the Wilson Tobs on Friday August 5, 2022 to repeat as CPL champions.

“We will be bringing the highest level of talent to the Bananas both with baseball and entertainment," said Tyler Gillum, who has served as head coach of the Bananas collegiate team for five seasons, including CPL Coach of the Year awards for the past two championship seasons. “We now have the freedom to sign any player from all over the world, which will bring new excitement to Bananaland.”

Cole said announcements on the coaching staff will come Thursday. The 2023 World Tour and schedule will be released the first week of October. The Bananas will visit over 20 cities and the tour will start in February and run through September.

Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at ndominitz@savannahnow.com. Twitter: @NathanDominitz

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Bananas fold collegiate team to focus on Banana Ball