Savannah Bananas players prepare for summer season with 'craziness' of Banana Ball game
Somewhere in the mix — with the singing and dancing and toddlers racing toy shopping carts — the Savannah Bananas players were getting tuned up for a new baseball season.
The occasion was Tuesday night at Grayson Stadium for the annual Banana Fest preseason celebration with fans — and a first. The Bananas, a team of college players in the Coastal Plain League, played an exhibition game of "Banana Ball" against the Bananas Premier Team — a touring squad of professionals that have mastered the unorthodox format.
"I was kind of worried like, 'Hey, how are they going to do it?' They've been here for 48 hours and they've never seen Banana Ball being played before," said Tyler Gillum, in his fifth season as the CPL franchise's head coach. "They played a good Banana Ball game right there."
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The Bananas will return to the nine-inning traditional format for games in the CPL — a collegiate summer league with 14 teams in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The defending champion after capturing the franchise's second title following a 40-10 mark in the 2021 regular season, Savannah opens at home Thursday at 7 p.m. against the Florence (S.C.) Flamingos, followed by another home game at 7 p.m. Saturday against in-state rival the Macon Bacon.
All 24 home games are sold out.
Gillum, the 2021 CPL Coach of the Year, is buoyed by the early performance of his squad on Tuesday.
"It'll look different this year because we've got a lot of new faces, but they've killed it," he said. "They got thrown into the fire. They've been here for 48 hours and they handled all this craziness and they did a great job."
The craziness includes non-stop music and entertainment like little kids racing shopping carts before, during and after games. On Tuesday, the team set "world records" for longest throw of a banana (the fruit) — 222 feet by Premier Team pitcher Kyle Luigs — and most people (1,968) simultaneously wearing full banana costumes.
The college team's roster this week is stocked with temporary players as other signees are unavailable while their college seasons continue. One of the veterans is second-year outfielder Ty Jackson.
"I'm still learning," said Jackson, 20, who played at East Georgia College and is enrolled at Florida A&M for the fall. "I'm trying to pass on some of the stuff. You know they can play baseball because they're here, but also the entertainment side. I tell them, 'be big, have fun and just bring a lot of energy.' "
The Premier Team, with several former Bananas CPL players, has taken it to another level with the spring series of games in Savannah and six other cities from March to May.
The Banana Ball version, which has a two-hour time limit and rules to speed up play and increase action and dramatic situations, has garnered national media attention. A film crew from "CBS Sunday Morning" was chronicling the scene Tuesday at Grayson Stadium, with the segment possibly airing in July.
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The national popularity of the Savannah Bananas — who have a strong social media presence, including 2.5 million followers on TikTok — has resulted in a waiting list of 40,000 for tickets to home games, team co-owner Jesse Cole said.
Kings of the road in Coastal Plain League
Gillum said after Banana Fest, which packed about 4,500 people from 31 different states into Grayson Stadium, that the Bananas college team is a draw on the road at CPL stadiums.
"It's going to be kind of crazy right now," Gillum said. "All of our road games are selling out, so everybody is excited to come see us."
That fan excitement could turn to disappointment, as the Bananas show doesn't play on the road. Home teams operate games in their style, and their guests will be playing straight-up baseball in their familiar yellow jerseys. This difference between home and road games has been the case since the Bananas started in 2016 and won their first league championship.
Gillum doesn't even wear his trademark cowboy boots for road games.
"The show has been all about Savannah until Banana Ball came and the World Tour came and we took the show on the road," Gillum said. "Now it's CPL, we're going to these other fields and playing. It's their stadium. So that's the confusion part of it. People don't understand it's not Banana Ball and it's not our show that's going on the road."
Meanwhile, the show will go on at Grayson Stadium. After the CPL season, Banana Ball is back with the Premier Team versus foil the Party Animals at 7 p.m. on Aug. 19-20, Aug. 26-27 and Sept. 2-3. All games are sold out.
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Bananas baseball team plays ball game at Grayson Stadium