The Savannah Bananas are the toast of national media — featured in newspaper and magazine articles, on broadcast and syndicated television programs, on basic and premium cable and on internet sites.
A book is in the works from Don Yaeger, a longtime associate editor for Sports Illustrated and 11-time New York Times best-selling author.
As for the actual New York Times, it detoured from a general overview of the Bananas’ mashup of entertainment and baseball. Instead, the focus was on its dancers in many forms: hip-hop first-base coach, ballet-trained coach, twerking umpire, 65-and-over Banana Nanas dance team, players attempting TikTok dance challenges during games.
“How does a dance writer from the Northeast end up fixed on a collegiate summer league baseball team from Savannah, Ga.?” wrote Margaret Fuhrer as the opening sentence of her New York Times article published online May 31.
The Bananas are seemingly everywhere in media, the Samuel L. Jacksons of baseball.
“You get to tell a nice, layered, textured story,” Mary Carillo, correspondent for the Bananas segment on the May 24 episode of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” said in a phone interview. “This is a fun, summertime story. This is a bowl of ice cream.
“Some of the Real Sports stories are investigative pieces,” she continued. “There are all kinds of storytelling you can tell on the show like this. This is a profile of a very popular and entertaining idea that’s become reality. I did not pitch this story but I’m so glad it got pitched to me because I said yes right away.”
The Bananas are the stars of the show at Grayson Stadium, and soon to be the protagonists of a show within the show, a documentary series called “Bananaland” about the unorthodox Banana Ball exhibition games last spring. The six-part series is expected to stream on ESPN+ beginning on Aug. 19.
ESPN+ gave subscribers an advanced look by live streaming Banana Ball games April 8-9 in Savannah between the Bananas Premier Team and its foil, the Party Animals.
But the Bananas weren’t always so popular with network executives. This despite selling out Grayson Stadium for collegiate wood-bat league games featuring relatively unknown players (known to their relatives) in the hottest months in Savannah. Think about that.
Go back to 2018 BBB (Before Banana Ball) when local media outlets regularly — and a smattering of national journalists on occasion — covered the Bananas’ brand of entertainment-driven, fan-interactive games.
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Team owners Jesse and Emily Cole of Fans First Entertainment had brought an expansion franchise in the Coastal Plain League to Savannah in 2016, and the team of college kids won the championship in the first season. That’s a nice story, especially given the previous tenant, the professional Savannah Sand Gnats of the Class A South Atlantic League, had moved following the 2015 season to Columbia, South Carolina.
The popular collegiate team sold out most of its 2016 home games and started a streak that continues to this day. By 2018, the team was getting contacted by TV production companies, Jesse Cole said. He signed on for a TV show on speculation that a network somewhere would buy it.
“Then we proceeded to get rejection after rejection after rejection,” Cole recalled recently. “I bet we received realistically over 100 total rejections.”
The production companies made their pitches, but they were the ones striking out.
“It was four years of rejections until finally ESPN said yes,” Cole said of the “Bananaland” series. “At first they said this is something we’d never do. This is just a long shot to make happen. And then they said yes.”
ESPN had dabbled with the Bananas in 2021 when director/producer David Beilinson and his team from Rumur Inc., an independent film studio, had put together a 7-minute feature for SportsCenter called “The Ripe Stuff” that aired Aug. 21.
The feature got strong response online. Beilinson has created documentaries for ESPN’s “30 for 30” anthology series and the SEC Network as well as many films not related to sports. He thought there was more going on with the Bananas and their enthusiastic, enterprising leader, whose energy seems boundless.
“You know Jesse doesn’t drink coffee, but when coffee wakes up it has a cup of Jesse,” Beilinson said.
He was intrigued by the Bananas’ creative process and execution of its unusual Banana Ball show, which in the spring hit the road to six other cities. Beilinson likened it to chronicling a rock band, which he has done.
A film crew of up to 17 people — including some with NFL and MLB game experience — covered all aspects, from the Feb. 26 tryout to the last games May 6-7 in Kansas City. By mid-April there was well over 100 hours of footage — game-day action, interviews, behind the scenes, etc. — for six 30-minute episodes.
“I’m seeing them everywhere,” Vincent Chapman, the dancing umpire whom the organization flies in from Texarkana, Texas, said before a game. “I think it’s whatever goes. They might do a lot of editing because these guys are crazy. They have a lot of fun.”
Players such as infielder Sam Claycamp and pitcher Matt Solter, who suited up for the Party Animals this spring, said they quickly got used to the ever-present camera crew recording their daily actions.
“I think early in the series you find yourself trying to create content,” Claycamp said, “and then as time goes on, you realize if you just have a good time and have some fun, the content creates itself. That’s the most fun and the best moments, anyway.”
Asked if there was anything he was told to keep out of camera range, Beilinson said in March, “We haven’t seen it yet. This is as close as you can get to all access. Thus far nothing is off limits.”
Head over heels with Savannah Bananas break dancing first base coach Maceo Harrison
From Bananas mascot to dancing first base coach Maceo Harrison loves to entertain and teach people how to dance.
Richard Burkhart, Savannah Morning News
That checks out, considering the Bananas’ broadcast entertainer, Biko Skalla, has conducted interviews in a restroom stall, a shower, a bathtub, while wrestling and from inside a postgame spread of burgers.
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That experimental approach may have rubbed off on the veteran filmmaker.
“You know Jesse’s mantra is whatever’s normal, do the opposite,” Beilinson said. “And so we’ve tried to integrate the Bananas’ philosophy and approach to our own production to kind of be able to fit in and also, honestly, take what he’s saying as an opportunity to try new things.”
The roll call of media with stories on the Bananas is lengthy, including USA Today, Arizona Republic, Boston Globe, espn.com, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, NBC’s Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, Fox Sports, ESPN SportsCenter, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and Access Hollywood.
That wasn’t the goal, Cole said. The focus was on the product, not the attention it could bring. You might have heard this before: The fans come first.
“You can’t have a strategy to get national attention. That’s not a strategy,” Cole said. “Our strategy was let’s do the most outrageous, fun things we can do on a baseball field and build our fans. Everything is about creating fans.
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“If we do things on the field people have never seen before, people might say, ‘These guys are interesting, this is fun, this is different. This is not like every other baseball team.’ We wanted to differentiate ourselves first.”
Momentum is built from a connecting circle starting with the nightly show. Have a great show, capture it on video, share it on social media, increase awareness and attendance, sell more merchandise, which drives fans to social media, and more demand for tickets, and a better show.
“We focus on the one control point, to make the best show possible every single night and capture it and share it with our fans,” Cole said. “Then everything else takes care of itself.”
The media has taken notice of something popular, different, even special, going on in Savannah. Kris Van Cleave, a correspondent for CBS News, came to Savannah to produce a piece on the Bananas for “CBS Sunday Morning” which was later shown on other broadcasts.
“It’s still baseball but it’s baseball like you’ve never seen,” Van Cleave said. “That’s a great story for Sunday Morning because everybody knows baseball; it’s our national pastime. I think baseball purists take baseball so seriously, and this is putting it on its head. But it’s still baseball and it’s still fun and it’s viral and it’s different .”
Carillo of HBO Sports noted the multigenerational demographics at the games, from small children to grandparents, “something for everybody.”
“It’s a rollicking story. It’s a fun story to tell,” said Carillo, who thinks it will be hard for anyone to watch the segment and not smile. “I sure did a lot of smiling in that whole thing.”
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NathanDominitz