SAVANNAH, Ga. – Savannah's exhibition baseball team Banana Ball started as an idea, perhaps a crazy idea, to make baseball games more fun and more action-packed in a two-hour time limit.
The Savannah Bananas' unconventional version of the game later became a "One City World Tour" in Mobile, Alabama, in 2021 and then a regional tour of seven cities in 2022 in the Southeast and Kansas City while keeping home base at Savannah's Grayson Stadium.
The Bananas went viral, packing stadiums and attracting millions of followers on social media both within and beyond America's borders with their wacky antics before, during and after games.
They even were the stars of their own documentary series "Bananaland" in August and September on the ESPN+ streaming service, with live games also shown on ESPN2.
They decided to go bigger, much bigger next year.
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On Tuesday night, the organization revealed its 2023 Banana Ball World Tour schedule with 70 games in 33 cities in 21 states across the country – including 30 games in Savannah – between Feb. 17 and Sept. 16.
"We're coast to coast," said team owner Jesse Cole on Tuesday, acknowledging the national tour isn't worldwide quite yet. "We called it a world tour since Day 1 because we're naming it for where we're going, not for what we're doing right now."
The organization had on Aug. 24 announced that it was all in on the Savannah Bananas Premier Team, a professional traveling squad to play exhibitions of Banana Ball — most often against designated foil the Party Animals but also other challengers from independent pro minor leagues and international teams, Cole said.
The original Bananas, a collegiate summer league amateur team, existed from 2016-22 and won the Coastal Plain League championship in 2016, '21 and '22.
The Premier Team, a roster of former college and pro standouts with a sprinkling of former Major League Baseball players, will play a super-sized schedule in 2023.
Among the highlights:
Games in Triple-A cities including Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Sacramento, Syracuse, Nashville, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas.
The schedule concludes Sept. 16 at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York, on a collaborative effort with the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, the Bananas and Party Animals will make it to Cooperstown.
Games in MLB spring training homes in West Palm Beach, Florida (Washington Nationals and Houston Astros); Tampa, Florida (New York Yankees); Scottsdale, Arizona (San Francisco Giants); and Peoria, Arizona (Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres).
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The Bananas won't be playing games in major league ballparks, at least not in 2023. Cole said that several teams, including the Boston Red Sox, have expressed interest, and he visited Fenway Park last week.
"I think we both came to the agreement for 2023 there's too much to overcome. It's a big venture (at Fenway Park)," he said.
Cole said there's a very strong possibility the Bananas will play in big league parks in 2024. He wants to put on the best show possible, and the biggest stages will take more preparation.
"We know to put on the event we want to do, it takes a year-plus to plan at a major league park," Cole said. "When you're talking 35,000 to 40,000 people, plus everything we do pregame with the march around the stadium, there are so many logistics.
"The planning process is almost starting now to see if we can make it happen for 2024," he added.
The selection process for the 2023 slate left out at least 50 cities that had shown interest through their teams, city governments and tourism officials, he said. They also were contacted by potential suitors in Canada and Mexico.
Criteria included stadium size of at least 4,000 (like Grayson) and the capacity to handle a potential full house in customer-service aspects such as concessions, restrooms and parking. That's where Triple-A stadiums and their host cities have advantages.
The organization also is interested in expanding across America, and some areas just couldn't be worked out for 2023 but will be considered in the future. They did lock in the West Coast with four cities in California.
"I think the No. 1 thing we look for is a real interest and desire to have us," Cole said. with that, that gets you in the door."
The party travels by bus, plane
The Bananas' traveling party, whether by bus or plane, will include more than 100 players, coaches, staff, the pep band and a cast of characters including a princess, a breakdancing first base coach, a dancing umpire, the Banana Nanas senior dance team and the Man Nanas Dad Bod Cheerleading Squad.
"We are so focused on creating fans and playing the long game," Cole said. "We know our costs are going to be extravagent. Our costs are going to be through the roof. But if we create fans and sell out ballparks, and get 10,000, 15,000, we believe creating a long-term fan is valuable in what we're trying to do."
Cole concentrates more on the fan experience and leaves the bookkeeping to his administrative staff, beginning with team president Jared Orton.
"When you play the long game," Cole said, "if you don't make a lot of money but create a lot of fans and create an experience, everything takes care of itself. I've preached that since Day 1."
Cole said while there is a nucleus of players committed to the Premier Team and Party Animals, an invitation-only tryout is planned for November. Cole said hundreds of players, including former major leaguers, have contacted the organization.
Former MLB All-Star pitcher Bill Lee was a Bananas regular at age 75 in 2022 and plans to be back next year. Much-more recent big leaguers making guest appearances were Jonny Gomes, Jake Peavy, Jonathan Papelbon and former South Effingham High School star Josh Reddick, a longtime supporter of the Bananas. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench also participated as a first-base coach in West Palm Beach last spring.
Cole said to expect more appearances by former big leaguers with the team, which is co-managed by 11-year MLB player Eric Byrnes.
There will be only one practitioner of Banana Ball, unlike, for example, the multiple international touring squads of the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Bananas look to keep expanding for years beyond 2023, returning to some cities and visiting new ones with no end date in sight.
"We're creating fans, we're having fun. So the more people we can bring to it, the better," Cole said. "There are millions of fans out there."
The team's first 2023 game is Feb 17, in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Follow Nathan Dominitz on Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Bananas baseball announce Banana Ball World Tour 2023