Savannah Bananas owners pledge 30-plus home games at Grayson Stadium in 2023

Savannah Bananas co-owners Jesse and Emily Cole have heard grumbling from some fans of the baseball team and want to be clear about its future.

There will be more than 30 games at Grayson Stadium in 2023, and the Savannah Bananas Premier Team also will travel for additional games of "Banana Ball" across the country from February into September, they said. The full schedule is planned for release the first week of this October.

"Savannah's our home," Jesse Cole said Tuesday. "We've built such a loyal and amazing fan base. Over 80% of our fans that come to every game are locals, so we want to make sure we take care of them. So we will continue to have over 30 games in Savannah."

Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole keeps the crowd pumped up during a rain delay.
Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole keeps the crowd pumped up during a rain delay.

There have been questions about the direction of the organization and how often it would play in Savannah since it announced Aug. 24 that it was putting its focus totally on the wildly popular "Banana Ball" exhibition games and cleared its 2023 calendar to add flexibility to a year-round schedule.

The organization folded the original Savannah Bananas, a collegiate summer league squad that won three championships as a member of the Coastal Plain League from 2016-22. The CPL annually scheduled 24 home games for the amateur squad from the end of May to the end of July, plus potential playoffs in early August.

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The organization in 2021 added a second team, a professional travel squad, and its designated rival the Party Animals, to play a competitive, unscripted but unorthodox version of traditional baseball in exhibitions bookending the CPL's summer schedule. Banana Ball games are not bound by CPL rules but have their own designed to speed up play and increase action and dramatic situations.

The two squads, pro and amateur, coexisted, and the organization tried to avoid fans' confusion about games with a detailed schedule. There currently are 10 Banana Ball games at Grayson Stadium for all of 2022.

While all Bananas-related games have been sold out since the 2016 season at 4,000-plus Grayson Stadium, Banana Ball is increasingly in demand, gaining national media attention and social media clips going viral with millions of views. The waiting list for ticket requests numbers over 80,000, the team said.

Jesse Cole said that while the 2023 schedule is not yet final, he doesn't look at the percentage of home and road dates. He does want to provide more chances for people to see the team play.

"I think we'll have the opportunity to take care of more local fans because of the freedom in the schedule," he said. "Obviously, we're going to continue to go on the road and travel there because of the demand as well."

Pitcher/infielder Mat Wolf (4, in blue suspenders and baggy pants), dances in a kick line with teammates on the Savannah Bananas Premier Team before a game against the Party Animals on March 12, 2022 at Grayson Stadium. Also pictured, from left, right-handed pitcher Collin Ledbetter (23), outfielder/LHP William Kwasigroh (14) infielder Stephen Felton (5), right-handed pitchers Alex Pierce (26) and Aderlyn Silverio (8) and RHP/utility Dakota "Stilts" Albritton (14).

The Bananas in 2023 could square off at home against the Party Animals — a similar roster of players with college and some pro experience — as well as play individual games and tournaments featuring professional teams traveling to Savannah.

The organization is under contract to operate the city of Savannah-owned Grayson Stadium year-round and can set the dates. The Savannah City Council approved the most recent lease agreement for five years starting Oct. 1, 2020, with the Bananas having an option for five more.

Cole said there's a shared goal with the city to commemorate the 100th year of Grayson Stadium in 2026 by doing more than maintenance. Expanding seating capacity is complicated by "challenges with parking and with the overall infrastructure of the area," he said. "There will be renovations in the years to come."

Major aspirations

After hitting the road for one city in 2021 and six this spring, the Bananas are primed for more barnstorming.

"We've heard from over 150 cities at this point," Jesse Cole said. "Major league teams, numerous Triple-A ballparks, pretty much every area of the country had reached out, excited to try to bring us to their communities."

While Banana Ball games in MLB ballparks would be a major coup for the organization, Cole said he is pushing proposed dates from 2023 to '24.

"I want to make sure that we build up to it," he said. "I want to make sure we do it right and it's one of the most successful nights in history."

Adding games in cooler months

There has been positive feedback from fans as well.

"The great thing that we've heard and people are excited about is it's spread out, not just in the hottest months of the year," Cole said. "There will be games in the spring and September where we can spread it out. We're coming back to Savannah continually, so every month there will be games in Savannah."

Emily Cole, in a letter posted in the Savannah Bananas Members private Facebook group, attempted to answer their questions and concerns. She referenced some recent history by pointing out that the idea in 2015 of a collegiate team replacing the departed professional minor league team, the Single-A Sand Gnats, was not warmly received by all.

Neither was the name Bananas, which caused a loud outcry of dissent. Yet the organization stuck to its plan and the collegiate team was a success come the summer of 2016. It would be hard now to imagine the ballclub named anything but Bananas. The moniker fits the crazy antics, constant energy and entertainment-centric experience for fans before, during and after games.

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She also addressed criticism that the organization was "doing it for more money." To the contrary, she explained, Banana Ball games with a two-hour time limit are markedly shorter than typical CPL games, meaning less time for fans at the ballpark to purchase merchandise and individually sold food and beverage items.

In addition, CPL players were not paid (per NCAA rules), while Banana Ball players are compensated as pros. The organization also phased out advertising at the ballpark, such on the outfield walls, before the 2020 season as part of its fans-first philosophy.

"Doing it for more money simply isn’t true," she wrote. "It’s never been about money for us and never will be."

Savannah Bananas players run through the stands and high-five fans after scoring the first run of the game during the CPL championship game on Aug. 5, 2022 at Grayson Stadium.
Savannah Bananas players run through the stands and high-five fans after scoring the first run of the game during the CPL championship game on Aug. 5, 2022 at Grayson Stadium.

Emily Cole addressed player development in noting the collegiate team had a franchise-high 11 current and former players sign minor-league professional contracts this summer. The Banana Ball Premier Team had 14 players sign with pro franchises, she said.

She added that the Bananas are reaching out to the NCAA to see if current college players could play Banana Ball in the summers without losing eligibility. It's already the case that college players who have exhausted their eligibility are able to play for the team.

"We have hundreds of players, both college and pro, reaching out wanting the Bananas Premier Team to be their next step up in the game." she wrote. "We have continually heard from players that they want to get back to having fun while playing a sport they love and many of our ideas come straight from the team."

Big leaguers going Bananas

It's not just any pros wanting a taste of Banana Ball. Former major leaguers have made appearances, from 75-year-old Bill Lee as a full-time rostered pitcher to head coach Eric Byrnes to a handful of games for World Series champions Jonny Gomes and Jake Peavy. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench served as first base coach and spent time with the players in the dugout at the April tour stop in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The latest example was a well-known local product who made it all the way to the big leagues and won a World Series with the Houston Astros. Josh Reddick, 35, a South Effingham High School alumnus, made a surprise appearance and a major impact in Saturday's contest. The right fielder's diving catch made ESPN SportsCenter's nightly list of top plays, and he also slugged a walk-off home run.

Jesse Cole said "just stay tuned" when asked about more MLB alumni wearing Banana uniforms, adding it "will be coming sooner than later." He said Reddick wouldn't have been able to play for the collegiate team but can for the Premier Team.

"We're going to have that opportunity with a lot of players," he said, mentioning soldout games this Friday and Saturday. "As soon as this weekend, there will be more guys joining us. I would say pretty much year-round we'll see guys coming into Savannah and all over the country that you couldn't believe could be playing right in front of you."

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

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: More Banana Ball: Savannah Bananas pledge 30 or more home games in 2023