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Tuesday July 5th, 2022 2:00AM

Column: Are Savannah Bananas the cure for baseball's ills?

By The Associated Press
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — More than 90 minutes before the first pitch, it's already clear this isn't just any ol' baseball game.

The crowd queued up outside the main gate slowly begins to part, clearing the way for a pep band to guide the home team — adorned in bright yellow uniforms — through a rollicking, high-fiving gauntlet.

Once the players reach the concourse outside historic Grayson Stadium, they break into a hastily choreographed dance routine accompanied by the tune “Hey! Baby."

Welcome to Banana Land, home to baseball's most outrageous — and entertaining — team.

The Savannah Bananas.

When you're done chuckling about that nickname, we'll get to a more serious issue: This amateur team in the little-known Coastal Plain League could be at least part of the cure for what ails the national pastime.

“You guys ready to have some fun?” Bananas owner Jesse Cole, decked out in yellow from head to toe, asked a group of fans on their way into the ballpark for a recent game. “Enjoy the show.”

What a show it is!

There's the Banana Baby, an infant who is presented to the crowd like Simba in the “The Lion King," lifted toward the sky by a parent while the entire team kneels in reverence around home plate.

There's the Banana ’Nanas, the senior citizen dance team.

There's Maceo, a choreographer who doubles as the team's breakdancing coach (his tortured convulsions in the first-base box to Miley Cyrus' “Wrecking Ball” were a personal favorite).

There's strutting, preening walks to the plate by the Savannah hitters, a breach of baseball etiquette that would draw an immediate beaning in the big leagues but is an accepted part of the show in Banana Land.

There's the players strolling through the stands between almost every half-inning — doling out roses, tossing T-shirts and hopping on top of the dugout to lead the crowd in song.

Oh yeah, there's also a real-life baseball game amid all the shenanigans. (The Bananas, for what it's worth, went into the weekend with the league's best record at 12-4).

“I am so excited,” said Frances Squyres, who traveled from Los Angeles to attend her first Bananas game. “It looks like just one big party — that also has baseball going on."

With apologies to Shohei Ohtani, Bryce Harper and the World Series-winning Atlanta Braves, the Bananas might just be the baseball’s most compelling story.

That's no laughing matter.

Sure, some of the more over-the-top skits might be a bit much for the big leagues, and it's hard to envision a way for stars such as Ohtani or Harper to have the sort of up-close interactions that are possible in a college summer league.

But there are surely some lessons to be gleaned from a team that is bucking the trend of baseball struggling to attract new fans and having so many young people view it as an out-of-touch relic favored by their grandparents.

“I definitely think if this was put on in MLB, it would help the game grow,” said Jestin Jones, a right-hander pitcher who plays collegiately at St. Leo. “This little town of Savannah, there's more people coming here almost than to MLB games."

Indeed, Savannah has sold out every game at ancient Grayson Stadium since its founding in 2016, when it joined a league that essentially allows college players to stay in shape during their offseason.

The Bananas’ antics have brought nationwide attention, fans pouring in from more than 30 states (and even other countries) on any given night, and a waiting list for tickets that Cole claims has reached 50,000.

“We're not in the baseball business. We're in the entertainment business,” Cole said from beneath his yellow bowler hat, which goes well with his yellow tuxedo. "We can never be the best baseball team in the world. We're not major league. But could we be the most fun team in the world? That's what I wanted to attack.”

He attacks it with a fast-talking gusto befitting a natural-born salesman-slash-carnival barker who counts P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney, Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil among his inspirations.

Every nook of Grayson Stadium's aging walls provide an opportunity to bemuse — and move merchandise.

A nondescript closet on the concourse was turned into the “World's Smallest Bookstore” (Occupancy: 1), selling titles written by Cole and his wife, Emily.

A storage room off the home clubhouse was transformed into a prop closet, where a collection of toilet seats hangs on the wall, bins are filled with wigs of all shapes, sizes and colors, and Cole shuffles quickly through a row of costumes that have no rhyme or reason, everything from French maids to sharks.

When he recruits players to the Bananas, their personalities are just as important as their skills.

“It's not for everybody,” said pitcher Blake McGehee, who recently transferred from Ole Miss to Louisiana-Lafayette. “But once you get here, you kind of adapt to it. It's just the culture around here. If you come in and you're not that outgoing, you're not a performer, you change quickly."

When Cole runs into a player before the game, he advises the youngster on some moves he should try in his walkup to the plate, all in a bid to acquire more views on TikTok.

Social media is a big part of Cole's marketing skills, and he could surely teach a thing or two to the big boys. The Bananas have 2.8 million followers on TikTok — more than four times as many as that team in Atlanta. You know, the one that captured a World Series title.

Cole has even bigger plans, also launching a pro team that is essentially baseball's version of the Harlem Globetrotters. “Banana Ball,” as he dubbed it, includes rules such as a two-hour time limit on games (hmm, that sounds rather appealing.) and outs being recorded when a pop fly is caught in the stands by a fan.

The pro team went on a completely sold-out tour of seven minor league ballparks before the regular season. Cole said he's gotten inquiries from several big league teams that want to bring Banana Ball to their stadiums in 2023.

“I believe Banana Ball is the future of what we're doing,” Cole said, “because it's completely breaking down the rules and barriers of the way the game used to be."

When minor league baseball abandoned Savannah after the 2015 season, largely over the city’s unwillingness to build a new stadium, the Bananas stepped in to fill the void.

Turns out, the rickety, 4,000-seat ballpark — which opened in 1926 and hosted both Hank Aaron (as a minor leaguer) and Babe Ruth (in an exhibition during his final season in the big leagues) — wasn’t a hindrance at all.

(That's another lesson for the major leagues: You don't necessarily need the newest stadium to bring in the crowds.)

Cole, his wife and a threadbare staff of 20-somethings pulled an old picnic table into the abandoned stadium and set up shop, calling potential ticket-buyers and plotting ways to make a night at the Bananas more than just a game.

From those humble beginnings, they quickly became a rousing success. One room of the stadium is now dedicated to the social media staff, another to taking a steady stream of orders that come in from around the world for shirts, caps and other merch.

The formula, in Cole’s mind, is obvious.

“Every decision we make has the fans first,” he said.

The Bananas are a perfect fit for Savannah, a city on Georgia's coast that gained renewed prominence in the 1990s with the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

These days, Savannah is overrun most every weekend with tourists, party-goers and bachelorette parties. The Bananas have quickly become a star attraction amid the quirky revelry.

“Positive vibes. Make everybody laugh,” Maceo, the dancing coach, said of his role. “Banana Land is about weirdness — and I'm here for all of it."

___

Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

___

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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