It’s the top of the third inning in Grayson Stadium, home of the Savannah Bananas. As the second batter gets set once again, the home team, clad in its customary yellow, crowds closer in the infield. A shimmer of excitement moves through the stands in anticipation of the next pitch.
But first, a TikTok dance.
Beyoncé blares over the speakers, and the Bananas launch into a perfectly synced groove, topped off by a scorching fastball right past the batter.
This is Bananas baseball – in more ways than one. Since its founding in 2016, this Georgia-based Coastal Plain League team has been busting up the sport’s unwritten rules, drawing in year after year of sold-out crowds and nearly 2.5 million TikTok followers (a number that rivals most MLB teams). Fans come from around the country and wait in lines hundreds-deep to see what some call the “Harlem Globetrotters of Baseball.”
This phenomenon started with a simple idea: “Baseball is fun. What if it were really, really fun?”
Keeping up in a ‘TikTok world’
Right now, the Savannah Bananas actually consist of two teams: The Coastal Plain League team, which plays collegiate-level summer baseball, and the professional Premiere team, which plays in special, shorter games known as “Banana Ball.” Both teams are imbued with that eccentric, “anything goes” energy that livens up games, draws a five-figure waiting list for tickets and fills up TikTok feeds with viral baseball hijinks.
That energy can be credited to Jesse Cole, the team’s owner and founder. Cole himself is a little out there, with his signature yellow suit and seemingly endless capacity for creativity.
“We exist to make baseball fun, and put fans first,” he tells CNN. “We challenge the rules and the way we do things on the baseball field.”
“Fans First” is Cole’s – and the Bananas’ – ultimate catchphrase. When they first started playing in Savannah, Cole said he paid close attention to the fans to see what parts of the game resonated most. The team felt like fans didn’t want to be sold to at games, so they eliminated ads in the stadium despite the steep loss in potential revenue. They saw the game needed to be faster, more consistently exciting. They saw opportunities for reaching even more fans outside of the stands.
“Baseball games are getting longer and slower, but our attention spans are shorter,” Cole says. “We live in a TikTok world. People can get unbelievable entertainment with a flick of their finger. How do you create something that matches that?”
To be clear, the Bananas made their mark long before TikTok became the reigning social media giant. They uploaded videos to Facebook instead, and kept brainstorming ways to make the games more fun. They brought on unique entertainment, like a (really good) ballet dancing base coach and the Banana Nanas, a senior cheer squad. They put together a three-hour-long rain delay script so fans wouldn’t get bored during bad weather. When TikTok got popular, they dove in without hesitation.
But Cole still sensed something bigger. Anyone who’s been to a baseball stadium knows the crowd usually thins as the game wears on. With most MLB games lasting over three hours, baseball can be a test of patience even for the biggest fan.
To Cole, that just doesn’t work.
“You don’t leave a great movie in the middle of it and say, ‘That was great. I’ve seen enough!’” he says.
So, in 2018, Cole created “Banana Ball” – a shorter version of a baseball game with slightly different rules to keep the energy alive.
It was a hit, and this season, the dedicated Banana Ball Premier team embarked on a sold-out “Banana Ball World Tour” of stadiums across the southeast. The whole operation includes about 120 entertainers.
“It’s a whole baseball circus,” Cole says.
They keep the same energy for Coastal Plain League games. Everything is coordinated, from the third-inning TikTok dance break to home run celebrations. The team holds what they call “Over The Top” meetings, where no idea is off limits. That’s how they get ideas for their TikToks, and make sure they maintain a balance between playing well and having a good time.
After all, it’s still baseball. And the Bananas are still there to win.
That Banana sais quoi
Baseball holds a particular gravitas in the world of sports. It’s America’s pastime, after all, its dignity upheld by a million little unwritten rules. Players can toil for years, only to have their careers take off or end in the time it takes a ball to find a glove.
Getting them on board with a raucous, yellow-tinted version of the game they love isn’t always an easy sell.
Bill Leroy, 23, was invited to join the Savannah Bananas five years ago after his sophomore year at North Georgia State University. Originally from the small town of Dublin, Georgia, Leroy had never played in front of a bigger crowd. He had certainly never been asked to dance for a camera, or perform trick plays in a game.
“For someone who has loved baseball his entire life, it’s a different culture,” Leroy tells CNN. “Guys ask, ‘What exactly is this? What are we trying to do here? Is this even baseball?’ But then you adopt the mindset, and you realize it’s really cool and fun.”
What was supposed to be a short-term contract for Leroy turned into years. He was with the team when it won the Coastal Plain League Championship in 2021, and now plays on the Premiere team. The man who said he once shied away from the camera now stirs up the crowd before his at-bats, wows them with trick plays from his position as catcher, and yes, does some dancing.
The real impact of this whole Bananas thing fully hits Leroy and the other players when they’re on the road. During a recent stop in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Premiere team was pumped to find throngs of fans waiting outside the stadium to greet them, calling them by name. The team’s social media presence does a lot to endear them to fans far and wide, but it’s at the game that Cole’s “Fans First” ethos really comes into play.
For players like Leroy, the energy is contagious. It makes them play better, and it makes them really think about who they’re playing for.
“We try to interact with fans as much as possible, sign autographs as much as possible,” Leroy says. “When they leave, we want them to have this idea that the game of baseball can be played joyfully.”
In order to pull the whole thing off, the players have to be equal parts entertainer and athlete. To make sure they meet both goals, head coach Tyler Gillum coined a phrase, now painted on their bats and hung in the locker room: “Flip the Switch.”
Leroy explains that, once that switch is flipped, it’s all about focus. “Every minute of the game [outside of play] is scripted,” he says. “So the idea is, go into the stands. Go crush it. Then flip the switch. Now you play. You may need to pitch, you may need to run.”
That mentality – that you can have fun and play well in equal measure – has proved a winning formula. The Bananas are on their way to another winning season, and have two League Championship titles under their belts. No one can deny the credentials of the players, either, whether it’s an old pro like former MLB star Jake Peavy or a former college player-turned-firefighter-slash-rodeo-clown from Oklahoma who can throw a little sidearm after completing a cartwheel. (He’s real, and his name is Mat Wolf.)
No, it’s not the big leagues. It’s not supposed to be. In fact, Savannah Bananas fans would probably say Major League Baseball could learn a thing or two from the charming personalities and social media magic that have turned this little team from the South into a national phenomenon.
“There was a time when I would let the ups and downs and failures of the game ruin my joy,” Leroy says. “The sport has become such a business, so tied up tight. And I don’t want to look back on my career and think, ‘Did I treat this as a business?’ It was made for fun.’”