Baseball

‘Baseball Players Don’t Dance’? The Savannah Bananas Beg to Differ.

Whatever your connection (or lack thereof) to baseball, the Bananas are here to entertain you. While major-league games are getting longer and slower, frustrating even devoted fans – Don Mattingly, the manager of the Miami Marlins, recently said the sport “sometimes is unwatchable” – the Bananas are focused squarely on fun. For viewers like me, they’re the most watchable team in baseball.

When the Bananas aren’t dancing, they’re wearing stilts, crowd surfing to the plate or singing karaoke on the field. A cast of 120 entertainers adds to the circus, including a pep band and a “dad bod cheerleading squad.” The baseball part of the game can look different, too. The Bananas’ collegiate team, a summer harbor for student athletes, plays by conventional rules. But the organization also has a professional division that stages exhibition “Banana Ball” games, featuring a two-hour time limit and rule changes designed to make play faster and livelier.

The Banana method is working, on multiple fronts. While the Oakland Athletics games sometimes attract fewer than 3,000 fans, the Bananas have sold out every home game at Savannah’s 4,000-seat Grayson Stadium since the team’s founding in 2016. On TikTok, @thesavbananas have upward of 2.5 million followers, more than the Yankees and Mets combined. This summer, the streaming service ESPN + will air “Bananaland,” a series about how the team created what a promo calls “the greatest show in sports.” And oh, by the way: The team won the 2021 Coastal Plain League championship.

“Most baseball does not put fans first, so we went all in on that,” said Jesse Cole, 38, the team’s owner (and its on-field host, easy to spot in his yellow tuxedo). “We want people who used to say ‘I do not like baseball’ to say, ‘I have to see the Bananas.'”

Cole’s style of baseball evangelism predates the Bananas. At 23, he was made general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies, a failing Coastal Plain League team in Gastonia, NC Trying to drum up fan enthusiasm, he started experimenting with zany promotions, inspired by the showmanship of PT Barnum and Walt Disney. “I did not want to learn from the baseball industry,” he said. “I wanted to learn from the greatest entertainers out there.”

Dance came to play a starring role in his baseball show. “People loved it because it was totally unexpected,” Cole said. “Baseball players do not dance.” Though some team members balked when asked to learn choreography, a core crew started performing simple routines between innings. “The third Grizzlies game, I’m walking through the crowd and a husband and wife are talking, and the wife goes, ‘Shut up, honey – they’re about to dance!'” Cole said. “That’s when I was like, All right, we’ve got something here.”

After several years honing a fans-first entertainment strategy with the Grizzlies, Cole and his wife, Emily, heard that Savannah’s minor league team was leaving the city’s historic Grayson Stadium. In 2016, they secured a lease on the ballpark and made it the home of their second collegiate franchise. The notice-us name, from a fan contest, set the tone for the venture: Savannah Bananas became a trending topic on Twitter after it was revealed as the winning entry.

“With the Bananas, we just kept pushing – or, as Walt Disney would say, ‘plusing’ – the dance experience,” Jesse Cole said. One of the earliest additions was the Banana Nanas, a line-dancing group of women over 65, which offers a tongue-in-cheek twist on the conventional dance team. Later came dancing ushers – who perform to “Yeah” by Usher – and, for Banana Ball games, dancing umpires. (Collegiate games require league-provided officials.)

Dancing first-base coaches have become an especially beloved Bananas tradition. “The field is a stage,” Cole said, “and the first-base coach is on that stage a lot, so that’s who I want dancing.” The original dancing first-base coach would give signs to the players between dances. Now the role is almost pure performance: It’s currently filled by Maceo Harrison, 27, a charismatic hip-hop dancer and teacher who’s never played baseball. Harrison, who also choreographs most of the players’ dances, is becoming a TikTok star in his own right for his impressive acrobatics and smooth grooves on the sidelines.

The star of the viral “Waltz of the Flowers” clip, however, is Zack Frongillo, 25, the Bananas’ director of entertainment and Harrison’s occasional substitute. A former baseball player with a BFA in dance from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Frongillo brings a dancer’s perspective to Bananaland shenanigans, scripting out the entertainment components of each game and supervising the cast of performers.

Videos of Frongillo’s performances have earned millions of views on TikTok and Twitter. “It was cool to watch the brand find this new group of people, because the TikTok algorithm isn’t usually serving baseball videos to ballet dancers,” he said in an interview. After seeing one of the clips, the director of Savannah Ballet Theater reached out to Frongillo, asking if he would be willing to replace a dancer in a coming production. Frongillo has now appeared as a guest artist with the company several times.

Social media has become a crucial marketing tool for the Bananas, helping make them the rare collegiate team with a national fan base. And dance has been important to their success on TikTok in particular, where the team posts new content almost daily.

“We try out everything, and I mean everything, on TikTok, but the videos that get hundreds of thousands or millions of views, they’re all dancing,” Cole said. Frongillo and Cole have started to design dance content that will play as well online as it does on the field – like having players attempt a TikTok dance challenge in the middle of an at-bat, which now happens during the third inning of every Banana Ball game.

As the Bananas’ antics have attracted more attention, the team has started to draw players who are excited about doing choreography on the field. Frongillo said he had emails from prospective Bananas advertising their willingness to dance. “At this point, the guys coming in know when they get into Bananaland, everything gets a little weird,” Harrison said. “They’re ready for it.”

Getting weird has not hurt the Bananas’ game. Curtis Sproul, an assistant professor of management at Georgia Southern University, studied the Bananas over multiple seasons to see how their approach might affect player performance. His data revealed that Bananas players were the only ones in the Coastal Plain League to show a demonstrable improvement in their average on-base percentage and slugging percentage each year.

Kyle Luigs, 24, who pitched for the Bananas as a college student and now plays for his professional division, said the team’s emphasis on fun helps him cope with the demands of a game that can be intensely psychological. “I always threw way better during my summers down here than I did during the school year,” he said. “If I’m more focused on not screwing up my dance routine than I am on not giving up three home runs, I end up pitching better.”

You probably will not see a dancing first-base coach in a big-league ballpark anytime soon. But Major League Baseball officials are aware that many fans want more excitement. The average major-league game now lasts well over three hours, with rising strikeout rates and frequent pitching changes slowing the pace of play. To speed and stimulate action on the field, the organization has begun implementing experimental rule changes – from pitch clocks to automated ball-strike systems (aka robot umpires) – in its minor and independent leagues.

“I think putting the fans first is something we and every league try to do,” said Morgan Sword, executive vice president of baseball operations at Major League Baseball. “But we are obviously also putting on a competition of the very best athletes on the face of the earth. So we try where we can to balance entertainment and competition. ”

The league’s rule changes have irritated some baseball purists, including Alva Noë, author of the book “Infinite Baseball” and a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë – who was a philosopher in residence for the choreographer William Forsythe’s former company – argues that the sport’s seemingly tedious moments are often full of quiet drama. “In baseball, so much detail and nuance and intelligence can be embedded in what looks like a glacier,” he said. “I think it’s very similar to dance in that way.”

Well does not dislike the Bananas. “I can see why there’s a desire to have the experience be more lively,” he said. “I guess the question is, can you do the dancing on the sidelines, just have a riot of a good time, and then also really see the baseball? ”

Cole is largely unconcerned with baseball traditionalists’ opinions. “I’ve heard it all – that the Bananas are a joke, that we’re ruining the sport,” Cole said. “I think it’s important to know who you’re for and who you’re not for. Do I think we’ve converted some purists? One hundred percent. But we’re for the folks who just want to have fun. ”

For them, the Bananas are planning even more dancing. Frongillo hopes to mount a “Dancing With the Stars” -style competition this summer, pairing players with professional dancers from Savannah Ballet Theater and other local ensembles. He’s also put together a children’s dance team to complement the Banana Nanas.

Cole is considering adding a halftime show. “I know, it’s baseball, so that does not make any sense!” he said. “But we could have everybody dancing – the whole team, all the characters. Can we get the entire stadium to dance? ”

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