“Baseball players don’t dance”? Savannah bananas beg to differ.

Whatever your connection (or lack thereof) to baseball, the Bananas are here to keep you entertained. As major league games get longer and slower, frustrating even dedicated fans — Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly recently said the sport “is sometimes unassailable” — the Bananas are squarely focused on having fun. . For viewers like me, it’s the most watchable team in baseball.

When the Bananas aren’t dancing, they’re wearing stilts, surfing to the plate, or singing karaoke on the field. A cast of 120 performers are added to the circus, including a cheer group and a “daddy bod cheerleader squad”. The baseball part of the game can also be different. The collegiate team at Bananas, a summer port for student athletes, plays by conventional rules. But the organization also has a professional division that runs “Banana Ball” exhibition games, with a two-hour time limit and rule changes designed to make the game faster and livelier.

The Banana method works, on several fronts. While Oakland Athletics games sometimes draw 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 counts over 2.5 million followers, more than the Yankees. and Combination dishes. This summer, streaming service ESPN+ will air “Bananaland,” a series about how the team created what one promo calls “the greatest sports show.” And oh, by the way: the team won the 2021 Coastal Plain League Championship.

“Most baseball players don’t put the fans first, so we bet everything on that,” said Jesse Cole, 38, the team’s owner (and on-field host, easy to spot in his yellow tuxedo). “We want people who said ‘I don’t like baseball’ to say ‘I gotta see the bananas’.”

Cole’s baseball evangelism style predates the Bananas. At age 23, he was named general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies, a failing Coastal Plain League team in Gastonia, North Carolina. Trying to drum up fan enthusiasm, he began experimenting with goofy promotions, inspired by the showmanship of PT Barnum and Walt Disney. “I didn’t want to learn from the baseball industry,” he said. “I wanted to learn from the greatest artists in the world.”

The dance came to play a starring role on his baseball show. “People loved it because it was totally unexpected,” Cole said. “Baseball players don’t dance.” Although some team members hesitated when asked to learn the choreography, a core team began performing simple routines between sets. “Grizzlies game three, I’m walking through the crowd and a husband and wife are talking, and the wife is like, ‘Shut up, honey – they’re about to dance! ‘” Cole said. “That’s when I was like, okay, we have something here.”

After several years of perfecting a fan-focused entertainment strategy with the Grizzlies, Cole and his wife, Emily, learned that the Savannah minor league team was moving out of the city’s historic Grayson Stadium. In 2016, they secured a lease on the ballpark and made it the home of their second college franchise. The name “Avis Us”, which came from a fan contest, set the tone for the company: Savannah Bananas became a trending topic on Twitter after being revealed as the winning entry.

“With the Bananas, we just continued to push — or, as Walt Disney would say, ‘more’ — the dance experience,” Jesse Cole said. One of the first additions was the Banana Nanas, a line-dancing group of women over 65, which offers a tongue-in-cheek twist on the conventional dance crew. Later came dance ushers — who perform on Usher’s “Yeah” — and, for Banana Ball games, dance referees. (College games require officials provided by the league.)

Dance first base coaches have become a particularly beloved tradition of the Bananas. “The field is a stage,” Cole said, “and the first base coach is on that stage a lot, so that’s who I want to dance with.” The original dance first base coach would wave to players between dances. Now the role is almost pure performance: it’s currently filled by 27-year-old Maceo Harrison, a charismatic dancer and hip-hop teacher who has never played baseball. Harrison, who also choreographs most of the players’ dances, is becoming a TikTok star in her own right for her impressive acrobatics and smooth sideline grooves.

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

Videos of Frongillo’s performances have garnered millions of views on TikTok and Twitter. “It was cool to see the brand find this new group of people, because the TikTok algorithm doesn’t usually serve ballet dancers with baseball videos,” he said in an interview. After seeing one of the clips, the Savannah Ballet Theater director contacted Frongillo, asking if he would be willing to fill in for a dancer in an upcoming production. Frongillo has now appeared as a guest artist with the company on several occasions.

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

“We try everything, and I mean everything, on TikTok, but the videos that get hundreds of thousands or millions of views, they all dance,” Cole said. Frongillo and Cole have started designing dance content that will play both online and on the pitch – like players attempting a TikTok dance challenge in the middle of an at-bat, which now happens during round three of every Banana Ball Game.

As the Bananas’ antics garnered more attention, the team began to attract players eager to perform on-court choreography. Frongillo said he received emails from potential Bananas announcing their willingness to dance. “At this point, the guys coming in know when they get to Bananaland, it all gets a little weird,” Harrison said. “They are ready for this.”

Getting weird hasn’t hurt the Bananas’ game. Curtis Sproul, an assistant professor of management at Georgia Southern University, studied the Bananas over several 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 demonstrable improvement in their average on-base percentage and slugging percentage each year.

Kyle Luigs, 24, who pitched for the Bananas as a student and now plays for its professional division, said the team’s focus on fun helps him cope with the demands of a game that can be intensely psychological. “I’ve always pitched better in my summers here than I did in the school year,” he said. “If I’m more focused on not screwing up my dance routine than on not giving up three homers, I end up throwing better.”

You probably won’t see a first base dance coach in a big league ballpark anytime soon. But Major League Baseball officials know many fans want more excitement. The average major league game now lasts well over three hours, with strikeout rates on the rise and frequent pitch changes slowing the pace of play. To speed up and boost the action on the field, the organization has began implementing experimental rule changes—from pitch clocks to automated ball-striking systems (aka robot umpires)—in its minor and independent leagues.

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

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

Noah doesn’t like Bananas. “I can understand why you want the experience to be more lively,” he said. “I guess the question is, can you do the sideline dance, just have a good time, and then also really see baseball?”

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

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

Cole considers adding a halftime show. “I know, it’s baseball, so it doesn’t make sense!” he said. “But we could get everyone dancing – the whole crew, all the characters. Can we make the whole stadium dance? »

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