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‘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 game “sometimes is unwatchable” — the Bananas are focused squarely on fun. For viewers like me, they’re probably the most watchable team in baseball.

When the Bananas aren’t dancing, they’re wearing stilts, crowd browsing to the plate or singing karaoke on the sector. A forged of 120 entertainers adds to the circus, including a pep band and a “dad bod cheerleading squad.” The baseball a part of the sport can look different, too. The Bananas’ collegiate team, a summer harbor for student athletes, plays by conventional rules. However the organization also has knowledgeable division that stages exhibition “Banana Ball” games, featuring a two-hour deadline 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 for the reason that team’s founding in 2016. On TikTok, @thesavbananas have upward of two.5 million followers, greater 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 best show in sports.” And oh, by the way in which: The team won the 2021 Coastal Plain League championship.

“Most baseball doesn’t 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 identify in his yellow tuxedo). “We would like individuals who used to say ‘I don’t like baseball’ to say, ‘I even have to see the Bananas.’”

Cole’s variety 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, N.C. Attempting to drum up fan enthusiasm, he began experimenting with zany promotions, inspired by the showmanship of P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney. “I didn’t need to learn from the baseball industry,” he said. “I desired to learn from the best entertainers on the market.”

Dance got here to play a starring role in his baseball show. “People loved it since it was totally unexpected,” Cole said. “Baseball players don’t dance.” Though some team members balked when asked to learn choreography, a core crew began performing easy routines between innings. “The third Grizzlies game, I’m walking through the gang and a husband and wife are talking, and the wife goes, ‘Shut up, honey — they’re about to bounce!’” Cole said. “That’s after 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 town’s historic Grayson Stadium. In 2016, they secured a lease on the ballpark and made it the house of their second collegiate franchise. The notice-us name, from a fan contest, set the tone for the enterprise: Savannah Bananas became a trending topic on Twitter after it was revealed because the winning entry.

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

More fascinating tales you may’t help but read all of the option to the top.

Dancing first-base coaches have develop into an especially beloved Bananas tradition. “The sector is a stage,” Cole said, “and the first-base coach is on that stage quite a bit, in order that’s who I would like dancing.” The unique dancing first-base coach would give signs to the players between dances. Now the role is sort of 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 many 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, nevertheless, is Zack Frongillo, 25, the Bananas’ director of entertainment and Harrison’s occasional substitute. A former baseball player with a B.F.A. in dance from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Frongillo brings a dancer’s perspective to Bananaland shenanigans, scripting out the entertainment components of every game and supervising the forged of performers.

Videos of Frongillo’s performances have earned thousands and thousands of views on TikTok and Twitter. “It was cool to look at the brand find this latest group of individuals, since the TikTok algorithm isn’t normally serving baseball videos to ballet dancers,” he said in an interview. After seeing certainly one of the clips, the director of Savannah Ballet Theater reached out to Frongillo, asking if he can be willing to exchange a dancer in a coming production. Frongillo has now appeared as a guest artist with the corporate several times.

Social media has develop into an important marketing tool for the Bananas, helping make them the rare collegiate team with a national fan base. And dance has been essential to their success on TikTok particularly, where the team posts latest content almost day by day.

“We check out the whole lot, and I mean the whole lot, on TikTok, however the videos that get a whole bunch of 1000’s or thousands and thousands of views, they’re all dancing,” Cole said. Frongillo and Cole have began to design dance content that may play as well online because it does on the sector — like having players attempt a TikTok dance challenge in the course of an at-bat, which now happens through the third inning of each Banana Ball game.

Because the Bananas’ antics have attracted more attention, the team has began to draw players who’re enthusiastic about doing choreography on the sector. Frongillo said he’s had emails from prospective Bananas promoting their willingness to bounce. “At this point, the fellows coming in know once they get into Bananaland, the whole lot gets a bit weird,” Harrison said. “They’re ready for it.”

Getting weird hasn’t 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 one ones within the Coastal Plain League to point out a demonstrable improvement of their average on-base percentage and slugging percentage annually.

Kyle Luigs, 24, who pitched for the Bananas as a school student and now plays for its skilled division, said the team’s emphasis on fun helps him deal with the demands of a game that might be intensely psychological. “I at all times threw way higher during my summers down here than I did through the school yr,” he said. “If I’m more focused on not screwing up my dance routine than I’m on not giving up three home runs, I find yourself pitching higher.”

You almost certainly won’t 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 typical major-league game now lasts well over three hours, with rising strikeout rates and frequent pitching changes slowing the pace of play. To hurry and stimulate motion on the sector, the organization has begun implementing experimental rule changes — from pitch clocks to automated ball-strike systems (a.k.a. robot umpires) — in its minor and independent leagues.

“I believe putting the fans first is something we and each league attempt to do,” said Morgan Sword, executive vp of baseball operations at Major League Baseball. “But we’re obviously also putting on a contest of the best possible athletes on the face of the earth. So we try where we will to balance entertainment and competition.”

The league’s rule changes have irritated some baseball purists, including Alva Noë, writer of the book “Infinite Baseball” and a professor of philosophy on the University of California, Berkeley. Noë — who was philosopher in residence for the choreographer William Forsythe’s former company — argues that the game’s seemingly tedious moments are sometimes stuffed with quiet drama. “In baseball, a lot detail and nuance and intelligence might be embedded in what looks like a glacier,” he said. “I believe it’s very much like dance in that way.”

Noë doesn’t dislike the Bananas. “I can see why there’s a desire to have the experience be more vigorous,” he said. “I assume the query is, are you able to do the dancing on the sidelines, just have a riot of a great time, after which also really see the baseball?”

Cole is basically unconcerned with baseball traditionalists’ opinions. “I’ve heard all of it — that the Bananas are a joke, that we’re ruining the game,” Cole said. “I believe it’s essential to know who you’re for and who you’re not for. Do I believe we’ve converted some purists? A hundred percent. But we’re for the oldsters who just need to rejoice.”

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

Cole is considering adding a halftime show. “I do know, it’s baseball, in order that doesn’t make any sense!” he said. “But we could have everybody dancing — the entire team, all of the characters. Can we get all the stadium to bounce?”

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