If you have not read my previous posts, I will give you a little background to my love of MiLB. I was diagnosed with terminal cancer back in September 2017, so decided to make a bucket list. At the very top was a road trip and a minor league ball game, so it seemed apt to combine the two.
Grayson Stadium has been home to some of the absolute greats over the years. Surely not many minor-league ballparks can say they have been home to this lot!
The last stop of our Minor League journey was Savannah, back in Georgia again. The Savannah Bananas (you have to say it American-style to make it rhyme) play in the Coastal Plains League, the same as Macon Bacon, who are their arch-rivals. The Coastal Plains League are a wooden bat league for collegiate players, who have not been drafted yet. I have to declare that although I have a place in my heart for the Bananas, my heart lies in Macon, with the Bacon (I have told the owner of the Bananas this in a recent interview!).
If you have not heard of either of these teams, you really should give them a follow; their brand of baseball will be the like of which you have never seen or experienced before! The Twitter banter between the two teams is legendary!
We were very much looking forward to this game as it had been a complete sell-out for months (as all Bananas games are), but I had been lucky enough to get some through a secondary ticket website, who put me in touch with the American Cancer Society, who were holding a special night ‘Strike Out for Cancer’ and offered me some tickets.
Because it was part of my bucket list and I was celebrating being cancer-free, the lady who I had contacted asked me to be part of a special ‘walkaround’ the pitch with other cancer survivors before the game.
The weather in Savannah was atrocious and we weren’t sure if the game would even be played. Rain was bouncing off the ground when we arrived and we were greeted by none other than the owner himself, Jesse Cole, with an umbrella to keep us dry. We knew it was him because he was wearing a vivid yellow suit, complete with yellow trilby hat.
He is famous in the minor leagues for his ‘fans first’ policy and has won many awards for his entrepreneurial skills in making baseball entertainment as well as sport, something that should be admired when baseball games can last upwards of three hours.
Outside, I picked up my tickets from the ‘Will Call’ office and was delighted to find that the American Cancer Society had left me some gifts in the envelope – a badge, some magnets and a lanyard as a memento of the night and a handwritten message from the lady who I had purchased the tickets from.
Before the game, we cancer survivors gathered as the rain gradually petered out and the pitch was cleared of water by all the Savannah Bananas team and ground staff. Ten minutes later, it was dry. Georgia weather clearly has its uses.
By the beginning of the ‘walkaround’ we were fifty in number, ages ranging from seven-ish to 90-ish. It was amazing to think that everyone here had shared my experience, having cancer and still being here to tell the tale. The whole of the crowd was on its feet and the noise was amazing. I hadn’t expected the experience to affect me so much and it took a great deal of emotional strength to gather myself and not cry the whole way around.
The teams stood on the edge of the pitch and we got to shake hands or high five with them all as we made our way around the bases. It was an uplifting experience that I will never forget. The collective strength of the group and all that we had been through still makes me well up when I think of it. We were featured on the video that the Bananas made that night. Wearing bright yellow baseball shirts and caps made it easy to spot ourselves. If you want to see the video, you can find it here.
Jesse Cole was there to greet us again and said a few words to everyone as they passed. The entertainment that night at the Bananas was indeed bananas.
For instance, new babies were welcomed to the family by playing the ‘Circle of Life’ song from the Disney film Lion King, dressing them like bananas and the team fell to their knees to worship a new fan. Both teams also participated in a banana-eating contest, which the Bananas team of course won, and the mascots danced off against members of the crowd.
Banana eating contest!
There was something every moment of the night. One minute it was a dancing first-base coach, the next, throwing bananas from the top of the stands into giant pants. Never have three hours of my life passed so quickly. It was fabulous entertainment for young and old alike. Everyone sang, danced and cheered until they were hoarse and exhausted. The baseball was almost secondary. The fanaticism of the fans for their local team was plain to see. I loved every minute of it.
Packed stands at the Savannah Bananas
Since then, the Savannah Bananas have introduced more complete madness: playing in kilts (they are unbeaten in kilts), dancing ‘nanas’, a dance squad made up of fans and an ad-free ballpark. They also have their own beer brewed with bananas. When I visited, it was Mexican lager, but Bananas-branded.
Savannah Bananas beer
Ten Savannah Bananas players were drafted last year, including a first-round pick, Braden Shewmake, who was chosen 21st by the Atlanta Braves. Fun they might be, but you’ll also see some decent baseball on show. Just realised I never told you the score – the Bananas won 5-1! You almost forgot there was a baseball game on.
Grayson Stadium under the lights
They call MLB The Show. I think MLB has much to learn from the Savannah Bananas about what a show is. I have never had so much fun at a baseball game.
The Savannah Bananas can be found on Twitter as @TheSavBananas. If you would like to know more about Jesse Cole and his baseball philosophies, I interviewed him recently for the UK Yankees podcast, The Empire Strikes Back UK. Find us on Twitter as @tesbuk – the podcast will be released soon. This includes how Jesse became the GM of the Gastonia Grizzlies at the age of 23, how he sold his house to keep the Bananas afloat and from selling one season ticket into two months to running a multi-million dollar team.
Sarah is covering the New York Yankees during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow her on Twitter @sarah2572