ONE OF the greatest local success stories in recent history, the Savannah Bananas begin their third season this week.
The team’s sheer marketing genius shows no signs of slowing down. Opening day this Thursday at Historic Grayson Stadium brings a relentlessly hyped bloodmatch with Coastal Plain League “rival,” the Macon Bacon.
Except the Macon Bacon are a brand-new team who have never played a single game in the league, much less ever played their “archnemesis,” the Bananas.
But you have to embrace the absurdity to fully enjoy the phenomenon of The Savannah Bananas.
“This isn’t just a baseball game. We are about entertainment 24/7,” says the ever-engaging team owner Jesse Cole, aka “the Man in the Yellow Tux.”
“The ball game is part of a much bigger picture,” he says.
That bigger picture, as every Bananas fan knows, includes family fun, a constant diet of contests and routines between innings, and a literal constant diet of all-you-can-eat items as part of the general admission ticket price.
While Cole says the actual sport of baseball is just one part of the Bananas experience, he insists that the circus atmosphere contributes to the product on the field.
Indeed, the Bananas won the CPL championship their first year in existence, and made it to the semifinals their most recent second season. Last year the Bananas had the best home record in the CPL.
Cole says the team’s prowess on the diamond is no coincidence.
“Our mission is to make the best fan experience possible. That goes for the players as well – we consider them our biggest fans,” he says. “We want to give these players the most memorable summer they’ve ever had.”
As a college summer league, the CPL comprises college baseball players in a non-NCAA setting. This means the players, while still amateur, get to play “real” baseball with a wooden bat instead of the aluminum bat the NCAA requires.
The young players’ obvious glee at playing is part of the fan experience.
“Some of these guys, if they go on to play pro ball in the minor leagues, they’ll be playing for maybe 500 people a night, or 400, or 300,” Cole explains. “But in Savannah they’re playing for a sold-out crowd of 4,000 at every home game.”
Indeed, a Bananas game is the hottest ticket in town; Cole says there are less than 600 tickets left for all the home games in June put together.
“People always ask me, since you’re so successful why don’t you add seats? But we did – for the second season we added 200 seats, and for this season we’ve added another 200,” Cole says.
The Bananas team works hard at coming up with new ideas to entertain fans every year. The most important job in this area is the “Director of Fun,” the master of ceremonies who runs the various games and hijinks to hype up the crowd for nine solid innings.
The Bananas have a new Director of Fun this year, Tyler Gray, who was – wait for it – literally a cruise ship activities director at his last job.
“That’s a big hire for us. Hundreds of people applied for that job,” says Cole.
“We had actors from L.A., comedians from New York City, all wanting that job. Tyler applied on Christmas Day during rare time off from his job on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship.”
Cole laughs and says, “Tyler doesn’t know much about baseball so this is a new and different challenge for him. He was on a cruise ship 24/7. But he’s perfect for us – as you know, we want to make everything a show for the fans.
Cole says he doesn’t want to give away too many secrets before the season starts.
“ But we have come up with a lot of new ways to add to the Savannah Bananas experience. I will tell you we’re exploring ways to take the shows out to the plaza outside Grayson Stadium, up in the stands. We’ve expanded the size of our pep band,” he says.
“We are looking at our own version of the ESPN Game Day show with a set outside the stadium, live streaming it on Facebook before the games,” says Cole.
“We want to dominate the circus.”
Cole says a series of very successful concerts, most of them country shows, at Grayson Stadium over the off-season led to another new Bananas offering.
“We started selling rum drinks at the concerts at the Stadium over the summer, and they killed. So we’re doing that,” says Cole. “And we’ll have a lemonade stand outside the Stadium, selling kids’ lemonade and ‘adult lemonade.’”
Cole’s spirit of fan engagement is infectious. He recalls the time when Russell Wilson – yes, that Russell Wilson, later a star NFL quarterback – played baseball for none other than... the CPL’s own Gastonia Grizzlies.
“Russell Wilson played for one of our teams in 2009, before he was Russell Wilson,” laughs Cole. “Before a game we told the players to give kids a high-five as they were going to the dugout. When the game was starting, we were like, where’s Russell? We looked around and saw him still going through the stands high-fiving every single kid he could find.”
Cole isn’t just a team owner (he also owns the Gastonia Grizzlies, last year’s CPL champs). He is a motivational speaker and writer as well; you can find his book Find Your Yellow Tux: How to be Successful By Standing Out on Amazon.
Some of Cole’s personal and business philosophy is based on ideas from Shawn Anchor’s book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles that Fuel Success and Performance at Work.
“Most people think the more successful you are, the happier you are,” explains Cole. “But Anchor’s whole discovery is that it’s the exact opposite: The happier you are, the more successful you will be, no matter what you choose to do.”
The other big news for Cole is that he and his wife Emily have a new son, named – fittingly – Maverick.
Cole says he’s adjusting.
“I’ve become an expert with diapers,” he laughs. “I’m winning the diaper game.”