When a true baseball visionary offers to give you time out of his day, what do you do? I mean, besides kiss your wife, tell her how fortunate you are, and play your favorite lotto numbers? Of course, you take him up on it! And especially when it’s Jesse Cole, the world renowned owner of the Savannah Bananas. Ever since 2016 when he took over an empty ballpark in Savannah, GA, all he has done is win. Surprisingly, that has very little to do with baseball titles. You ask him, he’ll state it rather plainly. “We never promote the baseball. If we lose, we never say we lose. We talk about the crowd, we talk about the experience. We post that. Our brand is we make the game fun. We make baseball fun.” Clearly to Cole, “winning” means something altogether different than what a traditional baseball team owner may connect to wins, pennants, and rings. But if you spend a little time with THIS owner, maybe that makes all the difference.Jessie Cole dancing with his players, mascot, and fans
Being only weeks away from the 2021 baseball season, we have decided to hit the road to partake in live games as soon as humanly possible. Only instead of the more traditional route to Arizona or Florida for Spring Training, we find ourselves headed to Mobile, Alabama and Hank Aaron Stadium. It last hosted the BayBears in 2019 and has since lay vacant after the team relocated.
Well if there is no team playing there, why are you going?
Because it’s our first shot at Banana Ball this year! Once Jesse and the Bananas announced the “One City World Tour” idea, fans in cities around the country voted to have the team come play an exhibition game in their city. In the end, five cities (including Mobile) as well as College Station, New Orleans, Johnson City, and Daytona were finalists. But in the end, it was a final push that was needed in Alabama that made the difference. “The city literally rolled out the yellow carpet for us. The mayor met with us. He was all about it. Visit Mobile. A lot of different people in the business community, the stadium operators. They were like ‘what will it take for you guys to come?’ And so we knew that there was huge support, especially with our first year in the middle of a pandemic. You know, you got to go somewhere where people want you.” Sounds reasonable enough. So, it was a done deal, and that meant Banana Ball would be hitting the road for the first time.
Every decision we make is for the fans. So my biggest concern going into any new event is that are we gonna deliver the best experience for fans?
Now, in the past, I’ve detailed a little about this new brand of baseball that Jesse and his Bananas provide. The entire list of rules for these exhibition games can be seen here. And while he is excited to bring a new set of expectations to a baseball game, the specifics aren’t really the important thing. “Some [rules] don’t work as well. But the next game, [maybe] fans add a new rule. We’re continuing to evolve”. And that’s really it, isn’t it? While Major League Baseball’s fanbase is largely considered to be the oldest and most traditional in keeping with its history, the Savannah Bananas run counter to that ideal. That willingness to evolve is at the heart of what makes Jesse Cole different.
Here in the Chicagoland area, over 1,000 miles away, you are lucky to run across someone who has been to a game at Grayson Stadium in Savannah. Yet, when you mention the name of the team, it always solicits a laugh. That’s actually part of the draw. The Bananas aren’t just a baseball team. It has to be more than that to draw people in droves to social media (almost 400,000 TikTok followers, another 42,000 on Instagram). Now how many people are there near me who follow one of the platforms of THIS baseball team? Quite a few that I know of, actually. That diversity in your fanbase means that taking the show on the road could be a major success. And that unique following means something to Jesse because he wants to be different. Somehow, it’s being different by sticking to a pretty simple focus: “Everything goes back to the fans. Every decision we make is for the fans. So my biggest concern going into any new event is that are we gonna deliver the best experience for fans?”The centerfield video board at historic Grayson Stadium
It sounds so easy, right? A team owner that wants to make a difference by focusing on what the fans want, as well as what they WILL want, over time. And yet, it somehow is what makes the Bananas different. Well, it’s one of the things.
The kids literally gave their autograph on our player’s hat. The whole team started getting autographs on their sleeves, on their hats, and on their shirts.
Another main difference is the players. Are the players who wear the yellow and neon green jerseys (not every banana is ripe, remember) the most talented on the field? Not necessarily. Jesse makes a point to mention that the Bananas do, in fact, draw top college talent over the summer, with five-tool athletes and pitchers throwing in the 90’s with relative ease. But in order to be a team that can travel the country to put on a show and lead the world in social media following, it has to be bigger than baseball. I asked Jesse what he looks for most in a player besides their baseball ability. His answer was quick and matter of fact: “Charisma. The ability to have fun. The ability to understand that it’s about the fans; it’s not about them. So it’s a weird mindset, and for us, it’s different.” He’s not sugar-coating this because it’s so important to his vision for the team and what sets them apart. He went on to share a special example from a few seasons back. “A player, after the game, two kids came up to…and asked for his autograph. He got down to his knee and said, ‘Only if I can have yours’. The kids literally gave their autograph on our player’s hat. The whole team started getting autographs on their sleeves, on their hats, and on their shirts.” Have you ever witnessed anything like that before at a sporting event? Sometimes, when we see a player make time to talk to the fans, and even play a game of catch, it’s easy to see why the game can be special and why sports and entertainment can be so important to our way of life. But to see a ball player putting fans before themselves, that’s really a game-changer. Oddly enough, that’s just on brand for the Savannah Bananas.
Clearly Jesse knows that his team is successful, and that’s in a variety of ways, mind you. They have won a Coastal Plain League (CPL) championship in the past, and have also had incredible attendance with a consecutive sell-out streak through the end of the 2019 season (before a shortened season and seating restrictions in 2020). And even though Cole doesn’t appear to be someone to rest on his laurels–as he mentioned to me numerous times during the interview–I still wanted to know if he was concerned about doing something radically different like the “One City World Tour” and bringing the Bananas to other cities. “Whenever you start with something brand new, you’re gonna get criticized, you’re gonna be misunderstood, and it’s gonna be messy. Whenever you do something that hasn’t been done before, there’s no way that you’re gonna do it perfectly well. The key is getting to that next at bat. And so for us, this is our first at bat.” It’s hard not to get behind someone with this level of optimism. He never lets the lows get too low, and he NEVER dwells too long on what doesn’t work.
So we’re, in essence, just trying to create our own little Banana Land within our own people and creating experiences that we want to see. We control the controllable as we develop. That’s what we’re gonna continue to do.
Well, in most cases. I came to find that some smaller things managed to linger with Cole for a while. I asked him, a man who always finds a way to be positive, to share a story of a failure he looks back on and cringes at. He offered a memory from roughly ten years ago when he was in charge of the Gastonia Grizzlies (former CPL team). The team created a fast food promotion for one year, and while he was standing at the main entrance welcoming in the fans, he remembered stopping a family because they weren’t allowed to actually bring the food into the ballpark. He remembered how they looked at him. How they looked for a place to sit and eat in the parking lot. And in the end, how they got up from the ground after eating, threw away their trash, and got in the car and left. Every detail was still vivid as if it happened yesterday. “But it really was a game changer because I remember seeing their faces and seeing how I made them feel by a stupid policy, a stupid decision that made no sense.” Cole definitely learned something from that experience, and so now he isn’t doing anything if it isn’t about putting fans first. In fact, following the set expectations of a league or baseball altogether is not something he considers to be the future of the Bananas. “When we have a Premier Team, we have the opportunity where they’re signed with us. They’re not going by NCAA rules, on scholarship for their college, having to do things their college way. We can also create the rules. So we’re, in essence, just trying to create our own little Banana Land within our own people and creating experiences that we want to see. We control the controllable as we develop. That’s what we’re gonna continue to do.”
In the course of a conversation, one can see that Jesse Cole is channeling another former icon named Walt Disney who was not afraid to try new things in order to create a lifetime of entertainment for people around the world. This “One City World Tour” event is just the beginning. He is offering this brand of baseball to venues around the country and supplying players who have bought into a form of sport that is much larger than anything they can do with a bat, ball, and glove. And maybe the greatest part of it all is that if it doesn’t work out, then you know what Cole will do. He will adjust, adapt, and try something else. “We’re not afraid to throw away some of the rule book and say, You know what? This is better for fans. And so if you’re asking the question, always asking, how do you create more fans? That’s the question we ask every single day.”
Show up with the mindset where you don’t worry and don’t care about what other people think. That’s a big thing, and you know that doesn’t happen in many places.
Now as someone who has seen the Bananas in action before, the question is: do I feel it’s worth it to go to again? Of course, as a baseball lover, I always want to see the game live. Jesse is the first to admit that you are actually going to “a circus and a baseball game will break out”. It’s truly an unparalleled experience. Once you know what it’s like firsthand, you somehow look forward to the next time even more. I mean, can you really get the most of Walt Disney World in one trip? Jesse Cole and the Bananas aren’t counting on it. Still, he knows there may be doubters, and he knows he may lose “traditional” baseball fans each year. I wondered how Jesse would sell his one-of-a-kind team to people who have yet to experience it for themselves, whether on the road or at historic Grayson Stadium. What would he want them to expect? “Show up with the mindset that I’m gonna let loose and have fun. Show up with the mindset where you don’t worry and don’t care about what other people think. That’s a big thing, and you know that doesn’t happen in many places. And you get to be a kid again, you get to see the players be a kid again, and I think we need more of that.”
Maybe I’m a sucker for any baseball I can get. Or maybe I’m just easy to convince. But there’s something to his words. It’s easy to forget that we all look for our entertainment in a variety of places, especially after a year that forced us to reflect on and reconsider our top priorities in the midst of a pandemic. But don’t we, as adults, reflect most naturally on our youth all the time? Man, I wish I was a kid again! Well with the Savannah Bananas, you can be.
Count us in, Jesse! We’re gassing up the car and getting ready for the 1,000 mile trek to Mobile. You’re offering two days filled with non-stop entertainment, crazy Banana Ball rules, singing, dancing, and an owner running around in a yellow tuxedo? We’ll take it! Oh, and don’t worry about the fun. That’s a big Banana-stamped guarantee.Bananas stamp on merchandise box
And you get to be a kid again, you get to see the players be a kid again, and I think we need more of that. - Jesse Cole