COOPERSTOWN – Thousands of baseball fans stormed to Cooperstown on Saturday to witness the most viral club in sports, the Savannah Bananas.
Some of those fans were three friends from Niskayuna: Nando Martinez, Gavin Farrow and Chase Hansen. Farrow is 11 years old, and Hansen and Martinez are each 10.
The Bananas, who some compare to basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters, are known for taking the game of baseball and turning it upside down – and Hansen saw why up close when one of the Bananas outfielders borrowed his glove.
“I actually traded gloves with one of the outfielders for an inning. He played in the game with my glove,” Hansen said. “I knew they were a funny team and that it’d be a good game.”
The Bananas play by their own set of rules, which include bunts earning an automatic ejection and foul balls caught by fans equaling an out.
The players and umpires routinely break out into dance, will set bats on fire and perform various other stunts during the two-hour time limit set on the game.
Before this year, the Bananas exclusively played at Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Georgia. This past February, they embarked on the 2023 Banana Ball World Tour, which included 82 games played in Savannah and 32 other cities throughout the country.
The tour officially came to an end on Saturday when the Bananas visited the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Just from the storied history of Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame, and how far the game has evolved, it made sense for us to finish here,” said Bananas owner Jesse Cole, whose team now has an exhibit at the Hall of Fame museum.
The Bananas were joined by Hall of Famers Ted Simmons and Lee Smith. Smith, now 65 years old, even tossed two pitches in the game.
“To be honored in the Hall of Fame, it’s something we never would have imagined,” Cole said. “It’s a dream come true to be able to play here and to have former major leaguers, Hall of Famers join us and share the same dugout; it’s special.”
In the opposite dugout for most Bananas games, including Cooperstown, is the Party Animals, a team built in-house by the organization. The group has also accepted challenger games against the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, teams from the Frontier League and Atlantic League, and even one from Australia.
The Party Animals and Bananas entered Saturday’s game tied in record, meaning that whoever won would be the champion of this year’s World Tour. The Party Animals secured the win in the game, to finish the season with a nine-game winning streak and Banana Ball’s first World Tour championship.
“Every city has had a different atmosphere,” said Drew Gillespie, a pitcher for the Party Animals. “The one thing you can count on is that it’s going to be loud and we’re going to have a blast. That’s how we do it every night.”
When it comes to ideas on which dances players will do, or different ways to engage with fans, everyone has a say.
“It’s a creative think tank.” Gillespie said. “Everybody has a voice, whether it’s an intern all the way up to the owners. If there’s an idea and it’s cool, then we’re going to do it.”
Martinez, one of the youngsters from Niskayuna, didn’t know much about the Bananas before the game.
“I didn’t really know much about them until this morning,” Martinez said of the Bananas. “It was a surprise that we were coming.”
“I told them a lot about it on the car ride, but we were all surprised when we got here,” said his friend Farrow. “It was a blast.”
Once he began learning about the team during the car ride, Martinez became a fan of Bananas’ outfielder Noah Bridges, who hit a home run in Saturday’s game.
Those who follow the team online, or have attended a game, know the Bananas seek out rare talents, however and wherever they are found.
For example, there’s Dakota Albritton, a member of the Bananas known as “Stilts,” since he plays every game on stilts.
“I was 10 years old and I got a pair of stilts for Christmas,” Albritton said of his talent. “I have no idea why. I had never heard of stilts. I didn’t know what they were. But I got on them for the first time that morning and ran across my yard.”
Walking on stilts came naturally to Albritton, however, he didn’t utilize that particular skill much until he tried out for the Bananas.
“I went to the Bananas tryouts and Jesse Cole came up to me and said, ‘I heard you can walk on stilts’,” Albritton recalled. “I said, ‘I dang sure can.’ I’ve been a ballplayer my whole life, and he asked me if I could hit a baseball on stilts. There was no doubt in my mind, so I’ve been hitting balls on stilts ever since.”
Farrow admitted to being in awe when he saw Albritton for the first time.
“The player on stilts,” Farrow said, “I didn’t know he was going to be that tall.”
“I was hoping to see Stilts pitch,” Hansen added. “I did see him hit, though. That’s got to be super hard.”
“I think I might want to play for them,” Farrow proclaimed. “I want to be a Banana.”
That’s not an unusual sentiment that the players hear as they travel the country.
“To see these younger kids dreaming about playing Banana Ball,” said Jesse Cole, “it’s pretty special.”
“We call them the future Banana Ballers,” Albritton added. “That’s our whole goal, to impact young kids. Maybe they weren’t into baseball before, but they see us and realize it’s not all about stats and numbers, but having fun.”
THE DANCING UMPIRE
Vincent Chapman has been dancing and umpiring behind home plate at baseball games for the past 15 years, long before the Savannah Bananas became a household name.
When the opportunity arose to join a group of likeminded ballplayers, it was an easy decision for Chapman.
“The Bananas first reached out to me on Facebook Messenger,” said Chapman, who has been an umpire for 25 years altogether. “What the Bananas stood for, itt really resonated with me, since that’s how I am everyday anyway. [Jesse Cole] wanted to change the way people treated each other [in the game], and bring something fun.”
“My whole goal is to break the monotony of the game,” Chapman added. “Coaches are yelling, fans are yelling and players are yelling for all these reasons, and I just want to bring fun however I can. It relaxes you and you’re not worried about messing up. You’re just playing the game you love.”
Chapman is now the in-house home plate umpire for Banana Ball, and travels with the team around the country for the Banana Ball World Tour.
While he’s been all over the country the past few months, the opportunity to umpire a game in Cooperstown, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, isn’t something Chapman took lightly.
“The office that I’m getting dressed in, there’s pictures of ticket stubs with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays,” he explained. “There’s a picture of the World Series game where Sandy Koufax struck out 15 people. Being at the Hall of Fame museum yesterday, it’s really special to be a part of this.”
Tickets to Savannah Bananas games are not easy to get. The club has sold out every game they’ve played since 2017.
Saturday’s game in Cooperstown was a sellout, with 6,200 tickets sold.
“It’s a crazy fever dream that we feel like we’re all living in,” Gillespie said of his experience playing Banana Ball. “I don’t think it’s going to set in until a couple weeks into the offseason, when we realize how special this was and that we can’t wait to do it again next year.”
The Bananas will announce their schedule for 2024 in early October, and it will come as no surprise if they attempt to sell out a Major League Stadium.
“I never imagined we’d draw half a million fans and sell out every ballpark we played in this year,” Cole said. “I don’t want to put a ceiling on anything. We’re just going to keep being fans-first and if they keep showing up and supporting us, we’re going to take care of them.”
While the players and staff have been on tours of Major League ballparks, playing a game in one is the next barrier the group intends on knocking down.
For many of the players, it would be a moment they’ve always dreamed of.
“I think every baseball player,,” Albritton said, “from the first time they step on the field, dreams of that day of making it to the big leagues, but we didn’t do that. But, we’re still going to get to play there. It will be a dream come true.”