RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — Savannah Bananas’ California debut on Friday didn’t go as planned.
Yes, they defeated the Party Animals in an epic Banana Ball match that lasted two rounds of one-on-one extra-innings showdown. But perhaps the biggest concern for the Bananas — who were, of course, striving to put on a show in every sense of the word — was LoanMart Field’s shoddy sound system that rendered sound inaudible for much of the night.
In some ways it was almost poetic. The fact that the 4,000-seat minor league ballpark — the smallest stadium on the Bananas’ 87-game, 33-city tour — doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle the windfall reflects just how far the Savannah Bananas have come.
But with the distance traveled and the zealousness of the sold-out crowd of Banana Ball neophytes, audio issues certainly represented a key in the Bananas’ meticulously crafted plans. As with any real performance, however – and unlike your traditional baseball game – the show must go on.
And this, because some technical difficulties were not going to prevent the Bananas from doing what they do best. Rather, it only embodied the team, helping to create another unique evening for a group riddled with unique backgrounds and backgrounds.
In 2018, Kyle Luigs was asked by his pitching coach at the University of North Georgia, Michael Holder, where his dream “summer ball” spot would be that year.
He answered without hesitation.
“Savannah,” Luigs replied.
Hailing from Richmond Hill, Georgia, a suburb about 30 minutes from Savannah, Luigs’ intention for the summer was twofold: He wanted to play close to home and he wanted to take Bill LeRoy — his roommate, best friend and catcher — with him.
While helping college teammates land contracts to join a new Coastal Plain League (CPL) team called the Savannah Bananas, it appeared that Holder had granted Luigs’ wish. But the duo’s excitement began to wane when they realized their deals meant nothing more than a glorified tryout.
“It was supposed to be a two-day deal,” Luigs said.
In the end, despite his parents’ idea that he would soon return to them, Luigs reported to Savannah unfazed, confident that this was just another step towards realizing his lifelong ambition of becoming the No. 1 starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers.
LeRoy, on the other hand, was skeptical. After months of being asked, “what in the world are you doing?” After revealing his summer plans, the Dublin, GA native recalled arriving in Savannah with “no expectations.”
“Honestly, I was just trying to hang out and not get cut,” LeRoy said. “But it turns out they fell in love with me, and I fell in love with them.”
In the five years since, Luigs and LeRoy have done more than just hang out. Alongside manager Tyler Gillum, they became the faces of the Bananas, returning to Savannah each summer before converting to full-time roles in 2021.
Now they’re the two oldest players, and thanks in part to Gillum’s inspiration, Luigs and LeRoy have left behind their big league fantasies to continue their love affair with the Bananas.
Gillum, who previously coached more prestigious summer leagues such as the Cape Cod League, also chose to join the Bananas in 2018. After setting a lifelong goal to “positively impact 1,000,000 people through baseball education and practice,” the opportunity in Savannah was a perfect fit.
That impact-focused mindset seems to have rubbed off on at least his two elders.
“I have the platform that I always wanted [be able to] impact the younger generation,” Luigs said. “And I can do it while having fun.”
LeRoy added, “I got here and realized all I wanted to do was impact people and put smiles on people’s faces while playing the game I love. I can’t see myself ever leaving this place.
For the rest of the Bananas, most of whom are not longtime CPL survivors, the path to Savannah was a little different, arriving in unique terrain and with differing motivations.
Several players landed with the Bananas after stumbling across the team’s social media pages and then contacting owner Jesse Cole, after which they encountered an atypical onboarding process.
“When we hear from players, we ask for an audition video,” Cole said. “It better not be just baseball… Can you bring a level of performance? That’s the difference.
Others have been recruited tirelessly by Cole, who has a knack for recognizing those with the ability to mix baseball with Broadway.
One of those players was Bananas infielder Dalton Mauldin, who received a Twitter DM from Cole in 2018 while still playing at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. For years, Cole tried to lure Mauldin to Savannah, but the timing never quite worked out. Some summers Mauldin had already signed up for other teams, and other years he was dedicated to his budding career as a singer-songwriter.
After graduating in 2021, Mauldin thought he was done with baseball, as he was set to return to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams. However, after years of rejection, he finally decided he owed the Bananas a visit.
When Mauldin finally made it to Savannah for some Banana Ball shows, he had his revelation.
“Everybody’s always like, ‘Is it the baseball or the music?'” Mauldin said. “Why not the two of them?”
Bill “Spaceman” Lee, perhaps the most renowned current Banana, was also hesitant to travel to Savannah when he received an out of the blue phone call from Cole in early 2022.
“They called me and asked if I was going to try,” Lee said. “I told them I wasn’t doing any testing.”
Eventually, the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame pitcher relented, unable to put aside his curiosity about Banana Ball. He nearly set a banana record on his try by recording three strikeouts in 2 minutes and 4 seconds.
“Luckily I made the ball club,” Lee said.
Since then, although he admits he doesn’t know “how many good years” he has left, the 76-year-old has taken a liking to the Bananas initiatives.
“These children are committed. They are entertaining. They’re doing the right thing for baseball,” Lee said. “They’re bringing it back to the fans.”
Other players, like Alex Ziegler, who holds multiple Guinness World Records for baseball bat balancing, have been an easy sell, if not a game-changer for the Bananas. And some key characters, such as Randy Voss, that the team just stumbled upon.
Vincent Chapman, the acclaimed longtime Bananas dance referee who ended up in Savannah thanks to a Facebook post from Jesse Cole after his in-game whipping and nae-nae dance moves went viral, reached out to longtime friend Voss earlier this year when the Bananas were looking to add a second referee.
Until about three months ago, Voss was just “Randy The Umpire,” but one day, when the Bananas National Anthem singer was running late, Voss turned to a panicked Jesse Cole and said three words: “I get it.”
What no one realized, of course, was that he’d already made it to the second round on “American Idol.”
Now, Voss is known as “The Singing Umpire,” and he couldn’t be happier with his niche.
“With the way this thing is growing and as big as it gets,” Voss said, “I think this is my home.”
No expiry date on these Bananas
It doesn’t take long to feel the special energy around bananas, and it won’t be long before everyone across the country – and indeed the world – can experience it for themselves.
“We keep saying, ‘This is just the first run,'” Gillum said of the Bananas’ future.
It appears to be. At $25 each, the team’s ticket waiting list now exceeds 850,000, and the Bananas are set to perform their show in MLB stadiums and even internationally next year.
The growing demand is certainly adding pressure for gamers, especially when the Bananas pride themselves on incorporating 15 new hijinks every night. But thanks to weekly “Over the Top Ideas” brainstorming meetings and a “How can we more of that?” mindset, Cole is confident this group is up to the task.
“It’s extremely difficult, but it’s worth it,” Cole said of keeping the creative night going. “When your business name is ‘Fans First Entertainment,’ you better keep doing new things to keep them excited.”
There’s no ceiling in sight for the Bananas, so for now they’re focused on immersing themselves in the surreal nature of their daily lives.
“We shake our heads every time we come to a new city,” Gillum said.
Others shake their heads too.
Before leaving for California, Kyle Luigs met his father earlier this week. As they laughed and reminisced about Luigs’ crazy journey, his father left him a belated confession.
“Boy, I’m glad I was wrong,” his dad said of his initial hunch that the bananas weren’t going anywhere.
In a way, however, he was right. Because bananas don’t go anywhere.
On the contrary, they go everywhere.