USA TODAY US Edition
Going Bananas over summer collegiate baseball team
Collegiate summer ball team popular
Fans travel from nearly every state to see the Savannah Bananas in person in Georgia.
SAVANNAH, Ga. – Anyone can have a tough day at the office. Savanna Fettig is a 911 dispatcher, so stress comes in a hurry when responding to matters of life and death. There are some very tough days.
But there are good days, too, and bright spots for Fettig come from an unlikely source: The Savannah Bananas, a summer collegiate baseball team that plays about 1,000 miles away from her home in South Bend, Indiana.
“If you’re having a bad day, and you open an email from the Bananas, you know your day just turned around,” Fettig, 26, said Friday.
She receives correspondence from the team and follows its exploits on games streamed online and its wacky, creative videos and other constant content on social media such as TikTok, YouTube and Twitter as well as the team’s website.
They are her new favorite team, and not because her first name is Savanna (no H) or because of what people have called her.
“My nickname is Savanna Banana, so I thought it was hilarious,” she said of discovering the team’s existence while perusing TikTok.
The Bananas, at last check on TikTok, had 763,300 followers, 15.6 million likes and several videos with over a million views each.
She has ordered merchandise, including decals of the bat-swinging, rather fierce Banana logo, which she surreptitiously sticks on the back windows of her friends’ cars, making them instant and involuntary fans of the team.
Fettig was determined to go to a Savannah Bananas game this year. In June, she was able to get time off from work, which she said is no easy feat. She was so “hyped,” Fettig bought plane tickets and reserved a hotel room before she snagged game tickets, which is also no easy feat. The Bananas have been selling out Grayson Stadium – not including COVID-19-impacted capacity limits in 2020 and until July 1 this season – since part way through their inaugural season of 2016.
Fettig and her aunt Maureen Briones flew to Savannah and got to experience what she had only observed from afar, and the reason she is a fan.
“The Bananas, it’s a show in the middle of a serious game,” said Fettig, who has been around baseball as a player and currently a youth coach.
She goes to see the South Bend Cubs, a Class High-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, but in-game promotions are more traditional and lack the player interaction and fan involvement of a Bananas event.
As far as attending MLB games, she has never been and doesn’t plan on it. They don’t seem like fun to her.
The Bananas, however, are fun, she said, and include everyone: children and adults.
“Even if you don’t (sing and dance), you find yourself dancing, and you find yourself singing because it’s an environment where everyone is welcome,” Fettig said. “I thought I’d be a little bit shy when I go here, and I’m not a shy person. But when I was there, literally, you can’t stop smiling.
“You look around you. There’s just no care in the world. It’s like everything that happens outside the gate is off-limits when you walk inside. It’s a whole different world. I actually mean it.”
Fettig said she was attending the Bananas’ playoff opener Sunday night against High Point-Thomasville, and brought a newcomer, Trinity Mitchell, when she re-entered that world.
Uniting the states
Fans traveling great distances to see the Bananas has become more common, the team reports, as interest nationally and beyond the borders has translated to ticket as well as merchandise sales.
Carson Bowen, the team’s member experience coordinator (more on the job title in a bit), reported Thursday that tickets have been purchased through the team by residents of 44 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Manitoba and Ontario in Canada, and Leeds, England.
They can’t shout USA bingo just yet with Hawaii, Montana, North and South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming still unchecked.
And yes, a family traveled all the way from Alaska. Bowen has proof, as he snapped a photo with them, part of his personal goal to take a selfie with fans from every state.
The team can’t track addresses when people buy tickets from other sources. They also aren’t accounting for visitors who are guests of ticket holders. Bowen noted a woman from Abu Dhabi attending a game with her friend from Savannah.
At a game July 1, for example, Bowen said fans from 26 states and Canada had bought tickets. Though they would have been happy to be counted, the fivemember Neemann family of Lincoln, Nebraska, was the guest of season ticket-holders and fellow Cornhuskers, their friends Jeremy and Kristin Wortman of Wilmington Island and their two children.
Not three full innings into the game, Bridgette Neemann took in the music, dancing, player-fan interactions, promotions and more.
“I wish Lincoln had something like this,” she said.
Her husband, Travis Neemann, noted the Lincoln Saltdogs, an independent league ballclub, and said: “If they did something like this, it’d be a big hit in Lincoln for sure.”
The best friend
Bowen was the general manager of the Coastal Plain League’s Wilmington (North Carolina) Sharks before joining the Bananas staff in November. He describes his job interacting with ticket holders thusly:
“The way I boil it down, I’m a professional best friend. I make sure people have fun. So it’s a pretty easy job,” he said.
He might also make a correlation to a hotel concierge the way he assists customers with a variety of needs and issues.
“A lot of it is making sure the experience of getting Bananas tickets is good, from even before they want to purchase,” Bowen said. “All of the communications and everything, we want to make sure they know what they’re getting themselves into, because it’s not a baseball game, it’s a Bananas game.”
Sometimes it’s a variation of the game called “Banana Ball.” While the Bananas play the conventional format in the Coastal Plain League each summer, in the offseason Savannah has created a schedule of exhibition contests for what is now called its Premier Team of professional players.
Banana Ball includes a two-hour time limit among a host of rules to speed up play and produce more action. One of these games was played in November 2020 for “Fansgiving,” and featured players dressed as pilgrims in keeping with the theme.
Among the fans who made the pilgrimage to BananaLand was Patrick Noote from the Chicago suburb of Round Lake Beach, Illinois.
Noote, 39, has taken the baseball fan’s dream of visiting the nation’s ballparks to a heightened reality. He estimates that over the past 10 years he has seen games in around 20 MLB stadiums, at least 20 parks of affiliated minor league teams and others such as in college summer leagues for a ballpark figure of 60 to 70 total, though he’s stopped counting.
The White Sox fan might be going on family vacations or with a group of former U.S. Air Force buddies to see baseball, but his usual travel companion is his best friend, Cubs fan Cory Nissen. They make a point to seek out multiple stadiums on one trip, do the research and map out locations. They’ve turned this passion project into a one-stop website, baseballmapper.com, to share this information with others and recently parlayed it into a business promoting teams.
When the pandemic shut down the minor leagues in 2020, Noote said he was “baseball starved” when he learned of the Fansgiving game. Visiting Savannah in November was not a tough call when compared to Chicagoland’s climate.
“We’re looking around and scouring the internet to find baseball that’s going on last year,” Noote recalled Saturday. “(The Bananas) were hard to miss. They have a way of standing out.”
He saw the videos explaining Banana Ball and was intrigued.
“All of what happens at a Bananas game, I’m seeing it live for the first time,” he said. “They’re going over the rules of the game. I can’t believe I could catch a (foul) ball and it would be an out. All of these things are just so cool.”
So cool that Noote made a second 1,000-mile drive to see the Bananas’ “One City World Tour” in March in Mobile, Alabama. Noote and Nissen pulled up at Hank Aaron Stadium just in time for the first game, and stayed the next day for the second contest. He saw people in Mobile, which had lost its Double-A Southern League team in 2019, go crazy for the Bananas and their merchandise.
When people outside the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry see the Bananas, they are traveling past their local teams and other ballclubs. They are going to see something new, something out of the norm.
“It is definitely going to be different, but people should understand that, especially with baseball, different doesn’t equal bad. Different can be the future,” Noote said.
“It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh, man, they’re trying to change baseball.’ Who says baseball doesn’t need a little change? As a baseball lover, are there things I am a little pure about? Sure.
“What I care most about is when I go to a game, there’s excitement. That can be part of what’s going on on the field, the actual game play of the players. But there’s also the experience.”
Patrick Jennings will never forget his experience at his first two Bananas games in the days leading to July 4.
A lawyer in Rye, New York, Jennings has dated Ali Kourides for about 10 years, and was prepared to pop the question. He decided it would happen during their first visit to the Hostess City. When they found out about the Bananas, going to a game became the top priority for the couple.
Well that, and picking a place to propose marriage, which would be a surprise. Jennings, 39, thought it might be “too cheesy” to propose at a baseball game, and Kourides’ friend told him that maybe a quieter setting would be better.
“Then we went (to the game) and loved it,” said Jennings, who had purposely left the ring at the hotel. “I’ll do this at the game on Saturday (July 3). We had such a good time on Thursday.”
A couple of things. First, Jennings was so determined to take Kourides to one Bananas game, which was sold out, that he paid $150 apiece to a ticket broker on the internet. That’s two tickets, at $18 face value and $36 together, for $300.
“I knew paying that type of money for a summer league baseball experience was outlandish, but also everything I read about them, this had floated to the top of our to-do list for the trip,” Jennings said. “I’m going to justify spending the money.”
The other thing is he didn’t have tickets to the Saturday game, which had long been sold out as an exhibition of Banana Ball between Savannah and Catawba Valley.
Jennings went to the Bananas for help and revealed a detail that makes the couple’s relationship all the more special. Kourides, otherwise the picture of health, had “out of the blue about three and a half years ago had a really tough cancer diagnosis, brain cancer,” Jennings said Saturday. “She’s doing very well now but has kind of been through hell and back.”
The Bananas found two tickets (at face value) for the couple and secretly plotted during phone calls with Jennings about the surprise proposal during the July 3 game. When the time came, a parade of Bananas players handed Kourides yellow roses for a bouquet, then Jennings, in a Bananas souvenir jersey, got down on one knee.
She said yes, and as spectators cheered, the moment was captured on video and by a Boston Globe reporter/ photographer who had traveled to Savannah to chronicle Banana Ball and the fans-first experience that has made the franchise a national story.
Jennings, while confirming that she didn’t think it was cheesy, said they enjoyed the Bananas game for a combination of reasons, including a sense of community and baseball played for fun.
“I think it is a quirky, competitive, fun environment,” Jennings said. “When you go there, every single person in the stadium, including players and the fans, has a huge smile on their face. Everybody is having a great time.”