We have ways to quantify how much people love the Savannah Bananas. The collegiate summer league team has millions of followers on social media drawn to its entertaining antics on and around the baseball field.
Every home game is sold out at 4,000-plus singing, dancing and cheering spectators — a streak that dates back to the inaugural season of 2016.
Bananas games are the toughest ticket in Savannah, with a waiting list for single-game tickets around 75,000 requests. Grayson Stadium is a destination for Bananas fans from across this country and beyond its borders.
But don’t overlook the annual seasons of love experienced by the players. Since the inaugural season, hundreds have worn banana yellow uniforms (sometimes accessorized with plaid kilts), with many returning for multiple years.
This year’s squad followed the 2021 bunch as Coastal Plain League champions. On Friday night at Grayson Stadium, the Bananas shut out the Wilson (NC) Tobs 11-0 to sweep the best-of-three series in two games for back-to-back Petitt Cup titles.
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All-Star catcher Indiana Stanley loves the Bananas so much, he didn’t want to see the season end on Friday night. He actually wouldn’t have minded playing a Game 3 on Saturday.
“Honestly, I kind of wish we lost today so we could play another game,” Stanley said moments after the team celebrated with a dogpile on the mound, doused each other with sparkling cider and took turns holding the championship trophy.
“I love these guys. I’d do anything to be around them all the time. I hate the fact that it’s over, to be honest.”
Stanley, in his first season in Savannah, became a Banana on a temporary basis when he learned the team needed a backup catcher to start the summer schedule. The junior out of Columbia (Missouri) College didn’t know anything about the wonders of Bananaland.
He not only learned quickly, Stanley became one of eight Bananas voted to the CPL All-Star Game at midseason. He played exceptional baseball while simultaneously competing on the team’s in-house “Dancing with the Bananas” online video series for much of the campaign.
“Every single day you’re put to work. Every single day you had a game,” said Stanley, from Cumming, Georgia. “You had a job to do. The best part of our crew is they always got the job done. It doesn’t matter if it was one guy or another guy, somebody stepped up every time. Somebody had the will to find a way . It was a lot of brotherly love. We were doing it for each other.”
All-Star pitcher Jared Donalson loves the Bananas so much, he turned down at least seven offers from independent leagues to leave the collegiate team and play professional baseball this summer.
The right-hander from Albany State, who graduated from Georgia Southwestern in the spring, is also a rookie Banana. He became the top starter for the defending league champions, and won the playoff opener against the Macon Bacon on Sunday, July 31. Called “Donny” by the team, he closed out the Tobs on Friday night with seven shutout innings, allowing five hits and two walks with six strikeouts.
“We got on the bus (Thursday) night after the (Game 1) win and we knew whose day it was, it was Donny Day,” said teammate Bryson Bloomer, a member of the last two championship teams. “He did exactly like everybody expected. It’s what studs do, and he’s a stud.”
Donaldson said he asked head coach Tyler Gillum for the start on Friday. He wanted to put up zeroes and give the team a chance to win it all.
“Adrenaline was going. I wanted to come out here and just give it my all,” Donaldson said. “It would be my last outing in college baseball. I wanted to come out here and prove that I belong. Come out here and do it for these guys we’ve worked all summer for, and just bust my butt for them.”
Gillum said Donaldson’s best pitch is a “plus-plus splitter” that’s not easy to command. He called it lethal to hitters. Donaldson said it’s “a dangerous duo” when his fastball is also effective, and it was moving on Friday. He stayed ahead of hitters in the count and combined with relievers Dylan Cunningham, Bobby McBride and Nolan Daniel to keep the Tobs off the scoreboard.
“(Donalson) was cruising tonight. He was feeling good,” Gillum said. “Man, that guy needs to be picked up by a major league organization. I hope somebody picks him up. Somebody needs to. He was our No. 1 all summer. He was great. He stepped up in the biggest moment and went seven scoreless. It’s special.”
Path to the championship
The Bananas have now won three league crowns, including 2016, in six seasons — not including the pandemic-cancelled playoffs of 2020. Gillum, who took over in 2018, has two CPL titles to add to a career as a player and coach highlighted by titles with high school, college and summer league teams.
“I think they’re all different — different groups, different journeys, different ways to get to it,” Gillum said. “It’s fun no matter how you get to it. I think they’re all unique.”
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Team owner Jesse Cole noted that the 2022 squad faced adversity late in the season by losing three standout hitters through the MLB draft or free-agent signings (Levan Reinoso, Beau Brewer and Nick Clarno), All-Star position player Drew Yniesta to injury and All-Star left-hander Carson Dorsey, who was drafted and returned to college.
“This team showed grit and perseverance and a lot of heart. It’s fun to watch,” Cole said.
“It’s a testament to Tyler Gillum and the guys and the fans. The best fan support in the world. When you think about every night sold out, I think it’s almost an unfair advantage.”
The friendly borders
It’s certainly a home-field edge enjoyed by the Bananas, who went 34-14 overall in the regular season.
They swept both playoff series to go 4-0 in the playoffs, beating the Macon Bacon and the Wilson Tobs once a piece in front of packed crowds at Grayson.
“I like to think of it like Texas A&M (football games) with the 12th man,” Donaldson had said after an 8-3 win over Macon on July 31 to improve the Bananas to 10-0 versus the Bacon in Savannah this season. “We’ve got our 10th man here with the crowd. You can’t beat the atmosphere we have with the guys behind you, the fans behind you, all 4,500 of them. It’s easy to play ball when you’ve got the great fans at Grayson Stadium.”
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The Bananas were among the top teams in records and statistics. Their pitchers led the CPL in team ERA (2.82) and fewest walks issued (151) and were second of 14 teams with 480 strikeouts.
Savannah hitters struck out the fewest times (343 in 48 games), led in triples (15), were second in RBIs (253) and third in team batting average (.273), runs (286), hits (426) and doubles (74).
Playing Gillum’s style of hitting for contact (they tied for 12th with 16 homers) and aggressive baserunning, the Bananas led the league in stolen bases (154). Not that they didn’t have power on occasion, with All-Star outfielder Ty Jackson smacking his first homer at Grayson Stadium in the bottom of the eighth for the final run against the Tobs. Savannah scored in seven of its eight frames.
“This team was laidback, but, man, we love to compete and create chaos on the basepaths,” Bloomer said. “That’s what we did all night. We put a lot of pressure on them. We just say all year to have fun. That’s how we won it all: We just had fun all year.”
Stanley said they are ballplayers first, and baseball is the foundation of the team.
“I think if you’re going to be able to do the entertainment aspect of what we do in Bananaland, you have to be good,” he said.
In addressing the crowd in the postgame celebration, Gillum noted that it is important for “all those people around the world who think we just dance,” to know this is a real good baseball team.
“We try to do everything,” Gillum said in an interview later while giving credit to his coaching staff and players. “When I took over in 2018, I told Jesse (Cole), you’re selling out crowds, you’re doing the entertainment. I want to bring the best development in summer collegiate baseball here, and I want to collaborate and marry those two of the best entertainment plus the best baseball. Here we are five years later, and we’re back-to-back CPL champs.”
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at [email protected] Twitter: @NathanDominitz