April 13, 2020

THERE IS A PIECE OF BASEBALL HEAVEN HIDING ON THE EDGES OF DAFFIN PARK OFF OF VICTORY DRIVE IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA.

Grayson Stadium has been a staple of the Savannah cityscape since before many of the city’s signature squares were constructed, but over the past two decades, the orifice has sadly become a depressing historical asterisk rather than a celebrated landmark.

Multiple owners had tried and failed to attract crowds to Grayson, all the while trying to convince the city to fund a new ballpark. The baseball team went through a series of Major League affiliations from the Braves to the Cardinals to the Expos to the Mets. No matter the organization, the team rarely caused a ripple among residents of the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry.

Even when the on-field product was strong, as they were in the Sand Gnats’ final three seasons in town when they averaged 80-plus wins per year, the turnstiles rarely registered more than 2,000 fans per game. I know this struggle intimately. I was the general manager of the Sand Gnats for the 2004 season.

So, when the Sand Gnats left for a shiny new ballpark in Columbia, South Carolina, and got an immediate marketing boost with the arrival of Tim Tebow, few of the remaining Savannah diamond diehards expected a new tenant for their beloved Grayson.

Enter Jesse Cole, his wife, Emily, and his protégé Jared Orton. The trio had run a successful franchise in the summer collegiate Coastal Plains League in Gastonia, North Carolina. They saw Savannah as the next challenge, as a sleeping giant of baseball entertainment.

When they arrived in Savannah in October 2015, they were welcomed by a cobweb-covered Grayson and a heavy dose of pessimism.

“WE KNOW BASEBALL WAS DECLARED DEAD HERE,” said team president Orton, a former collegiate baseball player who was in the midst of his second stint of working with Cole. “WE GOT THE KEYS TO THE BALLPARK AND SAW A FIELD WITH NO NAME, NO LOGO, NO OFFICE, BUT WE HAD A DREAM. WE HAD NO HELP FROM PREVIOUS OWNERS, NO LISTS OF TICKET HOLDERS, SO WE STARTED TAKING PICTURES OF THE NAMES ON THE BACKS OF SEATS, GOOGLED PHONE NUMBERS, CALLED THE BUSINESSES WITH BILLBOARDS ON THE OUTFIELD WALLS, AND WENT TO WORK.”

Jesse had a history of taking on big projects. He became part owner of the Gastonia Grizzlies in 2014 with the team over $100,000 in debt. Cole quickly began turning things around in Gastonia, drawing attention from the baseball business community—including his future wife, who was working for a minor-league team in Augusta, Georgia, when she heard about Cole.

“My boss at the time heard Jesse speak at a conference,” Emily told WBUR in a 2018 interview. “And she actually left the room and called me and said, ‘I met the guy you’re going to marry.’”

Jesse proposed to Emily on the Gastonia pitcher’s mound between innings of a game. The pair soon took a celebratory trip to Savannah, where they first encountered Grayson.

“I REMEMBER JESSE TELLING ME THAT THE PAIR FELL IN LOVE WITH GRAYSON. THEY SAID IF IT WAS EVER AVAILABLE, WE WERE ALL HEADING TO SAVANNAH,” Orton said. “BUT GETTING HERE, WE DIDN’T FEEL MUCH LOVE BACK AT FIRST FROM OL’ GRAYSON.”

Orton said the crew sold four season tickets and one minor sponsorship package during their first four months in town. Cole never fretted, at least publicly. He had sold a brand of entertainment craziness in Gastonia that he was preparing to unleash on Savannah—one complete with Salute to Underwear Night, where those who wore their undergarments on the outside of their pants got a free ticket.

When the team introduced the Savannah Bananas logo in February 2016, fans quickly realized this wasn’t the same old baseball product. Yes, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle had all played at Grayson, but if baseball was to be part of the stadium’s future, a new path needed to be forged.

“WE QUICKLY SHOWED FOLKS THAT THIS IS ABOUT ENTERTAINMENT. IT’S A SHOW, IT’S A CIRCUS, AND WE’RE THE RINGMASTERS,” Orton said. “WE KNEW WE HAD TO QUADRUPLE DOWN ON THE ZANINESS. IF WE COULD JUST GET FANS TO THE STADIUM, THEY WOULD BE SAYING, ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW MUCH FUN I HAD TONIGHT.’”

They just had to survive until they could start showing off their plan. The Coles went millions of dollars into debt buying the franchise and prepping for the opening. At one point before opening day, their COO called to tell them they were officially out of money and had overdrawn their account.“

WE COMPLETELY BOOTSTRAPPED THIS THING. WE WERE DAY TO DAY AS TO WHETHER WE WERE GOING TO GET TO THAT FIRST GAME, BUT JESSE AND EMILY, THEY NEVER STOPPED PUSHING,” Orton said. The Coles sold their North Carolina home, bought a condo on Tybee Island, and went all-in on Savannah. “THEY PUSHED THE CHIPS INTO THE POT AND MADE IT CLEAR WE WERE NOT LOOKING BACK.”

Cole greeted fans and media at the Bananas logo announcement in a yellow tuxedo and has been the team’s human mascot ever since. He first began winning over Savannah residents and officials by making it clear there was no push for a new ballpark, that Grayson was the gem they wanted to polish.

Next, they introduced a radical plan. Most CPL teams sold tickets for $8 at best, but the Bananas were selling a season-ticket package that averaged $15 per ticket per game but included an all-you-can-eat buffet. All the ballpark staples were included: hot dogs, chips, chicken sandwiches, soda, and more.

Cole and Orton relentlessly blanketed the city with Bananas hype, and before they knew it, they had sold out their season opener—selling more than 4,000 tickets, a feat not seen at Grayson since John Smoltz did a rehab stint in the mid-’90s.

Fans were greeted with the Banana Band, a 10-pack of Dixie-playing musicians. Players passed out programs to fans and broke out in a choreographed dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” between innings.

Getting the players and coaches to buy into the fun is all part of the master plan.

“WE KNEW WE HAD TO BREAK DOWN THAT FOURTH WALL, GET FANS AND PLAYERS RECONNECTED AND REFOCUSED ON THE MAGIC OF THE GAME AND THE FUN,” Orton said. “LISTEN, THIS IS A LIVE SHOW 25 NIGHTS PER YEAR; IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE RIGHT HERE IN SAVANNAH AND THE LOWCOUNTRY.”

And a funny thing happened in the middle of the zaniness: the team was winning games. They won the league championship in 2016 and have won the division the past two years. Players raved about Savannah; their stats proved they played better in Savannah than they had before—a phenomenon that college professors and baseball executives alike have studied and lauded.

Grayson has been home to nonconformist comedy before. It was one of the settings for the 1976 Richard Pryor–Billy Dee Williams baseball film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. Sacha Baron Cohen filmed an all-time classic Borat segment at Grayson in 2002. But Savannah has never seen the level of sustained, laugh-out-loud wackiness that has been the Bananas.

The Coles won CPL Executives of the Year in 2016 and kept ramping up the fun.

That fun has included things such as the Banana Nanas, a crew of 11 retired women who dance on the field during games. A dancing first base coach who randomly broke out into twirls and romps between batters. Players going on dates with grandmas during games, filming music videos, and handing out roses to little girls Bachelor-style between innings. And the team wearing kilts for the entire game, an homage to the city’s rich St. Patrick’s Day celebration tradition.

Hollywood has even taken notice, as a number of TV projects focused on the Bananas story are in development—from sitcoms to reality show concepts.

The city has used SPLOST funds (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) to continue renovating and sprucing up the stadium. A new long-term lease is in the works. And the Coles have continued to invest in the fan experience, including the indoor-outdoor Stadium Club eatery off the third-base line where the Sand Gnats’ dilapidated trailer office used to sit.

The team has drawn regulars from as far away as Macon and has been just as ferocious in bringing in fans from the Lowcountry.

“Listen, I’m 78 years old, and I’m as much of a fuddy-duddy baseball purist as you’ll find,” said Sun City resident Jim Travers. “I go to those games, and it’s like a fountain of youth. It is the most fun you’ll ever get that fits a social security check budget. It is amazing.”

“ANYTHING THAT IS THE NORM, THROW IT OUT, THAT’S WHAT WE SAY. OUR COMPANY NAME IS FANS FIRST ENTERTAINMENT, AND IT’S WHAT WE LIVE AND WHAT WE PREACH,” Orton said. And it is a strategy that has led to three-and-a-half straight seasons of sellouts, 88 games, and going strong heading into 2020. To be fair, not every creative spaghetti noodle the trio has thrown has stuck to the wall. The team tried equally “out there” event nights during the off-season that flopped.

“We would be running these events and fans would say, ‘Yeah, but where are the Bananas?’ It taught us a lesson,” Orton said. “No matter how much you paint outside the lines, there is still a lane that works, and baseball is the center of that for us.”

So as the team enters its fifth season in 2020, Orton said there will be plenty of celebrating—including honoring sponsors and ticket holders who bought into the Bananas when the Coles had pennies in their bank account.

Fans First is committing to a whole new level of innovation as well. They have committed to an ad-free game experience. No more billboards, no more sponsors—a potential loss of $500,000 in business relationships, all in the name of truly transforming the ballgame experience.“

Sponsors have committed to us, but that marketing meeting where we’re trying to pitch new ways to sell their brand to fans who don’t want to be sold to at games, we know it became a stale conversation. So, we converted as many of those sponsor dollars to group ticket sales for their company’s employees,” Orton said. “We’re going to sell our brand to local businesses instead, show them the secret sauce of how to sell fun to potential customers. We truly believe these ideas will work in any business environment.”

It is a concept that could upend the entire sports world. Pure madness, the establishment will say. But given what we’ve seen in the transformation in Daffin Park, are you really going to bet against the modern-day Bill Veeck in the yellow tuxedo?“

WE THRIVE ON THE NAYSAYERS. WE FEAR BEING IRRELEVANT, SO YOU’RE GOING TO SEE MORE IDEAPALOOZA THAN EVER BEFORE,” Orton said. “FANS DON’T DESERVE THE WORD ‘NO.’ THEY DESERVE ANYTHING GOES, NO BOUNDARIES. AND THAT’S WHAT THEY’LL GET AS LONG AS THE BANANAS ARE HERE.”

Written by Tim Wood. Photography courtesy of The Savannah Bananas and Malcolm Tully.

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