Editor's note: This story originally ran on June 17, 2021. Episode 1 of the new ESPN+ Original Series Bananaland is now available, and there are Banana Ball World Tour games on our air tonight (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN+) and tomorrow (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).
THERE'S A WAITLIST for "Banana Baby." The Savannah Bananas, a collegiate summer league team that routinely takes a sledgehammer to conventionality, begin each home game by wrapping an infant in a banana outfit and raising the baby to the sky like Simba. Up to 30 babies are usually waiting to partake in this ritual, some of whom haven't even been born yet. It is not uncommon for women to request placement on that list immediately after learning they are pregnant.
"Banana Baby" has become one of the team's most popular staples, but it also stands among its most conservative.
The Bananas once famously played a baseball game in kilts, then decided to make it an annual tradition. They employ a pep band and a dancing first-base coach. Their cheerleading squad, the "Man-Nanas," is made up of out-of-shape middle-aged men, and their dance team, the "Banana Nanas," consists of women in their late 60s. Their players routinely take part in choreographed dances, star in extravagant movie parodies and conduct postgame interviews inside of bathroom stalls. Since their inaugural season in 2016, the Bananas have staged an assortment of competitions in which fans dress in horse outfits, toss water balloons or repeatedly pie one another in the face.
It's baseball, but it's also part circus and part professional wrestling, with cruise-like entertainment and Harlem Globetrotter sensibilities -- and maybe Major League Baseball can learn something from it.
MLB finds itself at what increasingly feels like a breaking point. Games are longer than ever at a time when the world is moving faster than ever. The time between balls in play has never been greater, and the young fan has never been more elusive, a harsh reality that has triggered experimentation throughout the industry for a sport that is historically slow to change.
The Bananas, who operate out of the Coastal Plain League, sell out every game. Their TikTok account boasts more than 575,000 followers, more than any major league team. Their brand has somehow become national. The mastermind is a 37-year-old, yellow-tuxedoed iconoclast named Jesse Cole, a former collegiate pitcher who scoffs at the rigidities of professional baseball.
Today, he oversees an exaggerated version of what MLB strives to tap into -- an action-packed brand of baseball that encourages fun, doesn't take itself too seriously and resonates with a casual audience.
"All innovation is about falling in love with a problem," Cole said. "We saw a problem -- that people were saying baseball is too long, too slow, too boring. We said, 'How do we defeat that?' And so we started testing on that."