Bananas mashed: Barnstorming baseball team loses on the field but wins hearts of audience

When you think of North Carolina’s connection to sports, you likely think of basketball. After all, the Tar Heel State is home to NBA legend Michael Jordan and two of the nation’s premier college basketball programs.

However, a special guest may have proved that baseball is both on the rise and holds some serious staying power in the state in the years to come. 

This weekend, the Savannah Bananas, a traveling independent baseball team, brought their Banana Ball World Tour to Durham, playing a three-game weekend series at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in front of sellout crowds from April 12 to 14. The event comes on the back of a recent baseball buzz in the Triangle, as both Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill are having spectacular seasons to build on an already strong sporting tradition in the area.

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The Bananas made the transition from a regular club to one that prioritizes entertainment by playing games against their rival, the Party Animals, under a set of Banana Ball rules that alter the traditional structure of America’s favorite pastime.

Quirks of Banana Ball include a ban on walks and batters being allowed to steal first. Fans can get involved too — if a fan catches a foul ball, it’s automatically out. 

“I think it's just the energy and the tempo of the game,” said Party Animal Reece Hampton when asked how this style differs from traditional baseball. “It's so fast and so captivating for the crowd. You might look away for 10 seconds and you miss two plays.”

This alternative style appeals to a different demographic, including children and others who cannot quite sit through the length of a typical professional baseball game.

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In between regular play, both teams have choreographed dances and activities aimed at riling up the crowd while utilizing props such as stilts to engage the audience. 

“I think it really targets a different demographic. It's got kids fired up about the game of baseball, unlike anything in a really long time and makes it fun for them,” said Bananas third baseman Eric Jones Jr. “Anybody that really loves baseball, they can see the high level play that's going on out here on the field and I think they can appreciate that, so it's got something for everybody.”

This strategy seems to have paid off, as the game was filled with children and parents alike on their feet cheering and joining in on the various dances and cheers prompted by the teams.

While baseball games at DBAP usually consist of fans meandering into a mostly full stadium just a little while before game time, the two-hour contest was part of a day-long ordeal. From around 1 p.m. to first pitch at 7 p.m., the streets around the stadium were crawling with fans looking to buy merchandise and take in the scenes. 

By the time 5 p.m. rolled around, Very Important Bananas (VIBs) rushed in through the third-base entrance, entering to raucous applause from the players and a performance from the Banana Band. Some sprinted to secure the best seats possible, while others made a beeline to meet the players and get autographs on the field. 

Once the general admission gates opened 30 minutes later, the pull of Banana Ball was fully evident, as the seats quickly filled all the way out to Home Run Hill in the outfield and the majority of the fans donning their newly purchased Bananas or Party Animals merchandise.

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The Bananas and Party Animals are not just entertainers. The majority of the players on both rosters played collegiate baseball, with some even being selected in the MLB Draft. 

For a few select players, this weekend series in Durham had a little extra meaning to it, as the games were a homecoming of sorts for Jones and Noah Bridges on the Bananas and Hampton on the Party Animals. All three players grew up in North Carolina and played their college ball nearby as well, playing at Davidson College, UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Charlotte, respectively. 

While they are not playing the typical version of professional baseball, all three have bought into this new alternative style of the game, still utilizing their physical gifts while also tapping into their creative side. 

“I was kind of thinking back, I was like, wow. I was 12 years old, watching out here thinking this was the coolest thing that could be on a baseball field and now I'm down here,” Bridges said, reminiscing on coming to DBAP as a child. 

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The contests this weekend had 10,000 rowdy fans each night, building a sense of community and introducing a new group of supporters to the sport. As the Saturday contest wound down, the announcer asked attendees to pull out their phones and wave their flashlights along to “Yellow” by Coldplay with the players. Nearly everyone obliged, creating a magical experience for fans and players alike that showed just how powerful the effects of baseball can be.

“It's like it means the world to them; it's really for the fans,” Bridges said. “It's entertainment and it’s pretty cool.”

As baseball continues to shine this spring in Durham and beyond, the Bananas showed this weekend that there’s still room for another type of ball in the hoop state.


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