The words “rained out” bring to mind a nearly empty grandstand, soggy employees pulling on the tarp, and players heading for the locker room. But not for the Savannah Bananas (summer collegiate; Coastal Plain League).
On a recent game night, my son and I headed to Historic Grayson Stadium, home of the Bananas. It was a night when anyone could see that rain was coming. Dark clouds loomed on the horizon, but we had tickets waiting and only one night in Savannah, so we headed to the yard anyway.
What we found was a parking lot quickly filling with cars, people streaming through the gates, a local radio station and a sponsor display on the concourse, and one of America’s most beautiful historic ballparks buzzing with the energy of a fan base that is clearly buying into what the Bananas are selling. And in the middle of all this activity is a latter-day Bill Veeck, the yellow tuxedo-clad Bananas co-owner Jesse Cole.
BRINGING FORTH THE BANANAS
Following the 2015 season, the Savannah Sand Gnats (Low A; Sally League), moved to a shiny new state-of-the-art ballpark in Columbia, South Carolina. While Columbia was embracing the new team, and a certain minor leaguer named Tim Tebow was about to give that team an incredible marketing boost, the future of baseball was uncertain in Savannah. But the Bananas leaped into the void and have created something special in this coastal Georgia city of Spanish moss and historic architecture. Bananas games are a happening; Savannah has averaged attendance of over 4,000 per night during each of their three seasons at Grayson Stadium.
THE BANANAS TREE
On the night of our visit, the rain did finally start to fall, in driving sheets. But the fans were largely unconcerned, since the roof of this classic brick, concrete and steel grandstand covers nearly all the seats. The Banana’s secret weapon, the all-you-can eat season ticket holder buffet, sits in the main concourse, below the seating bowl, and is likewise sheltered from bad weather.
This main grandstand, which has been the home of baseball in Savannah since 1926, underwent a major renovation performed in 1941. The stadium sits among the live oak trees at one end of Daffin Park, which also includes tennis courts, youth sports fields and a lake and marina. The ballpark’s brick exterior, featuring arches that are reminiscent of Ebbets Field, supports a green roof that hugs the upper rows of seats. The concourse is liberally decorated with team history, photos and team and sponsor logos.
A more recent addition to Grayson Stadium, the massive, three level deck down the first base line, was added when the Sand Gnats were the ballpark tenant. This deck was constructed on top of a large portion of the old concrete bleacher section. The top level of this deck includes a roof and a bar, and bar top tables. This part of the ballpark was also crowded with people during the rain delay.
Like most older ballparks, there are no luxury suites in this stadium, but the ABR Stadium Club, opened in 2017, is an enclosed, air-conditioned space fronted by a private deck with outdoor seating, capable of hosting up to 120 members. Sitting where the team offices (aka trailer) used to sit back in the 90’s, just beyond the third base end of the grandstand, this club area includes the same all-you-can-eat concept as tickets in the main grandstand, but with food from local restaurants and a full bar included in the package.
OOZING WITH HISTORY
Aside from this new club area and a few rows of plastic fold-down seats, the seating bowl of the ballpark could be used in a historical baseball movie. In fact, this was one of the filming locations for The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings, the classic baseball movie featuring Billie Dee Williams and Richard Pryor.
Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron are among the numerous all-time greats who played here. The infamous Jim Bouton, author of the tell-all baseball book “Ball Four,” pitched for the Double A Savannah Braves as a 39-year-old knuckleballer during his comeback bid in 1978, documented in the re-release, “Ball Four Plus Ball Five.”
A few personal historical notes come to mind, as well. My old boss, Miles Wolff, the founder of the Durham Bulls and the godfather of modern independent baseball, was the General Manager of Savannah Braves in the early 70’s. As one of the founders of the Coastal Plain League, I also have a very strong feeling of pride in the success of the CPL. I am particularly fond of teams like Savannah, Wilson, and Edenton, where summer college baseball is providing new life for great old historic ballparks bringing families together and enhancing the quality of life in their communities.
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
I’ll get off my “baseball cures all ills” soapbox now, and share my thoughts on the Bananas “Secret Sauce.” As mentioned above, the buffet is a key ingredient, but it’s the overall packaging, including game presentation, pricing, branding and attitude that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. A season ticket for the Bananas works out to about $15 per game. That’s steep for summer college ball, where ticket prices typically range from “pass the hat” in much of the Cape Cod League up to $8 for the very successful Wilson Tobs. But in Savannah, season tickets also includes a bracelet for each game that grants access to the buffet, set up in the first base concourse. And this isn’t a stingy buffet. They include hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, chips, popcorn, soda, water and cookies. The food I sampled, a hot dog, a chicken sandwich, and a cookie, were excellent.
This arrangement also helps alleviate one of the biggest problems that teams have faced over the years at Grayson; limited concessions space and a very small concourse. By eliminating the need for a cash transaction and allowing fans to simply walk through and pick up their own food, the team saves labor and money, and gets fans back to the action faster without the annoyance of waiting on line.
The Bananas aren’t the first team to offer all-you-can-eat options, but it’s rare for a team to make all their reserved season tickets include food and drink. The current arrangement is, as described by team president Jared Orton, maybe “too good a deal,” but it certainly has created a strong demand for the team’s tickets. Yet, they have also created an entertainment product that adds even more value to the equation. In this era of increasing competition for live events, and the increasingly powerful draw of the couch, team owners Jesse and Emily Cole have created a happening by offering a value proposition that is simply too good to refuse.
And, the crowds themselves become part of the package; it’s always more fun to be at a packed event. The crowds also feed additional revenue streams; items like nachos, beer, and ice cream all seemed to be selling briskly, and merchandise sales must be strong judging by the number of fans wearing team apparel. With the crowds the Bananas are drawing, sponsorship sales must be a particularly strong revenue stream. Over time, one would expect that the Bananas will seek to generate more revenue from their food and ticket packages, but the important thing is they have started the team’s history off with a resounding “bang.”
FUN & GAMES
The game presentation, even for a rainout, was high energy and fans were engaged. This is one of the tricky elements of this type of promotion; if the fans don’t buy in, high octane promotions can fall flat and wind up detracting from the fan experience. In Savannah, the fans have bought in, and their “Director of Fun” Tyler Gray keeps things moving along, sporting his own trademark leopard skin tuxedo and Bryce Harper-esque headband.
For example, the first on-field activity we witnessed involved a port-o-let carried out on to the field. The Bananas then attempted to see how many people could be stuffed inside. The second act pitted a Bananas player and a Grizzlies player in a banana eating contest, with a twist. The bananas were covered in spicy toppings that made them all but inedible as the two players attempted to choke them down to much laughter and applause. Once the rain came down, the fans were entertained by a variety of promotions. First up was team owner Cole, exuding excitement, running to various locations around the grandstand, flinging bananas into the outstretched fluorescent hip waders of other team staff stationed in the front rows behind home plate. Each successful throw drew big cheers, and many fans took selfies with Cole between throws.
Once the game was officially called off, the Bananas staff added dish soap to the trough of water pooled on top of the tarp along the first base line. Many of the Bananas players, clad in just their shorts and t-shirts, proceeded to use the shiny grey tarp as the world’s largest slip-and-slide, competing to see who could slide the farthest. The fans ate it up, with cheers and laughs.
Another significant element to the festive atmosphere is the Banana Band. A pep band-style of roughly a dozen people played at the entrance as fans come in and paraded through the concourse and grandstand during the rain delay.
THE INTERWEB TUBES
While it’s not an obvious part of the game experience, the Bananas put significant effort into video and social media. A quick search of You Tube yields promotional videos, music video parodies, game highlights, and the type of comedy shorts that help capture the attention of today’s digitally immersed young people. The team is invested in this type of promotion, with a full-time staff person carrying the title of Director of Film & Production, and it seems that little happens around the ballpark that isn’t being filmed.
It’s also clear that many fans are sharing their photos and experiences on-line, broadcasting the atmosphere of Grayson Stadium to friend and family, making it the “place to be,” and furthering the cycle of success.
There are a lot of moving parts; a much bigger full-time staff than the average summer college team, a loaded promotional calendar, a team owner/operator who is a relentless and successful self-promoter (I just started reading his book, Find Your Yellow Tux), an innovative pricing structure and, of course, great summer college baseball. And it’s all working; this is an operation hitting on all cylinders. While we didn’t see a game, the rainout was evidence enough that a Savannah Bananas game is an experience worth the time and effort of any fan of historic ballparks and great promotions.
IF YOU GO
During our last trip to Savannah, we were travelling as a family. While the charming inns in the historic district are appealing, most of those establishments feature just one bed in each room. Not ideal for a family looking to save money by cramming four people in one room. We wound up at the Homewood Suites Riverfront, and it was fantastic. A modern property just at the end of the riverfront historical district, it was a great walkable location. There was also a complimentary happy hour, with heavy hors d’oeuvres and beer and wine, as well as a hot breakfast buffet, all included in the room price. A small pool is the centerpiece of a rooftop patio that features a guests-only bar with live acoustic music, a fire pit, and great views of the city. The staff was extremely nice, the hotel itself is new and upscale, and prices are reasonable. The only knock is that the hotel only offers valet parking, for $30 a night! We parked a few blocks away on a city street for free, though, with no trouble. Aside from that, this place is a gem.
Homewood Suites by Hilton Historic District/Riverfront; 611 E. River Street, Savannah, GA
While the historic riverfront area of Savannah offers many terrific restaurants, my favorite place to eat in the Savannah area is about 20 minutes away in Tybee Island. The Crab Shack is a unique local waterfront restaurant that features an alligator pond and a funky indoor/outdoor vibe that feels like the place was build one room at a time. The seafood is terrific, but the atmosphere and views are truly one-of-a-kind.
The Crab Shack; 40 Estill Hammock Rd, Tybee Island, GA 912/786-9857 www.thecrabshack.com
Second and fourth images courtesy Savannah Bananas. All others by Mark Cryan.
Mark Cryan is the author of Cradle of the Game: Baseball and Ballparks in North Carolina. Order it now at augustpublications.com.
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