TRENTON, N.J. — The show has already started.
Some fans have been outside Trenton Thunder Ballpark since the morning, standing in the blazing sun. Eating hot dogs. Sipping beers. Buying merchandise. Playing catch.
It is 2 p.m. on Wednesday, and the Savannah Bananas will throw their first pitch in five hours.
Thousands in South Jersey are adorned in the yellow gear — shirts, hats, gloves, foam fingers, the works — of the social media phenomenon that has been embraced like a favorite band; in town for one night only.
“My [10-year-old son, Liam] showed us clips and this was literally the only thing he wanted for Christmas,” said Jennifer Schuler, who drove from Maryland and purchased the tickets 10 months ago. “We have friends that have tried for months and couldn’t get tickets.”
The event is equal parts baseball, Broadway, Bar Mitzvah, amusement park and Harlem Globetrotters.
A young teenager ripe for embarrassment wears a full-size banana suit and proudly poses for a picture with his family. Goofy smiles spread across their faces. The hardest ticket in town is a permission slip to be silly, to enjoy the absurd.
The music is blasting. It’s always blasting. Fans are dancing. They’re always dancing. Confetti flies. Bananas are thrown and quickly scooped up off the concrete. Some are consumed. Some are saved as souvenirs.
Security offers a reminder not to run from the waiting area to the main gate. Because people have. Because people will. The doors open at 5:30 p.m. Seating is general admission, so fans crowd the gate like it’s Black Friday outside Best Buy.
The team’s marching band joins the festivities. Players come out for autographs and photographs, then perform a choreographed dance to “Hey! Baby.” The gates open after a countdown from 11 because 10 is too boring. Fans sprint up the stairs. The 6,440-seat stadium is standing-room only. The lines for merchandise seem to stretch to Delaware.
Former college pitcher Alex Ziegler is on the field, balancing a ladder on his chin. Teammates Bill Leroy and Kyle Luigs are in the stands, hurling bananas into the oversized pants of fans on the field. There is a shirtless weigh-in and a kickline along the third-base line.
An 8-year-old boy hits a Little League-style home run and is mobbed by the Bananas. A 6-year-old girl invents a dance for the crowd to follow. A 10-month-old is the designated “Banana Baby,” given a Simba-like introduction from the mound.
“As soon as people get pregnant, they call our office because they want it to be their baby,” Bananas owner Jesse Cole said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Cole — the ringleader, sporting a yellow tuxedo and top hat — the players and the pep band march through the concourse. One fan is given a judge’s robe and authorization to challenge a play in the game.
It’s easy to forget a game is happening.
It has a two-hour time limit. A running clock is displayed on the scoreboard. During the first at-bat, Bananas pitcher Jared Donaldson intentionally throws behind Trenton’s Anthony Fontana. The catcher then crawls through the batter’s legs and does a handstand after recording the out, as a Bon Jovi song belts in the background.
“It’s important not just to know who you’re for — families, really anybody that wants to have fun — but also to know who you’re not for,” Cole said. “We are not for the baseball traditionalists.”
Welcome to Bananaland.
The show debuts in Staten Island on Friday and Saturday nights. Both games are sold out, just as every one of the Bananas’ trips to 33 cities has been this year, just like every game the team has played since it was founded in 2016.
The waiting list for tickets stretches more than 850,000 people deep, according to Cole, who said at least 3,000 people are added every day. The Bananas have more than 7 million followers on TikTok. Their partner and rival, the Party Animals — a more successful version of the Washington Generals — has 1.3 million followers, more than any MLB team.
When Cole, 39, stopped pitching at Wofford College, he joined the chorus of fans who complain that baseball has become too slow and too long.
“I was coaching in the Cape Cod League, I have the best seat in the house and I’m bored out of my mind,” Cole said. “I looked and said, ‘What are the boring parts of baseball? How can we get the fans involved? How can we change the game so no fan would ever want to leave early? If we could start from scratch, how would we do it?’
“I look at whatever’s normal and do the exact opposite.”
He created Banana Ball, the most drastic procedure ever performed on America’s pastime.
Bunts trigger ejections. Stepping out of the box prompts a strike. There are no mound visits. There are no walks; only sprints in which every fielder must touch the ball before the runner can be tagged. Batters can steal first whenever they please. Teams try to win the most innings, akin to match play golf. A tie game results in a fast-paced one-on-one showdown, which begins with a battle between hitter and pitcher, with no other fielders.
“I see Banana Ball as its own sport,” head coach Tyler Gillum said. “It’s all about creating joy. We went to Vegas and some of the fans after the game said, ‘I’ve lived in Vegas my entire life and this is the best show I’ve ever seen.’ ”
The most popular rule is that an out is recorded if a fan catches a foul ball. It happened multiple times Wednesday night, including a third-inning grab by a 10-year-old girl, who was brought onto the field and cheered by the team.
“We were in North Carolina and a 10-year-old kid caught a hard line drive that ended the game for us to win,” first baseman Dan Oberst said. “Imagine being that kid. That’s gonna stick with that kid the rest of his life. He was a hero in that moment.”
The game is filled with choreographed dance routines by the players and umpires — one double prompted 10 teammates to gather at second base for a rendition of “Cotton Eye Joe” — and stunts, which include hitting with a flaming bat, contortionist and break-dancing coaches and Dakota “Stilts” Albritton, who pitches and performs headfirst slides from a height of 10-feet-9.
“I saw Stilts on YouTube and it was so cool,” said 13-year-old River Knepp, sporting a banana costume. “Baseball can get boring sometimes. This is never boring.”
There are no breaks in the action. Only transitions. It is a toddler bouncing from one toy to another, always in search of something new. There is no chance to be bored, to pick up your phone and browse for nothing. You can’t put your head down. You don’t know what you’ll miss.
The scoreboard tallies hits, runs and trick plays. Shortstop Ryan Cox found inspiration from the AND1 Mixtapes and has performed more than 100 tricks on this tour. Matt Wolf has thrown 18 different pitches. Center fielder DR Meadows backflips while catching fly balls.
Cole comes up with 10 new ideas every day. Coaches and players also contribute in “Saturday Night Live”-inspired meetings, with pitch sessions, scripts and rehearsals, which require hours of fine-tuning before each game.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Max Giordano, a Trenton Thunder infielder. “I think sometimes as baseball players we take the game so seriously. It is just a game. It’s a reminder to take a step back and remember to just have fun.”
The Bananas look fresh, nearly 70 games into their season. Their enthusiasm is relentless and contagious, unquestionably genuine in countless meetings with fans.
Stilts is the marquee attraction, turning the heads of toddlers, seniors and all in between. Children approach him with wonder and glee, showing off his autograph and high-five.
Tell them he isn’t Mike Trout.
“I don’t think it will ever get old,” Stilts said.
At 23, Cole became general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies. Tasked with generating interest in a team drawing roughly 200 fans per game, Cole turned to the promotional tricks of P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney and former MLB owner Bill Veeck.
After helping attendance explode in Gastonia, N.C., Cole and his wife, Emily, turned their attention to historic Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Ga., which had lost its minor league team. They believed their model would thrive in a bigger market, so much so that they sold their home, emptied their bank accounts and slept on an air mattress upon founding the franchise in 2016.
“It was a great start to our marriage,” Cole said. “We were seven figures in debt and grocery shopping with just $30 for the week.
“We knew it could be big. We just had to get people to come that first game. We would drive an hour and a half to sell 10 tickets. ‘Oh, there’s a possibility, there’s a small church out in Buford, who said they might be interested,’ and we were off.”
First, the team needed a name.
A fan contest produced thousands of responses. One — which met with significant local disapproval — felt most fun.
“When we first started, very few people wanted to play for a team named after a fruit,” Cole said. “The first day, we gave them coaching on how to handle that criticism.”
The Bananas played in collegiate summer baseball’s Coastal Plain League, winning titles in 2016, 2021 and 2022. But the future of the franchise took shape in 2019, when Cole introduced Banana Ball to his former coaches at Wofford, who oversaw a field test with their players.
“They played nine innings in 99 minutes,” Cole said. “They said it was the most fun they ever had playing.”
It was fan-friendly. That mattered most. It is the ethos of Cole’s company (“Fans First Entertainment”).
Before the Bananas were a brand, fans were attracted by tickets priced at $25, which had no fees and included an all-you-can-eat option in Savannah. Advertising was eliminated at the stadium. The sellouts started, the waiting list ballooned and social media found millions of fans from around the world.
In 2021, the Bananas left Savannah for the first time on a “One City World Tour” to Mobile, Ala. Both games sold out.
“People lined up hours early,” Cole said. “We said, ‘All right, something’s here.’ ”
Cole employs a crew of roughly 130 people at every game. There is a waiting list for potential employees. More than 1,000 players battled for a spot on the team, for which on-field talent isn’t enough.
“To come into this, they gotta know what they’re signing up for,” Gillum said. “We’re gonna dance on the dugout. We’re gonna interact with fans. And the reason we’re gonna do that is because we’re gonna play in front of a sold-out crowd every night. We get back to our hotel at 1 in the morning and hundreds of people are waiting for us.
“In those early years we needed to have Banana orientation. Players arriving weren’t really sure because it was so new. It’s a different beast once you get into Bananaland.”
Banana Ball’s popularity led to the team leaving its collegiate league last year to focus on “the greatest show in sports.” A team filled with players whose baseball careers appeared over, but are the envy of countless minor leaguers still chasing the dream.
“We’re hearing from guys in contract in Double-A and Triple-A that have their agent involved that want to leave their contract with major league affiliates to play with us,” Cole said. “It’s bonkers to me, but again, that grind of minor league baseball, getting paid very little, chance of making it slim, versus playing sold-out stadiums everywhere and having fun.
“You play to have fun as a kid and then it becomes so competitive. We’re bringing that back.”
Banana Ball could be played in the boroughs next year, when the tour will debut at MLB stadiums. International games could begin in 2025.
It is “Hamilton,” ready to hit Broadway.
“We keep saying we’re in the first inning,” Gillum said. “My buddy in the Rangers organization is working in the Dominican Republic and he sent me a picture this morning of a kid in the DR with a Bananas uniform on.”
No one leaves the game early, because it’s still early.
You try to beat traffic and you risk missing Ziegler swing a bat that is longer than him. Or a pitcher throwing with a motorcycle helmet on. Or Stilts inducing a fan-assisted out to end the eighth, then dancing and joining fans in the stands.
You would miss Cox — representing the winning run — opening the bottom of the ninth with a hit, then performing with teammates in an over the top rendition of “Friend Like Me” from “Aladdin.” You would miss the walk-off win and celebration and smoke, with 8:19 left on the clock.
You would miss the traditional postgame party in the plaza, where the band is playing and the fans are dancing and the players are beside them.
In the distance, an unlicensed vendor sells below-market Bananas shirts for $10. He stands alone.