An inside look at the unique personalities that make up Savannah Bananas

An inside look at the unique personalities that make up Savannah Bananas
The Savannah Bananas are a unique collection of former and current baseball players with a talent for entertainment.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Savannah Bananas are a unique collection of former and current baseball players with a talent for entertainment. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — Savannah Bananas’ California debut on Friday did not go as planned.

Yes, they defeated the Party Animals in an epic game of Banana Ball that lasted two rounds of one-on-one, extra-innings matches. But perhaps the biggest concern for the Bananas – who were, of course, struggling to put on a show in every sense of the word – was the lousy sound system at LoanMart Field, which rendered sound inaudible for much of the night.

In a way, it was almost poetic. The fact that the minor league’s 4,000-seat stadium—the smallest stadium on the Bananas’ 87-game, 33-city tour—did not have the bandwidth to handle the bonanza reflected how far the Savannah Bananas have come.

But with how far they’ve traveled and the zeal of the sold-out crowd of Banana Ball neophytes, the audio issues certainly represented a disruption in the Bananas’ meticulously laid plans. As with any true performance, though — and unlike your traditional baseball game — the show must go on.

And that happened because some technical difficulties wouldn’t stop the Bananas from doing what they do best. Instead, he just epitomized the team, helping to create yet another unique night for a group filled with unique journeys and backgrounds.

the ripe bananas

In 2018, Kyle Luigs was asked by his University of North Georgia pitching coach, Michael Holder, where his dream location for that year’s “Summer Ball” would be.

He answered without hesitation.

“Savannah,” Luigs replied.

Originally from Richmond Hill, Georgia, a suburb about 30 minutes from Savannah, Luigs’ intention for the summer was twofold: He wanted to play close to home and bring Bill LeRoy – his roommate, best friend and catcher – with him.

Helping college buddies land contracts to join a new Coastal Plain League (CPL) team called the Savannah Bananas, it seems Holder got Luigs’ wish. But the pair’s excitement began to wane as they realized their deals meant nothing more than a glorious test.

“It was supposed to be a two-day contract,” said Luigs.

Ultimately, despite his parents’ suspicion that he would be moving back in with them soon, Luigs reported to Savannah unfazed, confident that this was just one more step toward fulfilling his ambition to become the Texas Rangers’ No. 1 starting pitcher.

LeRoy, on the other hand, was skeptical. After months of being asked, “what the hell are you doing?” in revealing his summer plans, the Dublin, Georgia native recalled arriving in Savannah “with no expectations.”

“Honestly, I was just trying to stick around and not get cut,” LeRoy said. “But it turns out they fell in love with me and I fell in love with them.”

Catcher Bill LeRoy initially came to Savannah Bananas to support a friend and teammate.  Now he is one of the faces of the organization.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Catcher Bill LeRoy initially came to Savannah Bananas to support a friend and teammate. Now he is one of the faces of the organization. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In the five years since, Luigs and LeRoy have done a lot more than just stick around. They, alongside manager Tyler Gillum, became the faces of the Bananas, returning to Savannah each summer before converting to full-time roles in 2021.

They are now the two oldest players, and thanks in part to Gillum’s inspiration, Luigs and LeRoy have left their big-league fantasies behind to continue their love story with the Bananas.

Gillum, who has coached in more prestigious summer leagues such as the Cape Cod League, also opted to join the Bananas in 2018. After setting a lifetime goal to “have a positive impact on 1,000,000 people through baseball education and drills,” the Savannah opportunity was perfect.

That impact-centric mentality seems to have rubbed off on at least two of his seniors.

“I have the platform I always wanted [be able to] impact the younger generation,” said Luigs. “And I can do anything while having fun.”

LeRoy added, “I got here and realized that all I wanted to do was impact people and put smiles on people’s faces while playing the game I love. I never see myself leaving this place.”

banana in bunches

For the rest of the Bananas, most of whom are not longtime CPL holdovers, the path to Savannah was a little different, arriving for unique reasons and with divergent motivations.

A number of players arrived at the Bananas after stumbling across the team’s social media pages and subsequently coming into contact with owner Jesse Cole, after which they were faced with an atypical onboarding process.

“When we hear from players, we ask for an audition video,” Cole said. “It better not just be baseball… Can you bring a level of performance? That’s the difference.”

Others were recruited tirelessly by Cole, who has a knack for recognizing those with the ability to blend baseball with Broadway.

One such player was Bananas infielder Dalton Mauldin, who received a Twitter DM from Cole in 2018 while still playing at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. For years, Cole had tried to lure Mauldin to Savannah, but the timing never worked. Some summers Mauldin had already committed to other teams, and other years he devoted to his career as a singer-songwriter.

After graduating in 2021, Mauldin thought he was done with baseball as he was about to move back to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams. However, after years of rejection, he finally decided he owed the Bananas a visit.

When Mauldin finally arrived in Savannah for some Banana Ball screenings, he had his revelation.

“Everyone always says, ‘Is it baseball or music?’” Mauldin said. “Why not both?”

Bill “Spaceman” Lee, perhaps the most renowned Banana today, was equally hesitant about heading to Savannah when he received an unexpected phone call from Cole in early 2022.

“They called me and asked if I wanted to try it,” Lee said. “I told them I don’t do tests.”

Eventually, the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame pitcher relented, unable to shake his curiosity about Banana Ball. He almost set a Bananas record in his Test by recording three strikeouts in 2 minutes and 4 seconds.

“Fortunately, I made the ball club,” Lee said.

Since then, despite acknowledging that he is not sure of “how many good years” he has left, the 76-year-old man has come to like the Bananas’ initiatives.

“These children are compromised. They are funny. They are doing the right thing for baseball,” Lee said. “They are bringing it back to the fans.”

Other players, like Alex Ziegler, who holds multiple Guinness World Records when it comes to baseball bat balancing, were an easy sell, if not a perfect match for the Bananas. And some key characters, like Randy Voss, the team just stumbled.

Vincent Chapman, the Bananas’ acclaimed longtime dancer referee who ended up in Savannah thanks to a Facebook message from Jesse Cole after his in-game whip and nae-nae dance moves went viral, reached out to his longtime friend Voss earlier this year when the Bananas were looking to add a second referee.

Until about three months ago, Voss was just “Randy the umpire,” but one day, when the Bananas’ national anthem singer was running late, Voss turned to a panicked Jesse Cole and said three words: “Got it.”

What no one realized, of course, is that he had already made it to the second round of “American Idol.”

Now, Voss is known as “The Singing Referee” and he couldn’t be more excited about his niche.

“With the way this thing is growing and getting big,” Voss said, “I feel like this is home.”

No expiration date on these bananas

It doesn’t take long to feel the special energy surrounding Bananas, and it won’t be long before everyone across the country – and even the world – experiences it for themselves.

“We kept saying, ‘This is just the first entry,’” Gillum said of the Bananas’ future.

It appears to be the case. At $25 each, the team’s ticket waiting list now exceeds 850,000 people, and the Bananas are ready to take their show to MLB stadiums and even internationally next year.

Growing demand certainly increases the pressure on players, especially when the Bananas pride themselves on incorporating 15 new hijinks each night. But thanks to weekly “Over the Top Ideas” brainstorming meetings and a “How can we do more of this?” mindset, Cole is confident this group is up to the task.

“It’s extremely difficult, but that’s what makes it worth it,” Cole said of sustaining nightly creativity. “When your company name is ‘Fans First Entertainment’, you better keep making new things to keep them excited.”

Savannah Bananas team owner Jesse Cole (far left) leads his team singing a rendition of

Savannah Bananas team owner Jesse Cole (far left) leads his team in singing a rendition of “Hey Baby” during a rally with fans before a game on May 11, 2023, at Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Georgia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

There’s no roof in sight for the Bananas, so for now they’re focused on immersing themselves in the surreal nature of their everyday lives.

“We shake our heads every time we come to a new city,” said Gillum.

Others are also shaking their heads.

Before heading to California, Kyle Luigs caught up with his dad earlier this week. As they laughed and reminisced about Luigs’ wild journey, his father left him with a belated admission.

“Boy, glad I was wrong,” said his father of his initial hunch that the Bananas weren’t going anywhere.

In a way, though, he was right. Because Bananas aren’t going anywhere.

Rather, they are going everywhere.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: