SCOTTSDALE – In a matter of weeks, Scottsdale Stadium and Peoria Sports Complex transformed from the spring training homes of the San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners to a two-night pit stop for another team with a produce-inspired mascot.
The Savannah Bananas came to town last weekend for a two-game set as part of their 2023 world tour. Friday’s opener came down to a walk-off single in a 4-3 Bananas’ victory over their crosstown rivals, the Savannah Party Animals, but the games may have been the least intriguing part of the overall experience.
Theatrics from start to finish took center stage with entertainment in full swing from the moment spectators entered the ballpark grounds. Friday night kicked off with a weigh-in and dance battle, followed by a live band performance before the introduction of the game’s banana baby, a baby in a banana costume, set to Elton John’s “Circle of Life.” Former ASU baseball player and longtime Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia threw out the first pitch.
The goal of the Bananas’ tour is to provide a new form of baseball for sports fans.
“I heard that the Savannah Bananas were on a mission to change the way people viewed and enjoyed baseball,” Bananas coach Adam Virant said. “And I said, ‘I’m all in.’”
Added Party Animals pitcher Collin Ledbetter: “It’s getting back to the roots of why we started playing the game. We’re out here having fun.”
Of course, the teams played by a different set of rules, called Banana Ball, that separates it from regular baseball and makes the experience more interactive for players and fans.
There are nine unique rules that range from how the game is scored (the scoring is decided by who won the inning) to how outs are recorded (If a fan catches a foul ball, it’s an out).
But Banana Ball is more than a gimmick. While the in-game experience is unlike watching a regular MLB game, the Bananas pride themselves on quality baseball games. The rosters feature many former minor leaguers and a former first-round pick in Jake Skole, selected 15th overall by the Texas Rangers in 2010.
“People tell us that this doesn’t work unless the baseball is good,” Virant said. “And so we constantly strive to make sure the baseball on-field performance is at the highest level because we know we can do the entertainment but if the baseball’s not real, real baseball people won’t want to watch this.”
“If you come see it, you’ll be surprised with the high quality and the high-level baseball action that you see out here,” Bananas outfielder Michael Deeb said. “That’s really my favorite thing about it.”
Friday’s game started with a pitcher’s duel in the first few innings with the starters, who both wore cowboy hats, holding the game scoreless until the Bananas took the lead in the bottom of the third. Right-fielder Noah Bridges hit a ball over the entire outfield (thanks to the outfielders coming in to dance before the pitch) and rounded the bases before the ball could get home, opening the scoring with an inside the park home-run. Many young fans after the game said it was their favorite part.
Fans stuck around long after the game to chat and get autographs from players, who came out to the main entrance. For the team, meeting the fans, especially the kids, is an important part of the experience.
“Growing up you see a lot of big leaguers, you look up to them,” Ledbetter said. “You want to be them, you’re always the one asking for autographs, now to be on the other end of that and have a chance to impact kids, what I wanted guys to do for me as a kid I want to do for the kids now.”
Ledbetter, an Arizona native, was excited to return to his hometown of Peoria on the second night. He has played baseball for most of his life, most recently for Weside of the United Shore League in 2021. He has never enjoyed anything more than playing for the Bananas.
“I grew up in Arizona, played high school ball here and then played in Junior College at Glendale Community College,” said Ledbetter, who went to Northwest Christian High School. “(I) went on to play at a four-year university before playing independent ball for two years and getting found by the Bananas. This is now my second year on tour and it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball.”
The Bananas continue their world tour Thursday at home in Savannah, Georgia for their next game. They remain in Savannah for another week before heading to Charleston, West Virginia to play the Charleston Dirty Birds.