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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    The Baseball Hall of Fame is turning into Banana Land

    FILE - Savannah Bananas catcher Vinny Rauso, center, tries to get fans to cheer before throwing a free T-shirt to the loudest section, during the team's baseball game against the Florence Flamingos, June 7, 2022, in Savannah, Ga. A new exhibit dedicated to the sport's wackiest team, the Bananas, will open Friday at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)
    FILE - Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole emcees a pregame parade and performance for the fans before the gates opened Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Savannah, Ga. The Savannah Bananas, who became a national sensation with their irreverent style of baseball, are leaving the Coastal Plains League to focus full attention on their professional barnstorming team. Owner Jesse Cole made the announcement in a YouTube video, saying “we'll be able to bring the Savannah Bananas to more people in Savannah and around the world."(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

    The Baseball Hall of Fame is going Bananas.

    An exhibit dedicated to the sport's wackiest team, the Savannah Bananas, will open Friday at the hallowed shrine in Cooperstown, New York.

    "I'm blown away," Bananas owner Jesse Cole told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "As a kid, you look up to all your heroes in the Hall of Fame. To even be considered for a display that shares what we're doing is really special."

    What started as an idea to exhibit a few Bananas-related items at the Hall of Fame was expanded into a full display and a weekend of activities, capped by a game Saturday at Doubleday Field against their perennial rivals, the Party Animals.

    Some 6,500 tickets sold out in minutes, which has become the norm for the barnstorming, Harlem Globetrotters-style team that spawned its own reality series and claims to have a waiting list of more than a million fans.

    Josh Rawitch, who is president of the Hall, called the team a "phenomenon" that is helping attract younger, less-traditional crowds with shenanigans such as a player on stilts and outs being counted when a fan catches a foul ball in the stands.

    He said the Bananas deserved to be recognized at a museum that also is striving to create a whole new generation of fans for the national pastime.

    "I think the game, as it is, is incredibly entertaining," Rawitch said. "But they've added an additional element."

    The Bananas were founded in 2016 as a member of Coastal Plains League, a summer circuit for college players. But Cole always had grander ambitions, eventually starting a professional team alongside the amateur squad so he could fully try out a version of the game he calls "Banana Ball."

    Among the rules: a two-hour time limit on games, no bunting, batters having the option of trying to steal first, no stepping out of the box, no mound visits, and a scoring system that awards a point to the team that puts up the most runs each inning.

    But beyond the rules, Cole delivers a barrage of entertainment on almost every pitch, including choreographed dances, bizarre skits and players roaming through the stands mingling with fans.

    "Some people who are more traditional may think this isn't quite baseball. And it is different," Rawitch said. "At the same time, if you look at the exhibit we have on baseball in the 1800s, you're talking about playing the game with no glove and underhand pitching. The game continues to evolve, and I think Banana Ball is part of the evolution."

    While Cole doesn't claim credit for a series of new major league rules that have increased action and cut down the length of games, he was at the cutting edge of the movement to make baseball more exciting.

    "If we played role, great," he said. "All we're trying to do is get more people involved, get a young audience involved. If we can do that, it's a victory for everybody."

    The temporary exhibit, which opens with a ribbon cutting Friday and replaces a display commemorating the "Field of Dreams" games, will contain team artifacts such as yellow baseballs, a kilt worn during games, and the pad where Cole wrote down his original ideas for the rules of Banana Ball.

    There will also be a video element focusing on the team's huge social media presence through conduits such as Instagram and Tik Tok. The team's wacky videos have attracted some 2 million followers on Instagram — 200,000 more than Major League Baseball's best team, the Atlanta Braves.

    The game Saturday afternoon will cap the team's sold-out "world tour" for the 2023 season, which has encompassed more than 80 games in 33 minor-league ballparks across 21 states, stretching from Maine to California.

    Cole disbanded his Coastal Plains League team after the 2022 season to focus fully on the professional squad, though the Bananas still play a significant number of games in their historic home city on the Georgia coast. Former big leagues such as Bill Lee, Heath Bell and Jonny Gomes have taken part in the frivolity.

    "Banana Ball is bigger than we ever could've imagined," said Cole, who wears a yellow tuxedo to games and serves as master of ceremonies. "We have people traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles to our games, because they're seeing something they've never seen before. It's not traditional. It's completely fun and entertaining."

    Cole visited Cooperstown as a kid and returned a few years ago with his father. Not surprisingly, the guy who claims Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum as two of his idols was drawn to a like-minded baseball owner.

    Bill Veeck.

    "With him, it was truly fans first," Cole said of the guy who sent up a 3-foot-7 pinch-hitter and installed a shower in the bleachers. "He was an owner who changed the game. He made it better."

    With a seemingly insatiable demand for Bananas tickets, Cole said he's hoping to bring next year's tour to several major league stadiums for the first time.

    But, hey, he's already checked one big item off his bucket list.

    The Savannah Bananas are in the Hall of Fame.

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