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The Savannah Bananas bring a weekend of baseball and celebration to Durham

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The Savannah Bananas dancing before the second night of the Savannah Bananas versus the Party Animals at the Durham Bulls Stadium on Saturday, April 13, 2024.

DURHAM — Whenever Savannah Bananas outfielder Noah Bridges interviews with members of the media, there's a good chance he will get interrupted. 

But these interruptions are welcomed because they are from pint-sized, wide-eyed kids wanting an autograph or a photo. It comes with the territory for the Four Oaks, N.C., native who is a member of the barnstorming baseball show that is the Savannah Bananas. 

The Savannah Bananas is a spirited, dancing, eccentric baseball team that plays “Banana Ball." If you're wondering what that is, imagine traditional baseball but with more music, fan interaction and 11 rule variations that make it the “greatest show in sports.” The Bananas, who are currently traveling around the country on the 2024 World Tour, most recently stopped to play a three-game series at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park against its rival, the Party Animals, this past weekend. 

Bridges is not the only player who experienced a homecoming this past weekend in Durham. Party Animal Reece Hampton and Banana Eric Jones Jr., both of whom hail from Charlotte, said it felt good to be back in their home state. 

“It was one of my favorite places that we went last year,” Jones said. “Everybody's really excited to be back. It's just such a beautiful ballpark, the weather is great and it smells like home.”

All three played college ball around the state and are now full-fledged members of the energetic and memorable teams. At any given game, home run celebrations, dancing pitchers and mid-inning hijinks are commonplace. But regardless of all the shenanigans, Banana Ball has one all important goal: to cater to fans and the larger community. 

“We try to make sure that everybody in the crowd can identify with one person on our team,” co-owner of the Savannah Bananas Emily Cole said.

Emily Cole and her husband Jesse started the Bananas in 2016 with the goal of making America’s pastime fun again and bringing baseball back to Savannah, Ga. The duo succeeded and have since created a bright yellow nationwide brand of baseball excitement. 

China Grove, N.C., resident Jolene Houchins traveled more than two hours with three generations of her family to attend the Bananas games in Durham. For them and many others, it’s not just about watching baseball — it’s a family affair. 

Hunter, Houchins' 7-year-old grandson, turned out to be a lucky charm for Houston native and Party Animals cowboy Jorden Hussein.

The third baseman had not gotten a hit all weekend, so during the seventh inning of Sunday’s game, he gave his hat to young Hunter in hopes of some good luck. His next-at-bat Hussein smacked a ground ball into left, got to first and pointed back to Hunter: his good luck charm. The next inning, he did the same. 

To pay his gratitude at the end of the game, Hussein walked out of the dugout with an autographed bat for the young fan. Hunter and his grandmother couldn’t keep the smile off of their faces. 

It’s not about a dollar anymore,” Jolene said. “This makes it where [Hunter’s] got autographs that he didn’t have to pay somebody for."

That is what the Coles envisioned banana ball would do — make baseball approachable and fun for all ages. There are cowboys like Hussein and Dakota “Stilts” Albritton who plays on stilts), to baseball mechanic maniacs like Robert Anthony Cruz. The cast even includes Princess Potassia, the Man-Nanas cheerleading squad and dancing umpire Vincent Chapman. 

While not everyone dreams of being a Major League star like Hunter does, Bananas infielder Cruz thinks encouraging young kids to enjoy the sport is a key part of banana ball. 

“I think there's a culture in youth baseball that's very heavy, very performance based," Cruz said. “Like you have to perform. That's the first priority. And I don't think that should necessarily be the first priority, I think it causes kids to burn out. So I want kids to be able to enjoy the game.” 

The Coles have made family a pillar of Banana Ball.

So far, almost every game has sold out and the Bananas' videos have garnered over 300 million views on TikTok.Through the Bananas' fame, the Coles created Bananas Foster, a nonprofit that celebrates and educates about the foster care community. 

“Our goal is to use the platform, talk to all the thousands of fans that we are in front of every night and just educate them on this kind of taboo topic in society that you don't talk about,” Emily Cole said. “To say, 'Hey, these kids are here, they're waiting, they need us,' and encourage people to get involved.” 

At every game a family that has fostered, adopted or been reunited is honored by fans and both teams at home plate. The Coles in particular have a special connection to Bananas Foster as they have been foster parents for the last few years. 

For the players, traveling around the country playing baseball is all they could want, with Bananas outfielder DR Meadows describing the gig as "the best job in the world."Durham was even more special for the North Carolina natives who had friends, families and even Little League teams come to view the show.

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“The games are just so exciting,” Jones said. “The fans go crazy, and we get to travel the country and spread happiness to a lot of people and get to still play baseball.”

Gwen Peace contributed reporting to this article. 

@gracegnugent

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com