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MLB's Opening Day is almost here, but Banana Ball is happening now!

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The Savannah Bananas huddle on the field at Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Georgia, before playing a team of retired Major League Baseball players on March 11, 2023.
Benjamin Payne

Updated March 16, 2023 at 9:28 AM ET

Though Opening Day for Major League Baseball is March 30, down in Savannah, Georgia, Banana Ball is already in full swing.

The adaptation is a bizarro version of baseball championed by the Savannah Bananas, an exhibition team that has sold out every game since their inaugural season in 2016.

The Bananas have taken the sports world by storm. Nearly half a million people are on the waitlist for their cross-country tour and the team has more followers on TikTok than any team in the Major League.

But the team is more than just a social media phenomenon. Big Leaguers are also catching on: over the weekend, the Bananas played a team of retired MLB players under the rules of Banana Ball.

"This is not your granddad's pastime!" boomed the Bananas' announcer before the start of the game.

It certainly is not. Banana Ball follows a set of nine highly unorthodox rules. Among them, there is a strict two-hour time limit, batters get a strike if they step out of the batter's box, and, perhaps the most popular rule: if a fan catches a foul ball, the batter is out.

But the antics don't stop there. A chant of "We will, we will peel you!" regularly plays over the speaker system to the tune of Queen's "We Will Rock You." There's also a pep band and a cheerleading squad of grandmas: the "Banana Nanas."

The Bananas used to play in the collegiate summer wood-bat Coastal Plain League, with occasional Banana Ball games. At the end of last season however, those became so popular that the team announced they would peel away to play nothing but Banana Ball.

Most games are played against the Party Animals, a team fielded by the Bananas. But part of their schedule this year consists of so-called "challenger games," featuring other squads, the MLB retirees among them.

The Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association (MLBPAA) put together an ad-hoc roster that faced the Bananas Saturday night.

"Now batting: Johnny Damon!" thundered the announcer, introducing the 18-year MLB veteran.

Damon is perhaps best known for helping the Boston Red Sox end their 86-year-long World Series drought in 2004. Though he came up clutch in that postseason, he was hitless in three at-bats against the Bananas.

The rest of the retired Major Leaguers fared about the same, scoring just one point among them.

That's another thing: these games have points, not runs. One point is awarded to whichever team scores the most runs in an inning, regardless of the actual run total. This keeps the games close and creates the opportunity for walk-offs during the bottom of any inning. That's what happened this weekend.

Savannah Bananas player Dakota "Stilts" Albritton signs his autograph after the game.
Benjamin Payne / Georgia Public Broadcasting

In the bottom of the eighth inning, the tallest player in all of baseball hobbled slowly toward the batter's box.

"Please welcome Dakota "Stilts" Albritton!" announced Bananas owner Jesse Cole.

Cole serves as a sort of ringleader for every game, dressing in a yellow tuxedo and yellow top hat — his routine uniform.

Standing 10 feet, 9 inches tall on stilts, Albritton rose to the occasion with a runner in scoring position.

"That one's cranked down the third-base line, fair!" yelled Bananas broadcaster Biko Scalla over the team's live stream on YouTube. "And the Bananas are going to walk the inning off!"

In the end, the Major Leaguers lost,5-1. But Johnny Damon was in good spirits regardless.

"Obviously, we want to win every time we get out there," Damon said. "But it was fantastic. Everybody's leaving here happy."

Former Oakland Athletics outfielder Billy Burns assessed his team's performance as "horrible," but laughed it off.

"You could tell all of us hadn't played in years. But it was a really cool experience," he said. "I've never played anything like that. And it was way faster-paced than I thought, so I was exhausted after like the second inning."

Former Baltimore Oriole and Chicago Cub Luis Montañez takes an at-bat.
Benjamin Payne / Georgia Public Broadcasting

Team MLBPAA will get another crack at it later this year: the Bananas have scheduled two more games against them, as part of their 33-city national exhibition tour.

Damon says the MLB can learn from how the Bananas appeal to a bunch of different groups: "They're bringing everything for the fans — for the grandmas, for the babies, for the kids."

His mother even got in on the fun, participating in a between-the-innings race of grandmas from third base to home plate.

The Bananas host a "fan fest" outside the ballpark after every home game at Grayson Stadium. The celebration is full of chanting, dancing and autograph-signing. This weekend was no different.

"It was awesome," Bananas shortstop Ryan Cox said at the fan fest. "You watch those guys on TV growing up, you model your game after a lot of them. Sharing the same field was just the coolest thing I've ever done on a baseball field."

Copyright 2023 Georgia Public Broadcasting

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Benjamin Payne is a contributing reporter and floating host at KUNR. He is currently pursuing his master's degree at the University of Nevada, Reno's Reynolds School of Journalism, where he also works as a teaching assistant.
Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.
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