Eric Jones ’19 Goes Bananas for Baseball
Author: Danielle Strickland
What do you get when you cross a senior citizen dance team, backflips in the outfield, nine made-up rules, TikTok dances and an owner rocking a yellow tux?
It’s called Banana Ball.
The Savannah Bananas, often referred to as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball, have more social media followers than any Major League Baseball team. And one Banana is special to Davidson College: catcher and infielder Eric Jones ’19.
“It’s a sporting experience that’s unmatched,” he said. “It’s so fun to be a part of something that makes a ton of people really, really happy. If you like baseball, this is for you. If you hate baseball, this is for you.”
Earlier this month, Kannapolis, North Carolina, turned into Bananaland for two nights, and the more than 12,000 attendees will never view baseball the same way again. The “Fans First” mantra of the experience—part baseball, part circus—comes to life through performances, trick plays, hip-hop dancing grandmas (the Banana Nanas), music and interactions that start outside the stadium and last well past game time. The right fielder is about to catch a fly ball, but wait—first he does a backflip or decides to spin around and catch it behind his back. A full team dance performance is happening on the third-base line just as the next batter is walking up in stilts. Every piece of the game is amped up, and the fans don’t want to miss a second of it.
“It was so awesome,” said 11-year-old Collin Strickland, who attended the July 11 game with several friends from his own baseball team, the Lake Norman Phoenix. “My favorite part was anytime they’d randomly break out into dances. I wish my team could act like the Bananas, but the umps would probably kick us out of the tournaments. Or maybe they’d love it. I don’t know. At least we get to have cool walk-up songs.”
Jones grew up in the world of “regular” baseball, where players are not encouraged to draw attention to themselves. Rather, you let your playing do the talking and you focus on the team.
“This is literally the exact opposite,” he said. “I’m learning new skills everyday—gymnastics, dance, improv, music. Things I put on the back burner because they didn’t overlap with my sport, and some things I never even thought about. Until now.”
Jones grew up in Charlotte and came to Davidson in the fall of 2015 following a heavy recruitment period in high school. He was sold on the marriage of top-level athletics and academics, and he wound up loving that it was close to home so his family could watch him play, though location was not a huge draw at first.
Under the direction of Head Baseball Coach Dick Cooke, Jones racked up the accolades. He’s among the leaders in program history for batting average, hits, home runs, RBIs and more. He was the starting third baseman as a sophomore during the team’s 2017 run to the NCAA Super Regionals.
After Davidson, Jones signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Minnesota Twins organization. Later, he signed with the Seattle Mariners. He made multiple stops from there, including independent ball and as a bullpen catcher with the big-league Mariners team. A friend linked Jones up with the Savannah Bananas before the Mariners gig, and he loved it. He still had his sights set on the major leagues, so he jumped at the Mariners bullpen catcher position.
“Once it was clear the Mariners were only going to use me in the bullpen, I heard about the Bananas tryout and went for it,” he said. “They already knew me from the games I played the previous year, and it has been the perfect fit. It’s pretty simple: I want to play baseball as much and for as many years as possible, and this lets me do that while having a great time. One of my teammates is 76!”
Savannah Bananas founder and owner Jesse Cole, who faced Davidson during his college baseball career at Wofford, drained his savings and sold his house to build this dream team. Fun-loving fans showed up by the thousands.
“Baseball games are getting longer and slower, but our attention spans are shorter,” Cole said in a CNN interview. “We live in a TikTok world. People can get unbelievable entertainment with a flick of their finger. How do you create something that matches that?”
He birthed the team in 2016, pre-TikTok, and they competed successfully in the Coastal Plain League’s West division. The alternative Banana Ball format gained huge popularity, and the team transitioned exclusively to exhibition games in 2022. Getting tickets is something like trying to see Taylor Swift in concert, with every show sold out within minutes. (Watch this to learn more about their story.)
“We have a ton of fun, and it’s really good baseball,” Jones said. “Most of the players killed it in college ball, and many have played professionally. Basically, we offer professional quality, sped-up and with more action, more entertainment. We are completely exhausted every night—far more than after a typical nine-inning baseball game. You have to leave it all out there for the fans.”
The future is bright yellow for Jones and his fellow Bananas. Next year, they’ll be playing in some MLB parks, in an effort to bring the popular experience to even more fans. Not surprisingly, other cities are itching to join the fun, so in addition to larger venues, the program is looking to build out a full Banana Ball league, nationwide. Right now, the team usually faces the Party Animals, a team also owned by Cole.
As things grow and change, the Bananas culture is here to stay, and that’s what keeps players like Jones excited.
“Every person has a voice at the table with this organization,” Jones said. “We bring positivity and happiness to people, and we get to be creative and put on the best show we can. If I’m doing that for our fans, it’s always a good day.”
Some might say it’s a great day to be a Wildcat.
Even for the ones who go Bananas.
The Rules of Banana Ball
- Win the inning, get a point. The team with the most runs wins the inning.
- There’s a two-hour time limit. In the last inning, every run counts.
- If batters step out of the box, it’s a strike.
- No bunting allowed. Why? The Bananas believe “bunting sucks.”
- Batters can steal first base, whenever they want to give it a shot.
- No walks allowed. If the pitcher throws four balls, the batter then sprints, and every defensive player must touch the ball before it is “live.”
- No mound visits allowed, period.
- If a fan catches a foul ball, it’s an out.
- In the event of a tie, there’s a Showdown Tiebreaker with specific rules per round.
Editor’s note: News of Davidson thanks the Jones family for sharing these photos with us.