I think everyone who is passionate about baseball has a moment where something clicks, a point when they realize what the ballpark, all the sights and sounds surrounding the game, mean to them. For Emily Cole, co-owner and Director of Fun of the Savannah Bananas, that moment came as a part-time, gameday employee for the Eastern League’s Binghamton Mets in 2009. She had graduated from SUNY-Oneonta and was working a typical, 9 to 5 marketing job, sitting in a cubical all day.
“What I found is that I was dreading my 8 to 5, but then I was living for the 5 to 11. I came alive again, and I found my passion.”
Growing up in upstate New York, Emily had 3 younger brothers. So, sports was always a part of her life, but she had not considered a career in sports until her experience in Binghamton. After one season, Emily landed a full-time job with Ripken Baseball, owners of 3 minor league clubs. After some time in Aberdeen, Maryland with the Ironbirds, she saw an opportunity to move to Augusta, Georgia and help the Green Jackets reach their full potential. Aberdeen was already thriving under the Ripken Baseball umbrella, and the goal was to get Augusta up to that standard. Emily considers herself fortunate to have worked for Ripken Baseball at the young age of 22 because of the company’s serious approach to what they were trying to accomplish. She had not been exposed to the full-time, 365 day per year side of Minor League Baseball in Binghamton, and her short time with Ripken taught her what the industry was truly all about.
“That was a quick learning experience for me. Just in my few years with them, I would think that I learned more there than I could’ve in 10 years somewhere else.”
During her time with Ripken Baseball, Emily was also introduced to her now husband, Jesse Cole, in a bit of a peculiar way. Her boss at the time had seen Jesse speak at a conference. Upon leaving the conference, she called Emily and said, “I just met the guy you’re going to marry.” Despite Emily's lack of focus on marriage at the time, she developed a professional relationship with Jesse, communicating mostly through casual emails. While Emily was working for the Vermont Lake Monsters in 2011, she attended the Minor League Baseball Promo Seminar in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was there that she first felt a strong connection to Jesse. She remembers it like a scene from a movie. The two ended up talking and realizing that their passions and visions for their work were very similar. They both had the ability to see potential in struggling or failing baseball markets and the desire to help teams reach that untapped potential. Shortly after this cinematic conversation, Emily relocated to Gastonia, North Carolina to work with the Summer wood bat collegiate Gastonia Grizzlies, the team Jesse was running at the time. Together, Jesse and Emily built the team into something special in their community and began their life together.
Emily enjoyed the transition from affiliated baseball to a Summer collegiate team. She had worked in the industry long enough to be really comfortable in her role and felt hindered by the red tape associated with an entity largely controlled by a Major League franchise. She was discouraged when simple ideas she had such as players visiting schools and hospitals were denied. Creativity was stifled in Minor League Baseball more so than in the Summer collegiate Coastal Plain League.
Emily’s title, Director of Fun, was conceptualized in an organic conversation over dinner. She had moved to North Carolina, and she and Jesse had decided she would work for the Grizzlies. When Jesse asked Emily what she envisioned her role with the team being, she simply said that she just wanted to create fun for the fans. She wanted to direct fun, so to speak. Since then, all of the teams managed by Jesse and Emily’s company, Fans First Entertainment, have had a Director of Fun at the helm.
“I think there are too many managers in the world. There are too many people being bosses, and so we just wanted to bring some levity to our titles and positions and let the community know we were there to have a good time.”
During the last game of the season in Gastonia, the entire Grizzlies staff was on the field to be recognized. This is a custom with all of the Fans First teams, but this particular night would go a little differently. Emily was surprised when the proceedings turned into Jesse’s elaborate proposal of marriage. Emily, of course, said yes. Since the season had ended, Emily wanted to put forth the effort to give Jesse something in return. So, she planned a quick getaway to Savannah, Georgia. During their trip, Jesse and Emily visited Grayson Stadium to experience a Savannah Sand Gnats game. They were in awe of the lack of fans in attendance on a beautiful Saturday in August. They couldn’t believe that the beautiful ballpark was not packed. That night, they made a call to the commissioner of the CPL to convey their interest in putting a team in Savannah if the market were to become available. Little did they know that the team was in a battle with the city to build a new stadium. Shortly thereafter, the team relocated to Columbia, South Carolina, and Savannah was without baseball.
Convinced that their brand of baseball could work in Savannah’s party town atmosphere, Emily and Jesse began wooing the city in hopes of moving into Grayson Stadium. One employee of the city of Savannah, Joe Shearouse, became an advocate for the new team, and the city took a chance on Emily and Jesse’s vision.
The next step was naming the team, creating their identity. As is often the case when new teams move into town, Fans First held a “name the team” contest in which fans could suggest the new team’s moniker. They immediately threw out any ideas that were perceived as “normal.” After sifting through the boring and pedestrian, they received an entry from a nurse from Savannah: the Savannah Bananas. They knew immediately that was the winner. Initially, the locals in Savannah were resistant to the unorthodox mascot, but a storm was brewing on a national and international level. The unveiling of the Bananas identity overtook the #1 trend on Twitter from a Presidential debate. Merchandise quickly started flying off the shelves and into the hands of people all over the world. News outlets were anxious to talk to the team owners about the unique branding they had chosen. It didn’t take long for the people of Savannah to take pride in their new team that was making waves across the globe, and according to Emily, they have never looked back. Every Bananas game since has been sold out, a remarkable feat at any level of baseball, sports, and entertainment.
“We just built off of that. When you get energy, you’re able to give more.”
Emily has an inspiring viewpoint on what anyone passionate can bring to the table for her teams or any teams willing to give opportunities. She believes anyone can do anything, and the important elements of hiring a specific candidate have to do more with how a person was brought up and the unique aspects they bring to the table rather than a focus on sports management degrees or college degrees at all.
“If this is what you care about, you can do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re short or tall or black or white or male or female.”
Unlike most sports entities during the COVID-19 outbreak, the Savannah Bananas and the Coastal Plain League are preparing for their return to gamedays. While the fan-friendly Bananas are only able to operate at 50% capacity in Grayson Stadium, they are continuing to innovate with their plans to stream games online. They have hired an extensive video team and are preparing to mic up players and coaches and place cameras on catchers and umpires to give the fans watching at home a unique baseball experience. In addition, they plan to create original content to mix into game broadcasts, taking inspiration from the likes of Disney, WWE, and Netflix. Afterall, for Emily, Fans First, and the Savannah Bananas, it’s not a game, it’s a show.
“We’re just excited to push the envelope and be the leaders in the industry when a lot of people aren’t able to open up this year or to provide their fans with any fun. That’s not an option for us. If we don’t provide anything for our fans, then we’re not doing what our mission is. We might as well close up shop.”
The CPL season is set to begin on July 1st, and you can get more info about the new Bananas Insiders here. Be sure to follow the Bananas on Twitter @TheSavBananas. Also, check me out on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for updates on new articles as soon as they are posted! Thanks for reading!