MLB’s Rules and the Savannah Bananas
Hey, MLB, why not consider some different changes?
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Last week, MLB announced a flurry of rule changes designed to create more in-game action. Those changes will be implemented in the 2021 minor leagues and involve, for example, larger-sized bases, defensive positioning, and robo umps. (See here, here, and here for specific details.) Anything MLB explores to increase fan engagement is good — although, apparently, the league does not see basic access issues as particularly problematic. (Don’t get me started on TV blackouts.)
The news of the rules changes hit at the same time I learned about the Savannah Bananas, a team focused on not trying new rules but on redefining the game.
This of it as punk rock baseball, and it’s worth taking a moment to examine what the Bananas are doing and what it could mean for baseball.
The Savannah Bananas came into existence in 2016 and are one of 16 teams that make up the Costal Plain League, a summer collegiate wood bat league that’s existed for more than 20 years and is comprised of teams in North and South Carolina. It’s a serious league for MLB prospects though it is not MLB affiliated. Fans love the Bananas. They sold out every game in 2017–2019 and are currently on an 88-game sellout streak.
Yes, there are nine players, and they use a baseball and play on a diamond. But there are some twists. Baseball America has a nice summary of the “Banana Ball” rules:
The Bananas are owned by Jesse Cole, who played collegiate baseball himself and was a coach in the Cape Code League, so he understands baseball. But with the Bananas, he is taking a subversive approach to the game. Actually, it’s worth watching this video in which he explains the logic behind the rules:
Showmanship matters (e.g., the team plays in kilts, the players perform choreographed dances every game, and the “Man-anas,” a dad-bod cheering squad supports the team). This is, after all, minor league baseball. But some of Cole’s points are hard to disagree with.
This isn’t just about laughs although that’s mostly what the Bananas are selling. Rather, it’s a fascinating parody (in the postmodern sense) of baseball. As J. J. Cooper writes, “The Bananas’ Coastal Plain League team is both an embrace and a rejection of baseball.” I’m a fan of a smart parody because after getting past the initial outrage, parody has the potential to be instructive.
Take another look at those rules. Some are intriguing. Moreover, I’m not averse to speeding up the game. Back in 2017, Grant Brisbane wrote a piece that lays out the issues with the length of baseball games: “Time between pitches is the primary villain.” The Bananas are having none of that.
★ ★ ★
Saturday, I thought I’d watch some Banana ball, which would fit in nicely between the Rockies and the Nuggets games, and I knew I could bank on that because of the two-hour-game rule. The feed, however, was on Facebook, a platform I don’t use. I tweeted at the Bananas to ask if it were available on any other platforms. They politely tweeted back that it was not.
Two hours later, they tweeted at me again: I could watch the feed on their YouTube channel. (I have asked MLB for years about TV blackouts and have never received a reply. It was refreshing to have a baseball team encourage my participation.)
So I spent the next two hours with 20 other viewers.
The good takeaways?
MLB, please adopt the stay-in-the-box rule. It’s awesome.
I also liked ability of the batter to steal first, and I wish MLB would explore this possibility. Nolan Arenado isn’t stealing any bases, but Garrett Hampson could. And that sounds interesting.
Banana Ball is delightfully subversive.
The not-so-good takeaways?
It’s very much minor-league baseball. Entertainment comes first. And it’s a lot. Turns out, I’m more of a baseball purist than I thought. I found I was more interested in watching, you know, a baseball game rather than the other stuff.
The kilts need to go. I’m fine with kilts in theory, but in practice, they make it too difficult to follow the on-field action. All that flapping fabric obscures the game.
The scoring didn’t work for me. On one hand, it keeps the game close — and I’ve sat through enough blow-out Rockies games to know that it’d be terrific in those innings when, say, Bryan Shaw gave up five runs, that it only counted for one point. But I felt like it compromised the integrity of the game in the interest of competition.
The stands were fairly full — and there wasn’t much social distancing.
That said, there’s an inclusivity that I liked. The players entered the stands on a couple of occasions to interact with fans; the fans, in addition to so much singing (including “Hey Baby”), participated in the game by having the opportunity to catch fly balls for outs; and Jesse Cole was everywhere. He wasn’t sitting in the owner’s box; he was the master of ceremonies in a bright yellow tuxedo.
Obviously, it’s unworkable to have professional baseball players dashing into the stands, and I’m going to take a hard pass on Dick Monfort in a purple tuxedo dancing with the Man-anas, but I liked the owner actually interacting with fans.
Am I interested in all the gimmicks the Bananas are selling? No. That would be like the Tooth Trot on steroids, and I’m ultimately in it for the skill of baseball more than the extras. However, the Savannah Bananas stripped away some of the pretension MLB can wrap itself in, and I found that refreshing.
★ ★ ★
Earlier on Saturday, this Bernie Sanders quote was making the Twitter rounds when Lindsey Adler cut to the chase:
After restructuring the minor leagues and eliminating some teams, MLB has control of the minor leagues, and their exploration of new rules is a manifestation of that control. Of course, MLB has always done this, but now, the power relationship is different. But the Savannah Bananas are playing a very different game with a different sent of rules, and it feels like defiance.
DJ LeMahieu has bought his old high school’s baseball facility and is transitioning it to a youth baseball facility, which he’s leasing back to Brother Rice (he’s an alum) for a dollar.
Tony Wolters has had a rough go of it in his baseball life since being non-tendered. On Saturday, it got worse.
What I’m Reading, Watching, and Listening To
Aniello Piro’s “Perhaps the Rockies Have Something in Austin Gomber” (Mile High Sports) — I’m telling you: Gomber is going to work out for the Rockies.
“Colorado Rockies Roster and Prospect Talk with Thomas Harding” (Rox Pile Rockies Report) — Kevin Henry and Thomas Harding discuss what they’ve noticed at Spring Training.
“Oberg Progressing After Blood Clot Sidelined Reliever in ‘20” (USA Today) — Oberg had a solid outing on Friday, and all signs are promising.
Dennis Lin & Pedro Moura’s “‘Such Bullying Is Cowardice’: Dave Roberts Decries Racism toward Asian Americans” (The Athletic) — Dave Roberts is one of the class acts in baseball. The son of a Black father and a Japanese mother, Roberts calls out the racism Asian Americans are exeriencing.
Ben Lindbergh & Meg Rowley’s “The Number of the Banana” (Effectively Wild: A FanGraphs Baseball Podcast) — Lindbergh and Rowley were less intrigued by the Bananas than I was, but their takes on the proposed rules changes are worth your time.
In case you’re interested, here’s the game I watched on Saturday. It runs just a little over two hours.
Thanks for reading —
I don't think "toe the line" means what the Bananas think it does. Either that or they left out "don't."