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Official Review by Lloyd Brown, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
In late 2015, the New York Mets announced that their Savannah Class-A minor league affiliate, the Savannah Sand Gnats, would be morphing into Fireflies and migrating to Columbia, South Carolina. This would leave Historic Grayson Stadium without a baseball tenant for the first time in its 90-year history. You would think this would leave the residents of Georgia’s oldest city and the huge tourist industry in the area deeply depressed and in withdrawal. Instead, they simply went bananas.
The Savannah Bananas have filled this void, and greatly surpassed the success of many of the previous tenants. They are members of the Coastal Plain League (CPL), one of the premier summer collegiate wood-bat leagues in the country. More than 1,500 players from the CPL have gone on to play in professional baseball. Among the most successful CPL alumni are Justin Verlander, Ryan Zimmerman and Kevin Youkilis.
Savannah has enthusiastically accepted the Bananas, as the team has shattered previous attendance records and sold out 17 of its 24 games in 2016 in a 4,000-seat stadium, which is virtually unheard of at this level of baseball. The team has accomplished this by putting a quality show on the field and in the stands.
The home for this bunch of Bananas is Historic Grayson Stadium in Daffin Park. It was built in 1926 and originally known as Municipal Stadium. It underwent major repairs and renovation after it was nearly destroyed by a hurricane in 1941, changing its name to Grayson Stadium afterwards in recognition of a major donor who helped fund the rebuilding. Many baseball legends, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle, have played in this historic facility. Over the years, Grayson Stadium has been used to host the Minor League Baseball affiliates of the Cleveland Indians, the then-Kansas City Athletics, the Cincinnati Reds, the Pittsburgh Pirates , the Chicago White Sox, the Washington Senators, the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets. The capacity of Grayson Stadium is 4,000. The most recent renovations took place in 2007.
Physically, Grayson Stadium has not changed much with the Bananas' arrival, and that is why it retains so much of its charm. A majority of the stands are under a roof, with ceiling fans to keep the crowd cool during the hot and humid summers of Savanah. Seating is on benches with seatbacks. The scoreboard is hand-changed the old fashioned way. What has changed is the atmosphere and approach to the game. Baseball is still the primary focus, but the Bananas bring a whole new experience to the park as far as entertainment, especially between innings and during lulls in the action. There is never a dull moment.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concession offerings at Grayson Stadium contain the obvious traditional baseball fare, along with some decidedly unique dishes. On the basic menu are hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, nachos, chili cheese fries, popcorn (all available for $4). Bananas are $1 each. Coca-Cola products ($5) and bottled water ($2) fill out the beverage menu.
Among some of the more unique and a-peeling items the Bananas offer are frozen chocolate bananas ($4) and a specialty banana Iiquor drink called the Slippery Banana ($9). The team offers one dozen cookies from Savannah's own Byrd Cookie Company at $5. The most popular menu item is the Garbage Can Nacho ($20), a monster meal designed to feed a family of four or more, which includes three orders of nachos, two cheeseburgers, two hot dogs, grilled chicken, nacho cheese, jalapenos, and, of course, two bananas -- and it comes to you served on a garbage can lid!
Adult beverages are sold at the Craft Corner and at the Can Cave atop the first base line. Brands offered include local favorites from Service Brewing Company, Moon River and Coastal Empire. The Bananas also offer brands from Dogfish Head, Bell's, Stone, Highland, Victory and Lagunitas. Craft drafts are $6, craft cans are $4, aluminum domestic pints are $5 and wines are $5 a glass.
The best way to describe the experience of attending a Bananas game is the title of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer album "Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends." No matter whether the Bananas win or lose (and they do not do the latter very often), you will leave Grayson Stadium well entertained. There is no "down" time between innings, as an activity or contest is always scheduled to fill it. Among the things you are likely to see are singing and dancing players, ushers and grounds crew, and the Banana Nanas senior dance squad (think Glee on a baseball diamond), Catch a Banana in Your Pants, pillow fights, trivia contests and silly races. Overseeing this madness is the team's "top Banana," owner Jesse Cole. He is easy to spot, as he wears a banana-yellow tux and top hat. He is assisted in this by the team mascot, Split. Split can best be described as a Banana on steroids (actually, he is clean -- he is just extremely high in potassium).
The entertainment factor is excellent, but the truth is the Savannah Bananas also field a very good team. Despite being an "expansion" team in the CPL, they spent almost their entire inaugural season near the top of the standings
Grayson Stadium is in Daffin Park, a beautiful park set within a predominantly residential area. The restaurants within walking distance of the stadium are fast food in nature, and include Krystal, Wendy's and Chipotle. A short drive south on Victory Drive will bring you to Coach's Corner, a great sports bar and Tijuana Flats, which serves great Tex-Mex.
For more trendy restaurants, head north on Victory Drive (toward downtown Savannah). Three solid choices are Elizabeth's on 37th Street (reservations required) or head over to Habersham Street for the Green Truck Pub or Cotton and Rye. These are all within a four-mile radius of Grayson Stadium.
Lodging choices in Savannah are predominantly located along Bay Street in the downtown area, or out on Tybee Island on the beach. Most likely, you will be visiting more than just Grayson Stadium during your stay in Savannah, so downtown Savannah is your best choice. The hotels on Bay Street are across the street from the River Street bar and entertainment district along the Savannah River. The beautiful city squares and Historic District are just blocks away from your lodging, and no more than five miles from Grayson Stadium.
Savannah has a long-time love affair with baseball, as the city has had a Minor League Baseball affiliate in the city for over 90 years. It has also hosted numerous exhibitions featuring baseball legends who enjoyed the mild temperatures in Savannah on their way down to spring training over the years. The fans have proved their loyalty by packing the stands each game, and they love to take part in the many zany promotions the team sponsors. Almost everyone will be wearing one of the many variations of the Bananas' t-shirts. The team has also developed some team cheers and a theme song, "Can't Stop the Peeling," that the fans love to sing between innings.
Savannah is very easy to negotiate, as it is laid out on a grid of squares, as was the custom in Colonial times. The main approaches to downtown Savannah are from I-16 or I-95. You will want to follow I-16 going east to exit 165. You will then turn right onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. This will intersect with Victory Drive in just a few short blocks. At Victory Drive (also marked as Highway 80), turn left and continue for three miles. You will see Daffin Park on your right, and Grayson Park will be at the south end of the park. There is free parking available within the park, as well as on surrounding city streets.
A night out with the Bananas will not cause you to split with much of your hard-earned money. Tickets are priced at $10 for a reserved seat, or $9 for general admission. Parking at Grayson Stadium is free, and the concessions are reasonably priced. The Bananas also offer a number of discounted tickets based on multi-game packages, packages that build an all-you-can eat concession/game ticket combo and discounts for children and military (Savannah has a large military presence with Ft. Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield).
The first extra goes to Historic Grayson Park. It is nice to see a vintage park stay relevant, with so much history having taken place on its field in this era of changing stadiums every few years.
The city of Savannah provides a great backdrop. Grayson Stadium is located halfway between the Historic District of Downtown Savannah and the beaches at Tybee Island.
Savannah is a foodie and craft beer mecca. Within a few miles of Grayson Stadium are the nationally-known Elizabeth's on 37th Street, several restaurants run by Paula Deen, and City Market, a complex of restaurants. River Street is Savannah's version of Bourbon Street and hosts the city's massive St. Patrick's Day festivities.
The beauty of the area is also a plus. The Spanish moss on the trees and the azaleas that line the median along Victory Drive provide a wonderful gateway to follow to the stadium.
The biggest extra is the quality entertainment experiences the Bananas provide their fans. The name of the ownership group says it best -- Fans First Entertainment.
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105 E 37th St
Savannah, GA 31401
2430 Habersham St
Savannah, GA 31401
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