The first contact came from Bill LeRoy, who had graduated from the Savannah Bananas collegiate summer league baseball team to its spinoff, the Banana Ball professional travel team.
Eric Byrnes then heard from team owner Jesse Cole, who called the former big leaguer and MLB Network analyst to talk about his creation of Banana Ball, an unorthodox, action- and fun-driven baseball oddity, kind of like Byrnes himself.
“I was an emotional player,” said Byrnes, 45. “I spent a lot of my career trying to hold it in as opposed to being able to openly express myself. That’s everything that they’ve created here. The concept and idea of fans first is everything. I wish more professional sports teams would take that mentality.”
Cole said it was about 30 minutes into their first telephone conversation that Byrnes said he wanted to manage the Banana Ball team, which in the spring of 2022 will play the rival Party Animals as they tour seven cities, beginning with the home base of Savannah on March 11-12 at Grayson Stadium.
Byrnes got the job, and traveled from his home in California to be in Savannah for the announcement Tuesday night.
“He was a no-brainer for us because of the energy, the love of the game,” Cole said. “He wants to make baseball fun. That’s the way he played the game. He was all about energy. He’s a perfect fit.”
LeRoy, who played catcher for four seasons with the Bananas college team, has been all-in on the team’s fusion of baseball and fan-interactive entertainment before, during and after games, including viral videos online. LeRoy knows a high-energy guy when he sees one.
“(Byrnes) is absolutely nuts. He’s a perfect fit for this place,” said LeRoy, who had messaged Byrnes, whom he didn’t know, through Instagram on the suggestion of Berry Aldridge, the team’s baseball operations coordinator.
“The second I met him, he’s wide-eyed, veins coming out of his neck when he speaks,” LeRoy continued. “He’s just very intense. He’s an energy giver; 100% of the time he’s the most fun guy to be around. He loves what we’re doing here and we love him. It’s been a perfect match. His energy is unbelievable every second of the day.”
The Bananas front office wanted to convey that level of energy and all-out effort in revealing the hiring of Byrnes, who played 11 seasons in the majors for the Oakland Athletics (2000-05), Colorado Rockies (2005), Baltimore Orioles (2005), Arizona Diamondbacks (2006-09) and Seattle Mariners (2010).
“Whenever we’re thinking of doing something, the motive of that meeting is how can we do this completely opposite from how everybody else would,” said Kyle Luigs, who pitched for the Bananas for four summers in the Coastal Plain League and now will play for the Banana Ball squad, formerly called the Premier Team.
Dunk you very much
In this case, the opposite of a normal (read: boring) press conference introducing Byrnes involved fans, a DJ, the Banana Nanas dance team, the yellow tuxedo-clad Cole atop a scissor lift, a police escort, and the new manager breaking through a banner. Not sure if someone Cole described as “an absolute electric factory” should have been in a dunk tank, but Byrnes was a good sport as he inevitably got soaked.
“One great thing about Banana Ball is Jesse’s open and willing to try different sort of things,” Byrnes said in discussing the format, which includes unusual rules to speed-up play and create more action and dramatic possibilities.
The nine rules include no bunting, mound visits, stepping out of the batter’s box or walks (in the conventional sense). A fan catching a foul ball is an out. Innings are scored individually like match play in golf, with the first team to five points winning the game. There’s a two-hour time limit, and a special tiebreaker format.
“All of these things are ways to bring people back to the game of baseball and really enjoy it for what it is,” Byrnes said. “I immediately knew this was something I want to be a part of. This is bigger than the game. It’s different. It’s revolutionizing baseball as we know it.
“Does this mean this is how it’s going to be in the future? Not necessarily. But we’re taking something that really has gotten to a point where we’ve lost a lot of our youth, and with short attention spans, I can’t think of anything that really could satisfy that more than Banana Ball.”
Byrnes will guide his team of former college and professional players against their foil, the Party Animals, with both rosters tailored for competitive balance following tryouts in February.
The initial spring series of 2021, limited by the pandemic, involved two games in Savannah and a “One City World Tour” of two soldout games at Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.
The 2022 tour has expanded to seven cities: Savannah and Columbus, Georgia; Daytona Beach and West Palm Beach, Florida; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and Kansas City, Missouri, the lone trip requiring airplane travel.
Byrnes, a native Californian with homes in Lake Tahoe and Half Moon Bay, is not one to cringe at long bus rides. He’s an endurance athlete who completed a “triathlon across America” from Oakland to New York involving a 7-mile swim, a 2,400-mile bike ride and a 905-mile run.
This is the same guy who played 420 holes of golf without a cart in 24 hours to set a “Guinness Book World Record,” and can take pride in being inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2103 and selected to the Oakland Athletics’ all-time best for their 50th-season team.
With all Byrnes has accomplished as a pro baseball player and broadcaster, he also has impressed LeRoy and Luigs, each 23 years old, with how quickly he has fit in with an office stocked with young people relatively new to the baseball business.
“We have a such a great relationship,” LeRoy said. “I have such respect for Eric Byrnes. The guy played 11 years in the big leagues. He comes in here so humble and treats me and Kyle and everybody in this office like a friend and knows people by name, knows what they do, knows their job, takes time to make personal connections.”
Luigs, a Richmond Hill High School graduate, noted how Byrnes has talked with them about Banana Ball and finding players who can both play baseball at a high level and be entertainers. Luigs also commented about his new high-energy friend.
“Every second we were at the office the past two days, if they’re not doing something, immediately he’s running around Daffin Park. He’s constantly going, going and going, and the ideas are there,” Luigs said. “Obviously, he knows good baseball, and he could bring in some talent to push Banana Ball and the brand to the next level. The combination of those two things is just perfect.”
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at [email protected] Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Bananas Banana Ball team new coach Eric Byrnes MLB player