A dose of wholesome fun

There’s something about an old-fashioned candy and ice cream store that makes me downright nostalgic.  Homemade caramel and fudge, hand-dipped ice cream, and the glorious smell of cooking waffle cones enchant my imagination and create a small glimpse of Willie Wonka’s factory.  It is hard not to reach over the barrels that separate customers from the workshop to grab one of the caramel-dipped apples left to harden on a tray with 11 of its pals.  Even the lactose intolerant would be hard pressed to resist a smile at the varieties of whole-milk goodness being scooped into cones.  On a hot summer day, a tall unsteady cone could melt the heart of the Grinch himself, with the fervent wish that his heart would be the only thing melting.

My friend and I saw someone eating an ice cream cone as we were sweating through part of an afternoon concert series along the waterfront of downtown Stuart, Florida.  Mint chocolate chip.  It looked so good.  As we walked back to the car, we stopped at several small boutiques and then saw the distinctive gold leaf lettering on a storefront window.  Yes, please.  I was soon overwhelmed by 2 scoops of salted caramel chunk in a sugar cone.  It was delicious and addictive, and as we sat in the parlor eating ice cream and cooling down from the muggy afternoon sun, I thought about going to these kinds of shops as a kid and having the exact same reaction I was having as an adult.  Excitement then indulgence then gooey lovely food coma then slight tummy ache.  If sugar isn’t a drug, my name isn’t huckleberry.  I’m sure my reaction as a child was amplified by wonder, greed, and inexperience, but it was remarkably akin to my response at 34.

After I devoured my cold treat, I smiled at the fact that my friend and I enjoyed what could be considered a very wholesome afternoon: lunch from vendors at an outdoor green market, buying small baubles at boutique stores, seeing a free concert held for the community, eating ice cream cones, and later swimming in the ocean.  We even went to an Italian restaurant for dinner and had the early bird special!  Compared to an age where technology and streaming video captivate the population, we had a very old-fashioned brand of fun.  I wouldn’t want to dissemble or mislead you: we were on our cell phones throughout the day.  We took pictures, sent texts and checked facebook, but we focused on the world around us as well.

I took a break from living in Stuart to visit my sister in Savannah, Georgia.  She’d moved there only 2 and a half months prior, and purchased a historic home near Forsyth Park.  I thought 2 weeks would be a nice amount of time to spend with her, and explore the city.  Honestly, it was too long by about a week.  My sister and I love each other, but we are not good at being around each other consistently for over 5-7 days.  Sometimes less.

The activity I enjoyed the most during my trip to Savannah was above and beyond, hands down, no doubt: going to a baseball game.  I enjoy the occasional Astros game when I’m in Houston, and I went to my brother’s little league games when we were growing up, but I’m not what anyone would call a baseball fanatic.  Let’s not even suggest the term “aficionado” because it is remarkably inapplicable.  I’ll shamefully admit that I don’t know what a designated hitter is, and leave it at that.  In fact, going to a baseball game in Savannah may be a bit of a head scratcher because they don’t host a professional team.  No, indeedy.  We went to see the Savannah Bananas, a collegiate summer baseball team.

The Bananas are a relatively new team.  Savannah hosted the Sand Gnats in a different collegiate summer league, but those pesky Sand Gnats abandoned the city for another home in 2015.  The Coastal Plain League announced that Savannah would host a new team starting in 2016, there was a local contest to name the team, and “Bananas” won.  My sister aptly pointed out that not much rhymes with Savannah, but I still think it’s super cute and clever.  The season only spans from June to August each year, and many game nights have themes, such as Bark in the Park for the dog-lovers out there, Salute the Troops, Strike Out Cancer, and good ol’ Thirsty Thursday and Fireworks nights.

Our general admission tickets were $9 a pop, and we bought them a few weeks in advance.  Anticipation was high as I turned into the stadium, and the place was packed!  After I illegally parked, I noticed something interesting: the valets were dressed as penguins.  I would’ve thought bananas, but why the hell not?  Maybe they needed a break from the tropics, and they chose a polar opposite.  Literally.

As we walked towards the stadium and entered the yellow-adorned bastion of a cherished American pastime, I appreciated that we were in true Banana Land.  From ticket sales to ushers to concession stand workers, to whomever you can think of involved in the operation of the stadium (a.k.a., the “Banana Bunch”), it was pure bananarama.  People were either dressed as bananas or wore Savannah Bananas shirts.  The mascot is a muscle-bound banana in a cape, and his name is… wait for it… Split.  The king of potassium.  One of the team owners is known to dress in a bright yellow suit with matching golden top hat, and energetically MC the pregame and all between-inning activities.

What the Banana team and brand has successfully accomplished is building an experience.  We knew that the game we went to was sold out, but upon further investigation, most games are sold out.  In the first season, 18 of 25 games were sold out, and this season sold out all home games with over 100,000 in total attendance.  The historic Grayson Stadium was built in 1926, but it is very well renovated, and it looks pretty darn new.  It holds 4,000 people and is open to the great outdoors.  There are general admission tickets (very sunny) and reserved seating (with a bit of shade), but also designated areas for companies or groups to rent which are a little more private and set up with cocktail tables and tall chairs instead of stadium seating.  This is genius for employee incentives or team building.  The game started right after it rained, so everyone’s booty was wet and it was still humid, but thankfully not as hot.  Most of the food is a gimmick, from trash lid nachos served on an actual garbage can lid (with some sheets of paper between the metal and food, and a whole banana as a garnish), to banana beer by a local brewery (of the Belgian variety), to the ultimate comfort food: banana pudding.  In addition, most of the pregame and in between-inning entertainment involve the community and the players themselves.

In my humble and inexpert opinion, the activities between the innings can be just as fun as (if not more fun than) the actual game.  However, for all the baseball enthusiasts out there, I will temper this comment by noting something imparted to me by an ex-boyfriend.  He played baseball in college so I figured he knows his bats and balls.  He told me that non-professional baseball is much more interesting because the players rely on skill, tactics, and tricks rather than brute strength.  Sure enough, I saw a baseman slyly dead leg the batter on first while the ump wasn’t watching.

The pregame and between-inning entertainment is where the Savannah Bananas truly won me over.  I liked the cuteness and enthusiasm of their endeavor, and goodness knows I enjoy quirkiness and words that rhyme, but when I saw how they engaged the youth of the community while still entertaining all ages, I was sold.  Truth be told, if anyone makes a child belly laugh and believe in themselves, it is very likely that I will love that person forever.

But, I digress. We were happily attending a game on Thirsty Thursday.  Thumbs up all around for cheap drafts.  We sat down on the bleachers, got our bums wet from the rain, and started to sweat.  I was quickly distracted from the heat by a series of activities on the field.  There were announcements, introduction of the team, and random acts of entertainment.  A four-year-old boy old ran the bases as the Banana players fumbled the ball from base to base; to the giggling glee of the young base runner, they never could quite catch him.  As you might suspect, he made it home.  The players enjoyed their role in the show, and made an effort to make it seem like it wasn’t too staged.  They made that little kid feel like a superhero.  Speaking of superheroes, another pre-game activity included holding up an infant in a banana costume in the center of players who were kneeling down and reaching up to the kid with spirit fingers to the soundtrack of the Lion King’s opening song.  Strange, but hilarious.

As you might suspect, they played a clean version of the Gwen Stefani song that won’t get out of any of our heads: “This Sh** is Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S!”  But, they also played on puns in other songs, such as Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the “Peeling,” which was part of an advertising campaign.  The video is on You Tube.  During a break between innings, the players did the Single Ladies dance.  Those college boys can’t dance, but they Beyoncé-ed their hearts out, to the delight of the crowd.  The Bananas were led in the dance by Darius Johnson, first base coach and (I believe) also the man inside Split, who had mad skills – he was featured on ESPN for his dance moves to pop songs played between batters.

Some participants in the between-inning games were too young to remember the experience, such as the world’s slowest race where a man in a turtle costume competed against crawling infants.  The MC’s commentary turned something purposefully and painfully slow into entertainment.  But many participants relished in the events, such as a little girl (about 7 years old) who chose between getting several free prizes or smashing her dad in the face with a pie.  They went through a few pies, and the little girl got all the prizes anyway.  The Dad was given an official Banana towel to clean off his face.  The banana in the pants game was not what you would think: a couple of fans on the field wore large over-pants in which they would catch bananas tossed from the reserved section.

Another between-inning stunt pulled on the heartstrings of the crowd when the players each took a single rose and gave it to the most beautiful ladies in the audience.  God bless beefcake college boys.  Did I want a rose?  Hell yes, and I know I’m too old for those boys.  The crowd was so engaged with the activities and game that all hearts inevitably skipped a beat as the sporty studs exited the field and searched the bleachers.  Then I saw some dads lift up their young daughters to catch the players’ attention, and I knew I didn’t stand a chance.  The players inevitably and gracefully delivered the rose with a smile, making the little girls feel absolutely special and lovely.  Those kids clutched the roses to their chest for the rest of the game.  And there was no question that they shone with happiness.

It may appear that baseball was secondary to the process.  However, in their first season, the Bananas won the Petitt Cup!  It is my meager understanding that this is the Superbowl of the Coastal Plain League.  So far this season, they’ve made it to the Division Championship, and the world is their banana.

It is easy to have a daily routine and occasionally go out to bars and restaurants with friends, and it is legitimately fun to plan those kinds of outings.  But I’d posit that there is immeasurable value in stopping for a moment and treating yourself to a dose of wholesome fun.  For me, it was a simple yet circus-like baseball game and a sunny day in a small town at an ice cream parlor.  For others, it is a monthly trivia night or an outdoor community theater.  It doesn’t have to be grand – not every town has the Savannah Bananas.  But every town or city has something that can draw you in and let you discover that you enjoy a pastime just as much as you did when you were a kid.  I highly recommend searching for it.

– Your huckleberry

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