Baseball is a game with well-defined traditions. Straying from the norm is frowned upon and the status quo tends to rule over the sport like a judge waiting to slam his gavel. Except there is change in the air, and it’s strongest breeze emanates from a coastal city in Georgia where a different type of baseball is being championed with each passing day. And this year, that new spirit of the game delivered a title.
Tyler Gillum, a South Mountain Community College baseball assistant coach and the school’s health and wellness program director, led the Savannah Bananas to the Coastal Plain League 2021 Petitt Cup Championship after defeating the Morehead City Marlins 13-3 in game three of a best-of-three-game series. The Bananas finished with a 40-10 overall record en route to the CPL title.
“This was an unforgettable summer with a special group of players who were tough, gritty and resilient. They played through all the adversity and they played for each other,” said Gillum. “In our first team meeting, we talked about our vision of what we wanted to accomplish, we talked about dogpiling and these men found a way to get it done.”
The Bananas jumped out to an 11-0 record to start the campaign, an early indication for Gillum about the group’s potential. The team featured a nice balance of hitting, pitching and defense, and they rolled to the first-half league title. With a spot in the championship series solidified in early July, Gillum and his coaching staff created challenges to keep the players engaged.
“In one three-game series, we told the guys that if they accomplished one of three goals (scoring 25 runs, throw two shutouts or post a run-rule victory), we would reward them. They went out and accomplished all three goals, and they got personalized Banana tanktops, gloves, headbands and other gear,” Gillum said. “They would go above and beyond for any challenge we presented them, whether it was on social media, dancing with the fans during our in-game promotions.”
The team had great chemistry, and the squad featured multiple players who returned to Savannah to spend their summer in a Banana uniform. Bill Leroy, a catcher from the University of North Georgia, and Kyle Luigs, a pitcher from Jacksonville State University, spent their fourth summer with the squad. Additionally, Dan Oberst, a first baseman from the University of West Georgia, and Ryan Kennedy, a pitcher from Kennesaw State University, participated in their third summer. Several players also returned for their second year: Bill Knight, an outfielder from Mercer University, Drew Yniesta, an outfielder from Erskine University, Nick Clarno, a 3rd baseman from Lenoir-Rhyne University, Nolan Daniel, a RHP from Purdue, and Jesse Sherrill, a shortstop from Georgia Southern University.
“The coaches built the team on older, experienced players who were tough, gritty and selfless. One of our pitchers, Joe Miller from the University of Pennsylvania, started as a temp player for us, posted a 1.50 ERA in 42 innings of work and finished 6-0 with a save,” Gillum added. “Ty Jackson, an outfielder from East Georgia State University, brought the energy all season and made Tik Tok videos with over a million views. He was an energy giver all summer and helped us create havoc on the basepaths.”
That camaraderie showed itself on the field. In 44 games, the Bananas batted .291 with 322 runs, 65 doubles, 28 home runs, 280 RBIs and a .806 OPS. The pitching staff compiled a 2.54 ERA in 378.2 innings and recorded 512 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .217 batting average.
“More than anything, I hope our players learned how important team chemistry, sacrifice and having fun is in baseball,” Gillum said. “I had several players tell me that this summer was the most fun they had playing baseball or that playing in Bananaland made them love the game again. We had two players, Luigs and Oberst, who were offered professional contracts by independent baseball teams and passed on those opportunities to finish what we started and get that dogpile at the end of the summer.”
Having fun is a priority for the Bananas, who engage in many promotions and social media events that are anything but traditional. Gillum rode a horse onto the field before one game, starred in a re-enactment of the “no crying in baseball” scene from the film “A League of Their Own,” and watched his players come to the plate with a full band on the field to perform their walk-up music. One unique non-baseball highlight came from one of the team’s most colorful characters and provided a mouthful of memories for his teammates.
“The Savannah Bananas: it’s like a baseball game and a circus breaks out.” @TheSavBananas have a unique brand of baseball unlike anything else…and nobody is having more fun. pic.twitter.com/9CPMoJTIx4
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) August 18, 2021
“Clarno, who co-starred with me in the ‘no crying in baseball promotion, ate a live cockroach in the clubhouse before a game to fire up the team,” Gillum said. “The rumor got spread around town, and a few weeks later, a local pest control company called him to do a television commercial. That was a memorable one.”
But when it came time for baseball, Gillum and the Bananas were all business. They faced the Morehead City City Marlins in the CPL Championship series and won the first game of the best-of-three series 5-4 in Morehead City. Coming back to Savannah for games two and three, the Marlins evened the series with a 5-3 win in game two before the Bananas clinched the title with a 13-3 victory in the decisive game three.
The championship game provided a lifetime of memories for Gillum, but one moment, in particular, stood out to the head coach.
“When Yniesta hit a three-run home run in the second inning of the championship game, it was one of my favorite baseball memories ever,” Gillum admitted. “Drew had played well for us in 2020, but he couldn’t quite get it going this summer. Still, Drew worked hard and was a great teammate. He never missed a gym workout and was a true Banana. When the playoffs started, we mixed-and-matched our line-ups, and when the Marlins told us they were starting a left-handed pitcher in the championship game, I just knew we needed to start him. He waited for his opportunity and never complained. Before the game, I told the Bananas’ owner that we were starting Drew, and he predicted a home run. We had runners on 1st and 2nd, and in his first swing of the playoffs he hit a home run down the left-field line. I was so proud of him, he earned that moment. I had tears in my eyes in the third-bas box.”
Another layer of memories that added to Gillum’s summer was that his wife, Danielle, and son, Camden, were there to experience it.
“It was special having them with me. Camden crawled for the first time while we were in Savannah, and I have loved watching him become mobile, ” Gillum. “We stayed with a host family within walking distance of the Grayson Stadium, and that allowed them to come to the games and leave when they needed. Most importantly, my wife is a rockstar who does all the work and is the main head coach of the family. She deserves the world after all the traveling and taking care of Camden and our two dogs.”
Gillum recently completed his 11th season as an assistant coach at SMCC in 2021. The Cougars finished 32-16 overall and 25-13 in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference to finish fourth in the Division I standings. SMCC had 11 four-year transfers after the season, including eight headed to an NCAA Division I institution and two former Cougars selected in the 2021 Major League Baseball draft.
“I am excited to get back to SMCC to share some stories about this team’s toughness and sacrifice for each other,” Gillum said. “Guys played with fractured hands and hurt knees and played throughout the summer with toughness and tenacity. We want to create a vision of excellence for our new team at SMCC and toughness is a key characteristic for winning a championship next spring.”
Photos courtesy of The Savannah Bananas