Lander University was Part of Banana Ball’s Early History

June 5, 2024

Billed as “The Greatest Show in Sports by ESPN, the Savannah Bananas are one of the hottest sports teams in the country. With their zany antics and unique rules, The Bananas are the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. But they didn’t start out that way, and Lander University played a part in the transformation to Banana Ball.

When the Savannah Sand Gnats of the South Atlantic League announced in 2015 that they were leaving Savannah for Columbia, South Carolina, Savannah was without a professional baseball team for the first time in 90 years. Beginning in 2016 and for the next seven seasons, the Savannah Bananas competed in the Coastal Plains League (CPL), a collegiate baseball summer league. They won the Petitt Cup championship in 2016, 2021, and 2022.

With a desire to make baseball more entertaining for fans, Savannah team owners Jesse and Emily Cole came up with the idea for Banana Ball and decided to try it out in some exhibition games. After a rainout at Spartanburg’s Wofford College, Jesse’s alma mater, Banana Ball was played for the first time on November 2, 2018, at Lander University.

Lander baseball coach Jason Burke explains how Lander got involved. I was a coach at Wofford Jesse’s senior year,” Burke said. “While he was rehabbing from elbow surgery, I was his personal throwing guy. We threw together every day and became close friends and have continued to remain good friends.

Coach Burke said his former ball player called him and Wofford coach Todd Interdonato (now at Boston College) about playing exhibition games to introduce a fast-paced style of baseball with some crazy rules. “My team was fired up and excited about the game and thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Burke said. “So, yes, Banana Ball was first played right here at Lander after the rainout the night before at Wofford.”

With Banana Ball now a proven concept, the Bananas began fielding two separate teams – a CPL League team and another barnstorming, exhibition team playing Banana Ball.

However, fans were confused as to what team they were going to see on any given night, so the Bananas announced they were leaving the collegiate amateur league and began playing Banana Ball exclusively after the 2022 summer league season.

What Is Banana Ball?

With their slogan “Fans First. Entertainment Always., Banana Ball offers a fast-paced blend of baseball with unorthodox rules, and high-octane entertainment.

The Bananas antics, which include choreographed dance moves, flaming bats, players wearing kilts, backflips before catches and pitchers on stilts are must-see entertainment. Clips of the team’s hijinks are popular on social media, with over 15 million followers. The ultimate showman, owner Jesse Cole wears a yellow tuxedo to every game.

Banana Ball Rules

The rules for Banana Ball are designed to keep the game moving. Games are limited to two hours. Instead of runs, a point is awarded to the highestscoring team each inning. There are no mound visits and a batter can steal first base.

There is also no bunting or stepping out of the batter’s box. Walks are called “sprints.” Every defensive player, other than the pitcher and catcher, needs to touch the ball before it becomes live. Meanwhile, the hitter can advance to as many bases as he can.

Also, a ball caught by a fan is out. Players and fans can challenge an umpire’s call once during a game.

The newest rule is “The Golden Batter Rule” which allows a team once a game to send any hitter in the lineup to the plate in any spot.

Former Lander Player Joins the Bananas

Former Lander University outfielder-first baseman Vincent DeRubeis, who transferred to Lander from the University of Bridgeport after COVID, joined the Bananas in 2023. But his life-long dream of playing professional baseball nearly ended after what could have been a career-ending injury his senior year.

While batting in a game for the Lander Bearcats on a rainy afternoon in April 2022, the slugging outfielder swung at a high two-seamer up and in that he fouled straight into his left eye. On the ground for 15 minutes, things didn’t look good. DeRubeis underwent reconstructive surgery on his face for broken bones and was told he would probably lose sight in his left eye. The Lander business major had been having a stellar senior year hitting over .330 with seven home runs and 33 RBI.

Undeterred, DeRubeis began working with Lander hitting coach Ricky Santiago within weeks of the injury to see if he could still hit. For the next two months he continued to take batting practice. While visiting his hometown of Trumball, Connecticut, he continued to work out and spent the summer playing for the Wethersfield Dodgers in the Connecticut Twilight League. DeRubeis then returned to Lander as a volunteer assistant coach, where he continued to work out with the team and take batting practice.

Knowing his former players dream to play professional baseball, Lander coach Jason Burke got DeRubeis a tryout with the barnstorming Savannah Bananas.

“Jesse called me and said he was having an invitationonly tryout for the Bananas and asked me if I knew some players I could recommend, Coach Burke recalled. I was talking with Vinny about players to go and his name was mentioned in the conversation. A week before the tryout, Vinny was hesitant about the idea, wanting to play more traditional ball. I told him to go and enjoy himself. So, he went and had a blast, and he hit a bomb during the game.”

“Yes, I was hesitant at first,” DeRubeis said. “I am a better ball player than dancer, but friends encouraged me to go and try it. I drove down the night before and went to the stadium at 9 a.m. the next morning. There were about 50 players at the tryout. We met the front office people and Jesse gave us his vision.”

“I saw his passion and bought into his vision,” DeRubeis continued. “We had a nine-inning scrimmage and I hit the longest homerun I have ever hit in my life. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I thought, this could be the reason it (the accident) happened. I couldn’t think of a bigger stage to tell my story and hopefully be an inspiration to others, particularly those who are visually impaired.”

His tryout, which included a 2-for-3 day at the plate with a home run, got DeRubeis a roster spot on one of the most popular baseball teams in the world less than a year after his eye injury.

DeRubeis was on the 2023 team traveling the country but is not on the 2024 roster. A torn labrum and surgeryinhibited his playing time with the Bananas and DeRubeis was not offered a spot for 2024.

“I was going to play for their new team, but they wanted me to take a year off and completely heal,” DeRubeis said.

While training recently in Arizona, a bulging disc has sidelined the slugger again. “I am back home in Connecticut close to family and will take the next three to six months off to heal up,” DeRubeis said. After that, he plans to be out looking for a team to join. “I am going to keep playing baseball as long as I can and chase the dream,” he said.