Banana Ball's 'The Firefighters' Team Coached by TX Firefighter

July 9, 2024
The Firefighters are a new baseball team in the Savannah Bananas league, entertaining fans and paying tribute to the fire service.

Combine the love most kids have for firefighters with America’s Pastime. That’s exactly what the owner of the Savanah Bananas, Jesse Cole, did when he created a baseball team idlozied around those kids’ role models to play in his organization of Banana Ball.

The Firefighters debut

Showcased on Oct. 5, 2023, as a part of the 2024 season launch, the Firefighters were announced as Banana Ball’s third team in the organization.

The Firefighters made their debut on May 30, 2024 against the Savanah Bananas at the Bananas home stadium at Grayson Stadium in Savannah, GA. Since then, they have had five total series, 14 games, against the Bananas, and the other Banana Ball team, The Party Animals. They have played in Savannah, Las Vegas, Nashville, Buffalo, NY, and are set to play eight more games in July at various locations.

“You can see that there's demand to see this team, to follow this team, and to learn more about this team," Cole told "I think it's going to grow and be able to play headlining games."

The debut could not have gone better. Despite losing to the Bananas 4-3, the turn out was amazing. The next game, the new team logged their first mark in the win column with a 5-2 final. The crowd showed unconditional support for the new squad, who is head coached by Corpus Christi, TX, firefighter and USA Baseball Women's National player, Valerie Perez.

“To see us win, and the way that the fans and crowd reacted was incredible," Perez said. "It didn't really hit me until the next day. We were debriefing, and we had some of the Party Animals there. They were like, there was not one time when they won that the crowd cheered for them. You have no idea how much people are on board with The Firefighters being here, being good, and being successful."

What is Banana Ball?

For starters, Banana Ball commenced in 2016 when the Savanah Bananas competed as a collegiate summer baseball team in the Coastal Plain League, where they won three championships. Eventually, following the 2022 summer season, the Bananas transitioned into only playing their new style of play, where there are trick plays, hijinks, and extraordinary showmanship. Trick plays like catching balls between legs, doing 360-degree throws, using props, among others, Along with hijinks, such crowd performances and dancing on the mound.

In one scenario, there has been an at-bat where the pitcher and batter played rock-paper-scissors before every pitch. Depending on the winner of each round, the loser would have to either bat from the opposite side, or the pitcher would have to tell the batter what pitch they are throwing. 

The rules are quite different than the commonly known Major League Baseball. Some of the different rules are:

  • Scoring: Games are won by points, not runs. The team that scores the most runs in the inning gets a point. In the final inning, every run counts as a point.
  • There’s a two-hour time limit
  • Batters cannot step out of the box
  • Batters cannot bunt
  • No mound visits
  • Walks are “sprints” – the runner is allowed to sprint around the bases, and get as far as they can go before everyone on the defense touches the ball
  • Foul balls caught by fans are counted as outs

Yet, it still has the groundwork of America’s pastime. Additionally, the park environment varies from that of an MLB stadium. Cole attempts to keep things cheap for his fans:  they attempted to keep tickets out of third-party seller's hands, food at the park is cheaper than that of a major league stadium, and drinks are also more affordable. 

A false comparison that is thrown around is that Banana Ball parallels the Harlem Globetrotters. However, the Globetrotters were scripted to win every game. Despite the differences, Banana Ball may seem to be scripted to some, however Perez clarifies that everything that is seen when it comes to the actual play aspect is very real. The winner truly is determined strictly by the play of the players. 

“There's another fire created inside of me, competitively, for Banana Ball. The core of the baseball side, none of that is scripted. All pure talent, pure hustle, and pure athleticism,” said Perez.

Idea comes to fruition

After seeing the success of the first two teams in the organization, Cole shared an idea with his operations team about a team that is centered around firefighters. The idea came to fruition quick, considering this was first brought up early in 2023. The motivation behind it came from his own kids and their interests.

“I think it was the kids, and seeing their admiration and love for the firefighters, fire trucks and the fire station. We thought this could be a unique team and brand to build after realizing there could be a way to pay tribute to firefighters all over the country. We shared the idea with the group, and started thinking about honoring firefighters everywhere we go. The opportunity to use ladders and do different things that show strength and courage. It became a no brainer,” said Cole.

The branding was created by Dan Simon of the Louisville-based design firm, Studi Simon, who also made the design for the Bananas. The prominence of yellow in the brand, according to Simon, is meant to evoke the reflective gear worn by firefighters.

After having the logistics ready and the idea proposed, it was time to build the roster. The roster is made up of players that have ties to the fire service. Not only that, but there are two players who currently serve as firefighters, Perez and Mat Wolf. Cole and company wanted to be authentic as possible when it came to bringing this team to the table.

To Cole, it seemed like Perez was the glove that fit perfectly for the role of head coach.

“It seemed like she would be the perfect leader," Cole said. "Understanding what it is to play baseball at a higher level, been around the game, but also understand being a firefighter for over eight years, and what it's like. We really wanted to build that authenticity of the brand. We want to do it right, so she became a no-brainer very early in the process."

After messaging Perez, they were able to get her out to a private workout, and shortly afterwards made the call, asking her to be the head coach. Perez, 32, has a wife and three kids at home, along with being a career firefighter since 2015. The decision was going to be tough. However, with the support of her family, they agreed to the terms.

“I was shocked. First, I was incredibly honored that they would even consider me for that,” said Perez. "I'm grateful and thankful for my wife, because without her completely handling everything at home: taking care of our kids, managing our household, all while handling her own career, I wouldn't have the freedom to come to Savanah and be involved in this incredible experience."

Perez’s interest peaked after the tryout. Something about the energy in the atmosphere when it comes to playing banana ball, rejuvenated her competitive spirit. Playing in the games as well, she compares every inning like playing in the bottom of the ninth, every run matters.

“When I left my workout, I called my wife and told her, I think this is the most fun I've had on a ball field. It’s catching balls in-between your legs and doing 360s. When you make a great play, you celebrate. In little league, you make a great a play, and your coaches want you to act like you've been there. But in Banana Ball, they're like, no, that's what we do. We celebrate,” said Perez.

Perez grew up in Corpus Christi and has stayed around the area ever since. She played baseball growing up, following in the footsteps of her three older brothers. She had to switch to softball come high school and went on to play at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi. Last year, Perez made the USA Baseball Women's National Team.

Perez thought her playing days were over until her brother's friend tagged her in a Facebook post about the USA Women's National Team, which opened the door to the oppurtunity to play baseball again. After making the USA Women's National Team, it has brought her even more opportunities to work with organizations like MLB Develops and The Savanah Bananas.

Oklahoma City firefighter plays ball

Another player that built up the roster of The Firefighters is former Banana, Mat Wolf. 

Wolf, 36, played for three years with the Bananas and was recently traded to the new team. He is seven years on the job at Oklahoma City, OK, Fire Department and also is a fourth-generation firefighter and it couldn’t have more of an ideal situation for both sides.

“Me growing up an athlete, being around a group that has a common goal, the camaraderie that goes into that, there’s not much difference to the fire service. They kind of go together,” said Wolf. “Now that I've moved to The Firefighters, it kind of goes full circle. Now, I'm trying to make an impact on the game of baseball, and a positive influence on people's lives, but also bringing the firefighting piece in the mix as well.”

Wolf has baseball in his blood. He played at a junior community college in Gainesville, TX, then transferred to Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and finished his collegiate career at East Central University in Oklahoma. Following that, he coached baseball for five years at the high school and collegiate level.

His involvement with the Bananas started when his buddy reached out that coached the original Savannah college team. At the time, Wolf was 10 years removed from playing ball. His wife called Cole to send him an invite and booked him an AirBnB to force his hand at the tryout.

“It gives me an opportunity to hopefully bring my experience from the fire service into what they do. So, we can honor the fire department the best way we can,” said Wolf.

Wolf, a new father, attempts to make every game that he can, but it is in a limited capacity. His role on the Bananas was being the rodeo clown, being that his father was a rodeo clown in college, so he can pay homage to his dad.

“I think everybody really took a liking to them right off the bat. We're lucky in that sense. Firefighters are lucky, because most people like and respect what they do. It was exciting for me, and it was cool to see all the other firefighters there for each other at the game,” said Wolf.

Banana Ball is selling out  

This is a first-time thing. Normally, cities will create slow-pitch softball leagues that involve their city’s fire department or police department. This is on a much larger scale and the Bananas have sold out stadiums everywhere they go, even recently selling out Fenway Park, among other professional baseball stadiums.

The Firefighters are getting in on the action, with them playing on July 13 at Nationals Stadium, the Washington Nationals home field in Washington D.C. Getting tickets to the events are not an easy endeavor as there currently sits nearly 2.5 million people on waiting lists for games the next couple of years.

The Firefighters have also taken a step up when it comes to streaming games. Traditionally, they will post the results of the games on YouTube, or live stream them on Bally sports, among other streaming channels. However, Banana Ball made their live ESPN debut on July 5 and 7 between The Firefighters and the Savanah Bananas. These games were played in front of a sold out crowd in Buffalo, NY, at Sahlen Field, the largest minor league baseball stadium in the country.

"This is another huge test for your organization. This will be the most people we've ever had watching our game. For our entertainment crew, our creative team and most importantly, our broadcast team, this is their oppurtunity to shine and show that we can do this ourselves at a high level," said Cole. 

During the conception of the team, their Instagram account amassed over 150,000 impressions in the matter of a couple weeks. Now, their team account on Instagram sits at 83,000 followers and counting. The team is growing, not only on a national level, but a global level.

“We want to play in different countries and bring Banana Ball across the world. There are not many games where we don't meet somebody who's from Dubai, Germany, or Japan, who came all this way for a banana game. That blows my mind,” said Perez.

Honoring firefighters through baseball

This is something that is bigger than baseball, bigger than entertainment, bigger than any amount of money that can be earned. This is about projecting the support and love that people have for firefighters and what they do. Giving them a spotlight, when most of the time the people that sacrifice their lives and safety every day, don’t get the recognition that they deserve.

“Jesse, as well as the rest of the staff, they're very forward with saying how it's supposed to be something that brings honor to the fire service. That's something that I explained [to the team]. When you put on the jersey, it's not just another baseball jersey. It's a jersey that represents something much bigger than baseball, much bigger than anything you played for. You represent the 343 people that passed on 9/11 and the (many) that we average every single year that die in the fire service,” said Perez.

The support is there. The fans are there. The idea has come to fruition and is thriving beyond belief. The director of Banana Ball Operations, Barry Aldridge along with Cole, Perez, Wolf, and the team have planted a seed that is growing into one of the biggest trees.

“I'm trying to convert as many fans as possible to our side,” said Perez. “I like to say all the time, it's so un-American to root against The Firefighters. You just can't do that, right?”

About the Author

Ryan Baker

Ryan Baker is a writer and associate editor with prior experiences in online and print production. Ryan is an associate editor for T&D World and Firehouse, while he is going to graduate school in pursuit of a master's degree in sciences of communication at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He recently completed a year of teaching Intro to Public Speaking at UW-Whitewater, as part of his graduate program. Ryan acquired his bachelor's degree in journalism in 2023 from UW-Whitewater, and operates currently out of Minneapolis, MN. Baker, also writes freelances for the Ultimate Frisbee Association (UFA) in his free time, while also umpiring baseball for various ages across the Twin Cities Metro Area.

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