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This story was re-broadcast during our 5/2/20 episode. It originally aired in August 2018. This web feature has been updated accordingly.
Jesse and Emily Cole were at a friend’s wedding in New Jersey when the COO of their business called with bad news.
" ‘Jesse, we just over-drafted our account. We're completely out of money,’ " Jesse remembers.
"For the first time, really, we had completely failed," Emily says. "I mean, how do you run out of money and not have a backup plan?"
A few months earlier, Jesse and Emily had bought a collegiate summer league baseball team in Savannah, Georgia. They had already taken on millions of dollars in debt, and Opening Day was still months away.
On the drive home from New Jersey to North Carolina, Jesse and Emily talked about what they could do to keep their new team afloat. And Emily came up with a plan.
"She turned to me, and she said, ‘We have no other options. We have to sell our house,’ " Jesse recalls.
"It was in the back of our minds the whole drive, but it took me saying it for us to both accept that that was really our only option left," Emily says. "We were not ready to give up on this."
This was not Jesse’s first experience with a failing baseball team. In 2008, as a 23-year-old bachelor, he was hired as the general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies.
"I showed up that first day — the team was only averaging a couple hundred fans a game," Jesse says. "I found out that the team had lost over $100,000 the previous year. And I found out that there was $268 in the bank account."
Right away, Jesse started calling local businesses to drum up sponsorships. Most weren’t interested, and some had never even heard of the Grizzlies.
"I was like, ‘What have I got myself into?’ " Jesse says. "I mean, the team had been there, but nobody cared."
So Jesse went to the team owner with a new idea.
" ‘Ken, we can no longer be a baseball team,’ " Jesse says. " ‘We need to be a circus, and maybe a baseball game will break out.’ And luckily he didn’t fire me. And he said, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose.’ "
Jesse called a group of his college friends, and they started brainstorming ideas to draw fans to Grizzlies games. Things were about to get crazy in Gastonia.
"You know, we came up with Flatulence Fun Night, where we actually gave away whoopee cushions at the gate," Jesse says. "And we had a farting contest on the field, a bean burrito eating contest ... Salute to Underwear Night: if anyone wore their underwear on the outside of their pants and came in, they got a free ticket ... George Bush was the President, and his term was over. So what’d we do? We offered him an internship."
Jesse also brought the players into the fun. They started handing out programs before warm-ups and doing choreographed dances in between innings.
"It started getting a lot of buzz," Jesse says. "And that's when the attendance started skyrocketing. It really became bigger than we even imagined."
'I Met The Guy You're Going To Marry'
People started hearing about Jesse and the Grizzlies. Among them was a young woman named Emily McDonald.
"My boss at the time heard Jesse speak at a conference," Emily says. "And she actually left the room and called me and said, ‘I met the guy you’re going to marry.’ "
Emily was working for a minor league baseball team in Augusta, Georgia. Like Jesse, she also believed that fan-centric entertainment was the secret to success in baseball. The two started exchanging emails. And sure enough …
"Over time, just kinda got to know each other and fell in love," Emily says. "And then I ended up moving to Gastonia and working for the team with him.
“We can no longer be a baseball team. We have to be a circus, and maybe a baseball game will break out.”Jesse Cole
"I will always remember the first time I walked into that Gastonia ballpark. Jesse was teaching the players the Thriller dance. On the field. In a tuxedo, by the way. He was in a black tuxedo. We were having a blast from the first moment that I stepped foot into that stadium."
And just a few months later, Jesse stopped a Grizzlies game between innings, brought the entire staff onto the field and dropped to a knee in front of Emily.
"I had the ring inside a baseball which I carved open, and I proposed to her," Jesse says.
Emily said yes … which cued a 30-minute fireworks display before play could resume. To continue the celebration, the couple planned a weekend trip to Savannah, Georgia. Neither of them had been before. And of course, one of their first stops was a minor league game at Grayson Stadium.
"We walked into this ballpark, and we fell in love," Jesse says.
Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron all played there.
"We could feel the history and the character coming out of it," Jesse says. "This beautiful brick, huge archways. I mean it was gorgeous."
But when Jessie and Emily looked around the grandstands, they realized the place was almost completely empty.
"It was a beautiful ballpark on a beautiful night, and the whole atmosphere was just sad," Emily remembers.
Ever the optimists, the couple marveled at Grayson Stadium’s potential.
"What an awesome opportunity, if this place ever was available, to bring life back to this ballpark," Emily says.
And it didn’t take long for Savannah’s minor league team to offer that opportunity.
"Within the next year, we heard that they couldn't draw fans, they couldn't have success in Savannah, they needed a new stadium, and the city wouldn't build them a new stadium and they were leaving," Jesse says.
Jesse and Emily had bought a majority share of the Gastonia Grizzlies earlier that year. And they had just put the finishing touches on their dream house.
"We built a fire pit, a bar. We had a hot tub back there," Jesse says. "It was the hangout place."
But Grayson Stadium was up for grabs, and the newlyweds couldn’t resist. In 2016, they bought their second franchise in the Coastal Plain League and began building a new team in Savannah.
Bringing Baseball To Savannah
"We started calling everyone in this community," Jesse says. " ‘We're here! We're gonna do baseball right! We're gonna make it fun! We're gonna have tons of entertainment!’ And what happened? Crickets. I mean, nothing. No one believed us."
Jesse says the team sold just one season ticket in its first two months. They were hardly bringing in any money. So after that phone call from their COO saying they'd over-drafted their account, Jesse and Emily sold their dream house and moved to Savannah.
From there, they put every penny they had into the team. Even if it meant that their new living arrangements were a significant step down.
"I actually went and looked at this duplex first and it was horrible," Emily says. "I mean, disgusting."
"The nastiest, most decrepit, worst fixer-upper place," Jesse says.
"I opened the door and take him in, and he just shook his head, ‘No,’ and ran back out," Emily says. "But after talking it through and realizing that this is truly all we could afford, we decided to buy it."
"We slept with our socks on cause the floor was so disgusting," Jesse says.
"We had to lift one leg up and over the toilet in order to sit down because your knees were touching the walls," Emily adds.
"One night, my wife woke up screaming and there was a cockroach on my face," Jesse says. "We didn’t want to tell people closest to us how much we were suffering and struggling. We hadn't even named the team."
Jesse and Emily believed that a great team name could turn things around. They announced a naming competition in the local newspaper for fans to submit suggestions. Jesse and Emily wanted something unique. No generic animal names or weather phenomena. Something for Savannah to unite behind.
Over 1,000 people wrote in. But one submission stood out. The Savannah Bananas.
The ideas started coming.
"This could be great," Jesse says. "We could have a mascot named 'Split'. We could have a senior citizen dance team called the 'Banana Nanas.' We could have a promotion where we throw bananas from the top deck and people catch them in their pants — and it’s called 'Banana in the Pants.' Our slogan could be 'Go Bananas.' We came up with all the ideas. And we said, ‘We have to do it.’ "
On Feb. 25, 2016, Jesse and Emily announced the new team name. Within minutes, the Savannah Bananas were No. 1 trending on Twitter, and merchandise orders were flooding in from all over the country. But the Savannah community had a different response.
"We got crucified," Jesse says. "They were saying the owners should be thrown out of town. ‘You guys are an embarrassment to this city’ ... ‘You'll never sell a ticket’ ... ‘Please leave our town’ ... ‘Who are you guys? Who do you think you are?’ "
For the Bananas, however, all press was good press. The team sold out its Opening Night game.
"I think a lot of it was people just saying, ‘Let me go check out these crazy people. They're probably gonna fail. This is probably gonna be a joke,’ " Emily says. "But regardless, they bought the tickets and they showed up."
Over 4,000 fans arrived at Grayson Stadium for the Bananas’ June 2 season opener. For once, everything was going to plan. Until the rain came.
"That's just what happens in the baseball world," Emily says. "Sometimes the gods are not in your favor."
"A Savannah downpour, that you would never — ah, it was unbelievable," Jesse says.
The Bananas waited almost three hours to begin play. But even after the delay, their sellout crowd was still in their seats.
"There was 4,000 people still there waiting to watch the Savannah Bananas," Jesse says.
It was clear from the game itself that people weren’t staying to see quality baseball.
"I think we made six errors," Jesse says. "We were letting up runs left and right."
They stayed for the show.
"We have a breakdancing first base coach," Jesse says. "A 30-piece pep band playing either ‘Final Countdown’ or ‘Rocky’ or ‘Uptown Funk.’ It’s a nonstop entertainment experience. Our scripts take hours to produce cause every night is a different script."
The Bananas sold out 18 games in 2016 — their inaugural season. They even rebounded from their Opening Night loss to win the Coastal Plain League championship.
Now, the Bananas are on a 60-game sellout streak. On the field, they finished 2018 with the league’s best regular season record.
"So many operators, they focus first on how do they make the best team," Jesse says. "Well, we realized it’s the exact opposite: you focus on the environment — the fans — and then the baseball takes care of itself."
Jesse and Emily are renovating their dingy duplex in Savannah. They’re almost done turning it into their new dream house. And even as the Bananas continue to sell out games and light up social media, their owners are still pushing the envelope when it comes to improving the game they love.
"I believe baseball's too long, too slow and too boring," Jesse says. "As an owner of a baseball team, I feel baseball is like a hot dog stand. And what we do is we are unbelievable at the condiments. We have great mustard, ketchup, relish. But the hot dog still needs work. And that's baseball."
Jesse and Emily Cole are now parents. And though they’ve already turned around two failing baseball franchises, they’re not done yet.
"People said, ‘If you could have on your tombstone, Jesse, I bet you would say, “What’s next?”’" Jesse says. "Because I’m always trying to move to that next adventure."
This article was originally published on August 10, 2018.
This segment aired on August 11, 2018.
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