For Saugerties High School Class of 2015 alum Biko Skalla, giving up a steady gig with Major League Baseball for a seasonal broadcasting job with the Savannah Bananas was an easy decision. After a successful few weeks in the deep South, he’s more sure than ever that he made the right move.
The Savannah Bananas are a legendary wood-bat collegiate baseball club ordinarily playing in the Coastal Plain League (CPL), 15-teams spread across Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. What sets them apart in ordinary seasons is their commitment to a fun atmosphere on and off the field. They have a breakdancing first-base coach, They have an all-grandmother dance team, the Banana Nanas, Among their regular fans is a professional Mexican wrestler named called Voodoo Jack,
Such fan-friendly initiatives that helped the team achieve an 88-game sellout streak at Grayson Stadium, an historic 4000-seat-capacity Savannah ballpark. With the pandemic causing the widespread cancellation of summer collegiate and minor league baseball this year, what set the Bananas apart was that they were actually playing.
And that’s where Skalla came in.
Skalla spent the summers of 2016 and 2017 as a broadcaster for the Saugerties Stallions of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. After graduating from Syracuse University in 2018 with a degree in broadcast and digital journalism, Skalla began working for Major League Baseball at its Secaucus, New Jersey headquarters. He moved up from broadcast associate to associate producer.
While Skalla loved the opportunity, and appreciated that he was on salary and working from home in the midst of a pandemic, he also wanted to get back to broadcasting. “I’d been poking around and keeping an eye out for broadcasting jobs for a little while, especially throughout the winter as we head towards spring and a lot of minor league and collegiate baseball league jobs become open at that point,” said Skalla during a phone call from Grayson Stadium last week.
Several weeks ago, Skalla saw a job opening posted by mercurial Bananas owner Jesse Cole, also the founder of Fans First Entertainment. “To say this was unlike any other job description I’ve ever seen would be an understatement,” Skalla said. “Most of them are pretty cookie-cutter: You’re going to have media responsibilities, maybe you might have to do some sales.”
“This job is for me”
This one, right off the bat (so to speak), was different. No resume, no cover letter. “They wanted three innings of play-by-play of literally any game ever. And they wanted three fresh ideas for the broadcast as well,” said Skalla. “And they had a little link to the Bananas story. After I watched that 19-minute-and-43-second clip on the Bananas website, I was like, Holy you-know-what, I’ve got to get down there and see what’s going on. At least as a fan at some point I need to see a game here.”
For Cole, Skalla was exactly what he was looking for in a broadcaster and entertainer.
“I’ll never forget the first e-mail I received from Biko,” Jesse Cole said. “It was a very long e-mail, and sometimes you roll your eyes at that. But he said something like, This job is for me, this is the only job for me. I love that confidence for someone to leave a full-time job with something that on the outside is the sexiest, Major League Baseball, to do a seasonal job as a broadcaster. [He] obviously showed me how hungry he was to take on this different role. It was a no-brainer for us.”
In mid-June, Skalla left his job and drove to Savannah for the July 1 start of the summer ball series, a two-month schedule of games featuring two other CPL West Division teams, South Carolina’s Lexington County Blowfish, and Savannah’s in-state rivals, the Macon Bacon. Games are played in half-capacity stadiums in the midst of a pandemic, and fans who can’t make it into Grayson Stadium for a game can enjoy not only the live broadcasts but what the team is calling its “24-7” entertainment network as a Bananas Insider for $4.99 per month.
Skalla quickly established himself with the Bananas as a fan-on-the-inside. “Coach Gillum and the other four coaches and all the players have been extremely generous with their time, and are very happy with me sitting in the locker room all the time to try to pull as much knowledge as I can for the broadcast,” Skalla said. “Being 23, I think it’s pretty easy for me to relate to the players. I’m a year to four years older than all of these guys, and just a couple years out of college. And they’ve been incredibly nice and welcoming.”
Skalla’s in-game commentary and social media reports have become a hit with Bananas backers. “It’s amazing to see how in just one week to see all the Bananas fans have become his fans,” said Cole. “I’ve never seen that happen that quickly. All indications are this is a great move for both of us.”
Like to second-guess the manager? Among the innovations planned for the summer ball series are opportunities for fans to collectively influence strategic moves, from pitching changes to on-field action.
Gillum, in his third season with the Bananas, likes the idea, which takes fan participation to a whole new level. “It’s something we’re testing this summer as we try to come up with some ideas that are outside the box,” Gillum said. “If it’s normal, we do the exact opposite. And with the guys that we’ve put together for this roster, it’s not going to bother me a bit if we want to put three guys up and let the fans choose who they want to go in. Bananas fans are really passionate, anyway, so they’re going to know whose they think has the best arm. It’ll be fun to get the fans involved a little bit more.”
Delivering more people
When the team began looking into playing during the pandemic, it allowed them to be even more adventurous than usual. Cole said that the innovations both on the field and in the broadcast booth injecting additional excitement into the game.
“We’ve always thought about how something would look from a fan perspective,” explained Cole. “It’s how we do everything, and we’re rocking and rolling with it. We’ve always had that mindset of finding a way. We wanted to find a way to make baseball fun, especially this year, with every minor-league team in the country shut down, and of the teams that are playing very few are playing in front of fans.”
He claims the team has had to turn away 50,000 fans this year. “We’ve had to cut the capacity to such a small amount and wanted to know how we can deliver our show to more people outside the stadium. With Biko and the Bananas Insiders, we said, All right, we’re going to try to show the game in a different way and give people a good fan experience, even though we had no way of knowing how to do it.”
The problem-solving, on-the-fly nature of his first summer with the Savannah Bananas has been fun so far, Skalla said. “Baseball should be really exciting. The Bananas are probably the most unique opportunity in the country, especially this summer. This is a great place for me to really just let loose.” The former Stallions broadcaster hopes one day to work the booth for the New York Yankees. “Or the Kansas City Royals,” Skalla said. “Or any team. I would love to be back in Savannah, though. I love everyone who works here, I love the community already, just a couple of weeks into this. I really love the fans and the way they play baseball here.”