Different? Anyone who has seen the clips of the Savannah Bananas on ESPN or YouTube certainly knows the barnstorming baseball team brings a never-before-seen approach to the game.
Music playing throughout. Dancing on the field. Skits with players, umpires and fans. A batter on stilts, a pitch from second base — even a flaming baseball.
There are different rules, too. Foul balls caught by fans are outs, batters who draw a walk can run as far as they can until every member of the team in the field touches the ball. And there is a strict two-hour game limit — with a countdown clock.
For New Jersey’s Eric Shuffler, the co-owner and president of the Staten Island FerryHawks (along with John Catsimatidis and the New York Yankees), the biggest difference in the team’s recent two-game event with the Bananas was easier to define: The sellout crowds of approximately 6,000 brought an electricity to the ballpark that he has dreamed of since he and Catsimatidis brought minor-league baseball back to the area in 2021.
“The whole place just felt different,” he said. “To have the stadium be full, and full of life, was amazing.”
The games have been the biggest highlight of an ownership effort that has been a true labor of love, one that has been much harder than Shuffler ever imagined and filled with a rollercoaster of emotions.
“There are incredible highs and there are incredible frustrations — and sometimes they occur in the same hour,” he said. “You can have 300 people on a Tuesday night and wonder how you’re going to survive, or 2,500 people on a weekend — and then have the elevator stop working in the middle of the game. It’s crazy.”
Shuffler, a longtime political consultant and lobbyist who worked for both Govs. Jim McGreevey and Dick Codey before founding River Crossing Strategy Group in 2007, is all in.
“I’m completely passionate,” he said. “I’m at the stadium almost every day — there’s not an aspect of the operation that I’m not intimately involved with and overseeing. And I am very fortunate to have great partners in my ownership group and John Catsimatidis as my business partner — we meet every week to review operations, performance, marketing and how we improve the organization.”
Events like the games with the Bananas show the group the true potential of the team — and the impact it can have on Staten Island.
“When I was in politics, working in the Governor’s Office or in the Senate, we had this ability to truly impact people’s lives,” he said. “You could read an article about an issue and then call someone, or introduce a bill that could make people’s lives better.
“I view the baseball team as something very similar. Every day at the ballpark, you have this chance to make someone smile — that’s an incredible thing.”
The word “team” only begins to describe it.
“I have a line I always use: The team and the stadium are a community asset — and I really believe that,” he said. “The team can do well as a business and do well for the community at the same time.
“These games were the type of events that have such significant implications beyond the event itself.”
A Savannah Bananas game is nearly an all-day affair, starting with a parade of players hours before the first pitch. There is plenty of fan interaction, plenty of in-game skits to practice and plenty of music from the band.
“They never stop entertaining,” Shuffler said.
The recent Friday and Saturday night games were more than a year in the making.
The Bananas, a barnstorming baseball team that some compare with the Harlem Globetrotters because of their entertainment value (that’s not totally accurate — more on that in a bit), sent out a solicitation to the Atlantic League in 2022.
Shuffler immediately jumped at the chance.
“I was familiar with what they were because I had read about them and seen them on TV and online,” he said. “I immediately thought, ‘This could be a big deal for us.’
“We’re trying to grow a brand. We’re trying to bring people to the stadium — an event like this is a signature event that we needed.”
What Shuffler described as a corporate recruitment came next. The FerryHawks put together a proposal, and the sides went back and forth until they came to an agreement on all aspects of the event.
Because the FerryHawks agreed to use their own players (remember, there are actual games and the Bananas want them to be competitive), they were able to get two games instead of the usual one.
Knowing the games would draw capacity crowds meant Shuffler and the FerryHawks had to find more staff (they brought in extra people to handle concessions and security) and more pitchers (since the team also was playing its Atlantic League schedule, it did not use its pitchers in the games).
It was all worth it.
Shuffler wouldn’t share the details of the agreement, but he did offer that the Bananas got all the merchandise sales and the FerryHawks got all of the concession sales.
Both sides made money.
“It was a revenue-positive event for us,” he said.
Shuffler wasn’t the only one who had seen the Bananas act on YouTube. His players had, too.
And while the games were optional for the players, almost everyone opted in. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the fun?
Chris Brito, the FerryHawks’ star player from Perth Amboy, who recently finished his career at Rutgers University as the school’s all-time leader in home runs and RBI, was ready to go.
“I’ve watched them online, so I knew what they were about — and I definitely wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “I didn’t hesitate.”
Brito said he has played in front of big crowds before — but not ones that were so involved in the game. (Remember, caught foul balls are outs.)
“All the fans were totally engaged in the game; it was really fun,” he said.
And, since Brito said he’s always the first one to sing and dance and have fun wherever he can, he welcomed the show. Then he found out it wasn’t all fun and games.
“These guys can play,” he said. “I had one at-bat when they brought in a guy from the bullpen. I stepped in and he was throwing smoke. I said, ‘OK, time to get back to baseball.’”
This is where the Bananas differ from the Globetrotters. Shuffler feels the Bananas team doesn’t get enough credit for its talent.
“I don’t think comparing them to the Globetrotters does the Bananas justice,” he said. “For one, it’s a real game. There is no predetermined outcome. The Bananas do lose. We ended up losing both games, but we easily could have won. People play for real.”
Shuffler differentiates it this way.
“The Globetrotters are highly skilled players doing highly cool trick plays,” he said. “The Bananas are very different. They are entirely skilled players who do trick plays, but when you’re there, you realize what makes the Bananas special is not the trick plays, it’s the music, it’s the show, it’s the band. They are basically running a game and a concert at the same time.”
Shuffler has been to plenty of big sporting events, but he said the atmosphere against the Bananas was unique.
“I’ve been to World Series games where people are intensely watching and rooting — at the Bananas games, people were intensely watching and just being amused,” he said. “They’re happy. It’s like being at a party as opposed to being at a game. You’re watching because you want to see what they’re going to do next.”
Shuffler said the team already is talking with the Bananas about coming back next year, but he appreciates the fact that plenty of other clubs are looking, too.
His bigger goal is figuring out how to get the many first-time fans to return to the stadium. And not just for baseball. The success of the weekend with the Bananas was an example of what he already knew: The club needs to offer year-round entertainment to prosper. Club business does not stop when the season ends in mid-September.
“You can’t make economics work on just baseball,” he said. “Our goal is to make the stadium a year-round entertainment destination center.”
A pumpkin patch and haunted house are planned for October. A beer festival is scheduled for November. There are a number of corporate events planned, too.
Shuffler said his co-owner, Catsimatidis, the CEO of the Red Apple Group who made his fortune in the supermarket industry, is just as eager to make this work. As are the New York Yankees, which have a small portion of the team. (The Yankees owned the Staten Island Yankees before the New York Penn League was eliminated during a contraction of the minor leagues.)
It’s not easy. And it’s not what Shuffler expected when he bought into the group.
He knew it would be a startup (the team had to hire a staff, and secure vendors for everything imaginable) and he knew it would require a learning curve — but he never thought it would be like this.
“It’s running a business that happens to have baseball as a product. We are a venue operator, a retail and hospitality establishment as much as a baseball organization,” he said. “And it’s a really difficult business that is intensive on lots of fronts. It’s a constant grind.”
“What I know now, as opposed to six months ago, let alone 18 months ago, is incredible.”
Events such as the games with the Bananas offer inspiration.
“We’ll be talking about those games for years,” he said. “It was just an amazing experience. Everything about it — from the fans to the players to the atmosphere itself — was just different.”