SPRINGFIELD — Northwestern High School graduate and former Champion City Kings pitcher Gage Voorhees is spending the summer in Bananaland.
The Flagler University rising senior is pitching for the Savannah Bananas, the viral summer collegiate wooden bat franchise based in Savannah, Ga.
The team’s website features a banner on the front page that reads, “We make baseball fun: Fans first, Entertain Always, Always inclusive.”
The Bananas, who were founded in 2016, are known for their theatrics at the ballpark, including choreographed scoring celebrations, players walking up to the plate while playing Guitar Hero and the Banana Nanas, a senior citizen dance team. They have even played games in kilts.
In an answer to the question, “What makes us different?” the Bananas website reads, “We are not your typical baseball team. We are different. We take chances. We toe the line. We test the rules. We challenge the way things are supposed to be.”
Voorhees started the team’s exhibition game against the Bananas Premier Team on May 24 in their “Banana Ball” format, which is played in under two hours and includes several new rules. Batters can steal first, and if a fan catches a foul ball, it’s an out. The Premier Team, a professional team managed by former MLB player Eric Byrnes, traveled the country this spring, playing exhibition games with “Banana Ball” rules against another professional team, the Party Animals. They’ll be featured on ESPN+ this summer.
Voorhees tossed one scoreless inning in the game, allowing one hit. He called it “an awesome experience.” The game included a world record 1,968 fans wearing banana costumes to the Bananas’ Grayson Stadium.
“It’s just an unreal atmosphere,” Voorhees said. “You never really know what to expect; you just know you’re going to have fun. One of the things the owners and coaches are really trying to be known for is creating a fan-first environment, where they’re there to entertain fans, bring more people out and have fun while doing it. At the same time, we’re still playing competitive baseball, still doing everything we can for the sport as well.”
The Bananas collegiate team, the defending Coastal Plain League champions, are 5-1. Voorhees has been stellar in two appearances this season, going 1-0 in five innings while allowing one hit with six strikeouts.
The Bananas’ motto is simple, Voorhees said: Give 100 percent on the field and 100 percent to entertain the fans. In his first appearance, he stepped out of his comfort zone, dancing on top of the dugout in the fourth inning.
“I’m absolutely nervous going out there every day doing what I can to make sure these fans have a good time,” Voorhees said. “One of the guys from the team last year said it perfect, ‘You have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.’”
Voorhees, a 2018 Northwestern grad, pitched at both Cedarville University and Sinclair Community College before heading to Flagler University in St. Augustine, Fla.
He planned to come home for the summer and possibly return to the Kings for the second half of the season. However, Bananas coach Tyler Gillum called him in early May with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“You only get this opportunity once in a lifetime as a college baseball player,” Voorhees said.
After pitching 95 innings last season at Flagler, Voorhees may take a break later this summer to prepare for his senior season. This spring, he went 7-2 with a 3.41 ERA and 90 strikeouts, leading the team in wins, ERA, innings pitched, complete games and strikeouts.
“It was definitely a growing year for the team as a whole,” Voorhees said. “We were implementing a new culture, trying to get more people to buy in. I kind of took a lead role on the team, especially for the pitching staff, trying to get their heads on straight and I think in turn it helped me develop as a player too because not only did I have to help these other guys be the best version of themselves, I had to lead by example, too. It definitely helped me grow as an athlete as well.”
While Voorhees will consider playing professionally if the opportunity becomes available, he plans to enjoy his summer in Savannah with one of the most popular teams in the country.
“It is crazy, but it’s an organized crazy,” Voorhees said. “We may do a bunch of random stuff all the time and the crowd never knows what’s going to happen next, but we always know what’s coming.”
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