Going Bananas

photos by Matt Cornelius
photos by Matt Cornelius

Going Bananas

How can you not be romantic about baseball?" —Billy Beane, Moneyball

Baseball has been a constant for more than a century of American history, and people have set their calendars using opening day as a guide. We have our favorite players and favorite teams, we collect baseball cards and autographs, and old, well-oiled baseball gloves are often passed down from father to son with as much reverence as any sacred family heirloom.

It is hard to imagine after all this time, there could be anything new under the sun when it comes to baseball, but thanks to the antics of teams like The Savannah Bananas, based out of Savannah, Georgia, it is literally a whole new ball game! Banana Ball is baseball with a twist, and every game changer is meant to entertain the fans with an experience they will never forget. Banana Ball includes pre-game parades, choreographed dances, legendary walk ups, team celebrations running through the stands, and players in yellow kilts. There is a senior citizen dance team called the Banana Nanas, and a Dad Bod Cheerleading Squad called the Man-Nanas. But most impressive of all, and what really takes Banana Ball to the next level is Texarkana’s very own dancing umpire, Vincent Chapman, who can be found behind home plate for every thrilling game.

“I had a dancing umpire video go viral in 2015 on Facebook and it got over 12 million views,” explained Chapman. “It ended up on Ellen DeGeneres’ website. Someone saw it there and sent it to the Bananas. They reached out to me through messenger in December 2021.” What was supposed to be a tryout quickly revealed itself as a sure thing, and the opportunity became the chance of a lifetime for this fun-loving umpire who has been on the ball field since early childhood. “I was supposed to try out in February 2022, but I was really the only umpire there and had signed a contract before I ever went, so I was pretty confident. I had a few Zoom meetings with the owner, and I fell in love with the ‘fans first’ culture he was trying to build. I knew I’d be a perfect fit because I love to entertain people and umpire.” For everyone involved, it was a match made in Heaven.​

Chapman grew up playing baseball from little league through high school ball at Queen City, and like many before and after him, he has had a love for the game since day one. “I love that baseball has the most life lessons you can learn from a sport,” he said. “In baseball, you are wide open. If you strike out, everybody knows it. If you don’t practice, it’s going to show. Building character comes from realizing you are on a team, and it’s not all about you. You are going to make mistakes, but how you learn from those mistakes is what makes you a better person and player. Baseball to me is the most valuable sport you can play to learn life lessons. Every position is important and there’s a position for almost everybody if they are willing to practice.”

Chapman began umpiring at 15 years old in Atlanta, Texas, while he was still a student athlete. “I was a freshman going into my sophomore year of high school. I was at a game, and I asked the guy who was over the league if I could start umpiring. I umpired my first game at 15 years old at first base, and I blew a call in the second inning,” he recalled. “A ball hit on the line, and I called it foul.” For many teenagers, the pressure and intensity of the game and the public scrutiny of making a bad call may have been intimidating, but Chapman used the moment to develop confidence and learn from his mistake. “Everyone was yelling and upset, and I realized, ‘This isn’t so bad, and I survived.’ I knew after that I could handle it.”

The key to his success as a young umpire was being willing to make the tough calls and stand behind them. “Back then I had pretty thick skin, and I kicked a lot of coaches out as a young umpire. They knew they could only go so far, and I wouldn’t be intimidated. I would throw them out even as a teenager. They weren’t going to run over me. I was doing the best I could do. Of course, I missed calls. I know I did. And my strike zone wasn’t that great. They even called me ‘shoestrings’ for a while because I liked the low pitch. But I adapted and got better.” 25 years have now passed since Chapman got his start as an umpire, and he has watched an entire generation of ball players come and go and return as fathers and coaches of their very own little leaguers. Time marches on and, thankfully, so does baseball.

A business-as-usual type of umpiring doesn’t normally draw the attention of crowds, but of course, business as usual has never really been Chapman’s style. Long before The Savannah Bananas showed up on the scene, the baseball fans of Texarkana had taken notice of “The Dancing Umpire,” as he was affectionately referred to, and he has long been a crowd favorite. “I’ve been dancing my whole life,” Chapman said. “At fifth and sixth-grade dances, I would be the only one on the dance floor while everyone else was over by the punch bowl. I’ve always loved to dance because I love to make people laugh and have a good time, so I’ve been doing it since I was little. At some point, parents started bringing those old coolers with built-in radios to their kid’s ball games and that’s all it took to get me grooving between innings. The kids started laughing and having fun with it and would get their phones out and record; it brought a little more enjoyment to the games. It would break the monotony and stress of parents, coaches, and teammates yelling at you and it would remind everyone it’s a game! It’s supposed to be fun.”

It is that outlook that made the Savannah Bananas the obvious next step for this Dancing Umpire. The Bananas are all about the fun and the fans. “Two words… ‘Fans First,’” Chapman said. “We are all about making the fan’s experience unforgettable.” The games are not scripted, and the players are very competitive, so for two full hours, you get all the excitement of a high stakes baseball game paired with a party atmosphere that starts before the first pitch is ever thrown. “After the games, we stand outside for an extra hour taking pictures and signing autographs with fans. It’s crazy! It feels like I’ve signed thousands of autographs and taken thousands of pictures with fans. I never would have imagined. The games are all about the fans and they are so much fun.”

Each year since the beginning of Banana Ball, the team’s popularity has grown exponentially. This year, they will play 90 games in 33 cities and 21 states. That is almost three times more games than they played just last year. “The bigger the crowd, the more exciting it is!” says Chapman. “I’ve been blown away but never nervous—overwhelmed, but never intimidated. Every game since 2016 has been sold out and there are 500,000 on the waiting list for tickets!”

Chapman can travel weekly thanks to his accommodating employers at IT Network Specialists (ITNS) where he does sales. “ITNS works with me to make the Banana’s travel schedule work, and they have been very supportive. Owner Bradley Wicks and my bosses Richie Wicks and Jeremy Boykin really are great. It’s a great company,” he said. Chapman’s wife, Kathrine, has also been very supportive of his busy travel schedule and often accompanies him to see the Bananas play. They are the team behind the team and Chapman is grateful for their support in making this dream a reality.

Baseball brings something out of people, players, and fans alike, from generation to generation that is priceless. “Just seeing people smile and having a good time for the two hours of the game, knowing they’re enjoying it… all the worries, all the cares, all the things going on in their lives are no longer their focus. It’s all about that moment,” Chapman said. “I love making people happy most of all. It might be selfish on my part, but getting smiles and laughs from what I do is the best.” There really is something romantic about baseball.

Click here to visit The Savannah Bananas YouTube channel and see Vincent in action.

See more of Vincent on Instagram @thedancing_ump.

A very special thank you to Ross Cowling with the Texarkana, Texas Parks and Recreation Department for preparing the beautiful baseball field in our cover story photo shoot.


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