In some ways, Mat Wolf’s side job somewhat resembles his main job as a member of the Oklahoma City Fire Department. It requires attention to detail, the ability to think quickly and a willingness to work in a team.
Wolf, who turns 35 in March, spends part of his summers playing for the Savannah Bananas, an exhibition baseball team founded in 2016 that is causing a stir. He’s not a 20-something rookie hoping to climb the minor league ladder, and his big league dreams are squarely in the past, but Wolf has a knack for baseball and an interest in entertainment. Combine the two, and it’s perfect for the Bananas, who mix baseball and fun at baseball diamonds across the country.
Banana Ball, as it is called, is a variation of regular baseball with significant differences. Matches can’t last longer than two hours, bunting and mound visits are illegal and, perhaps most interestingly of all, if a fan catches a fly ball, it’s an out. There are lots of gags and laughs, like a batter on stilts and the whole team in kilts. Wolf’s particular antics can be seen at 6:15 of the video below.
In the following Q&A, Wolf talks about his baseball background, how he got involved with the Bananas, and what he loves most about playing for the team.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Can you tell us a bit about your background in baseball?
I graduated from Sulfur High School in 2006 and was drafted as a shortstop at North Central Texas College in Gainesville, TX. I played two years at North Central as a utility infielder and then chose to stay close to home by going upstate in Southeastern Oklahoma to Durant. I played shortstop and third base at Southeastern and transferred to East Central University in Ada for my senior year. I had the good fortune of winning a state championship and being a runner-up in high school, making the all-conference team in college, and being named a college All-American. I’ve always been known to juggle and do ball tricks. I took the game very seriously, but I joked around during downtime. “Trickster” was one of my nicknames.
How did you get involved in Les Bananes?
I grew up in nearby towns with Tyler Gillum, who also went to East Central and became the head coach of the Bananas in late 2017. My wife and I have spent the past few summers traveling to Savannah to watch coach Tyler and the Bananas play. We loved the idea of bananas. I heard from Tyler that they were starting a pro team and having tryouts. I was old and had been out of the game for over 10 years, but the thought of me playing immediately sparked an interest and a desire to try this type of baseball. It matched my personality and matched the way I always wanted to express myself during my playing years. I knew people would be skeptical of me trying to succeed, and I had the felt like most people thought I was crazy for wanting to try. Without the encouragement of my wife and a few others, I wouldn’t have gone on trial that day, and I wouldn’t have been able to experience what I have. The tryout was something I will never forget, and the story of that day is absolutely as crazy as me trying to play again.
A lot of what you do seems very complicated. How much preparation goes into the games? Is there a Bananas equivalent to spring training?
As for the preparation, we have practices where we will work on things that we do daily in the games. We have entertainment meetings to discuss new ideas that we incorporate, and we have a dress rehearsal as a practice before a match on the entertainment side. Of course, it is impossible to predict everything that will happen in baseball. You cannot stage where a ball is going to be hit or when you are going to throw a strike. The game is too hard for that. Many things we do happen on the fly. Walk-ups, dances between sets, pre-game and post-game routines can be controlled and practiced. Since the tour is taking place in 33 new cities this year and the season spans from five weeks to eight months, there will be a spring training type practice before the season begins in February.
In your typical job as a firefighter, life and death situations can arise at any time. Does your time with the team help you decompress and recharge after the stress of being a first responder?
I fight the same battles I had playing college baseball. The game is really mental as they say. Although the Bananas style is a fun approach to baseball, I personally want to perform at my best and be the best for myself, the Bananas and the crowd. To do that, I have to play good baseball and be a good entertainer. Taking things seriously enough to play good baseball while entertaining people is sometimes difficult. If the right baseball isn’t played, it doesn’t work. It gives me the chance to be in a different environment and to form relationships similar to those at the fire station. Being in a team atmosphere and developing a brotherhood is the reason why I wanted to join the fire service. I can also bring my family and show them places in the country that we might not have been able to see if I hadn’t joined them.
What is your travel schedule during the season and how do you balance that with your job as a firefighter?
I will be going part time with the bananas this year due to the extended season. My schedule is going to be busy flying to and from games. As a firefighter I work 24 hour shifts and about 10 of those spread throughout the month. We discussed the most important games for me this year, and I will use my days off to fly to those cities and return to Oklahoma for work. It will replace what I would normally take for vacation. My family will join me on many of these trips. Any type of job like this is difficult to balance work and family life, but we have a good plan to give me plenty of rest days in between. It is important to be a good father and husband first, while being serious in my work and integrating these trips. I’ve spent many hours looking at my schedule and seeing what works best for everyone. I am grateful to have a family that supports this kind of effort.
It’s clear that the crowds at the games are really enjoying the experience. How does it feel to be able to entertain them and help create a fun environment for them? Is this one of the most rewarding aspects for you?
My dream has always been to play in Major League Baseball. I wanted to play in beautiful stadiums and in front of a big audience. It’s not exactly major league, but it fits my personality and some of the things I’ve always loved to do really well.
I wish I was a little younger. I like to entertain and be different when I’m in the field. It’s always been a refuge for me from the stresses of everyday life, and bananas have provided me with a way to let loose, have fun, and compete. It’s great to be able to do this on a larger scale and impact people, hopefully in a positive way. Children are my favorite. It’s child’s play and, at its heart, should always be fun.