Best of both worlds
BUTLER TWP — Excuse Butler graduate Alex Ziegler if he pauses to take a breath or two.
He’s taken in a lot in recent months.
Ziegler, 29, has completed his first full season with the Savannah Bananas, a Georgia-based baseball team that played an 87-game schedule throughout the country, playing its own unique brand of the game.
In his role as the Bananas’ designated hitter, Ziegler has been to the plate swinging a burning bat and a 30-pound bat. He’s balanced a 30-foot ladder on his chin while providing pre-game entertainment. He’s balanced a microphone on his nose as well.
He’s scored a few times by drawing a walk and circling the bases before all nine defenders could touch the baseball and throw him out — one of the unique rules of Banana Ball. Another rule is a batter is out if his foul ball is caught in the stands. Teams score a point by “winning the inning,” not by the overall amount of runs scored.
“We’re out there playing baseball, but we’re out there entertaining as well,” Ziegler said. “I’ve never been happier than I’ve been playing for this team.
“My goals in life have always been to make my parents proud and put smiles on people’s faces around me by entertaining them. I feel like I’ve done that.”
Last weekend, Ziegler made his parents particularly proud. He was part of the Savannah Bananas roster that was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., during a special ceremony.
The Bananas have their own special wing in the Hall.
Ziegler played on the Butler Township Little League team that won the state championship in 2006 and fell a win short of reaching the Little League World Series. He played high school baseball and college ball at California (Pa.) University.
“When you’re a little kid playing baseball, you obviously want to play pro ball someday, get to the Hall of Fame ... I could have never dreamed my baseball career would turn out this way,” Ziegler said. “I am so, so happy.”
His father, Bruce Ziegler, was on hand for the Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown.
“That whole thing was unbelievable,” Bruce Ziegler said. “They put the whole team in the Hall of Fame. Cooperstown recognizes what this Savannah team has done for baseball. The players were signing autographs after the ceremony.
“I was extremely proud of Alex. It’s amazing how quickly Banana Ball took off.”
The Savannah Bananas played the Party Animals — a team consisting of some former Banana players — in all 87 games this past season. While the scenario could be compared to the Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals touring basketball show, Ziegler said the Bananas-Party Animals games were never scripted.
A pool of roughly 44 players is divided into two separate rosters at the beginning of the season. The talent is divided up evenly to ensure close, competitive games most of the time.
“We played by Banana rules, but we played legitimate games,” he said. “What we did as a team in the stands, engaging with fans, and our pre-game routines were scripted and rehearsed, but the games never were.
“Our two rosters include a number of former Division 1 college players, ex-major leaguers ... There was a lot of talent on the field.”
The 87-game schedule was played in 33 different cities this season. Every game was sold out. Many games were played in Class AAA minor league ballparks and the biggest crowd the Bananas played in front of was 15,000.
That will change next year.
“Next year’s schedule has us playing in eight major league ballparks,” Ziegler said.
The Party Animals won the final nine games this year to win the season series over the Bananas.
Ziegler hit over .300 for the Bananas last year. When he swung the 30-pound bat this season, he hit about .150 — but he put the ball in play.
“I choked up really high on the bat and started my swing while the pitcher was still winding up,” he said, laughing.
Ziegler holds a few world records, including sinking a shot in corn hole from 125 feet away and throwing a bullseye in darts from 30 feet out. He does his bat tricks when he comes to the plate as well.
Ziegler plans on returning to the Bananas in 2024 — and beyond.
“I’ll play as long as my body allows me,” he said. “This off-season, I’ll spend time with family, give some baseball lessons, give my body a little break.
“I’ve balanced a 50-foot ladder on my chin. That takes its toll.”