In some respects, Mat Wolf’s side job is a little bit like his primary job as a member of the Oklahoma City Fire Department. It requires attention to detail, the ability to think fast and a willingness to work as part of a team.
Wolf, who turns 35 in March and is assigned to OKC Fire Station 5 near 23rd Street and Broadway Avenue, spends part of his summers playing for the Savannah Bananas, an exhibition baseball team founded in 2016 that has become something of a sensation. He’s not a 20-something draftee hoping to climb up 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 entertaining people. Combine the two, and it’s a fit for the Bananas, who blend baseball and entertainment at ballparks across the country.
Banana Ball, as it’s called, is a variation of regular baseball with significant differences. Games cannot last more than two hours, bunting and mound visits are illegal and, perhaps most interesting of all, if a fan catches a fly ball it’s an out. Mixed in are plenty of gags and laughs, such as a batter on stilts and the entire team in kilts. Wolf’s particular pitching antics can be seen at the 6:15 mark of the video below.
In the following Q & A, Wolf discusses his background in baseball, how he got involved with the Bananas and what he enjoys most about playing for the team.
The following conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and style.
Can you talk a little bit about your background in baseball?
I graduated from Sulphur High School in 2006 and was recruited as a shortstop to North Central Texas College in Gainesville, Texas. I played two years at North Central as a utility infielder and then chose to stay close to home by going to Southeastern Oklahoma State in Durant. I played shortstop and third base at Southeastern and transferred to East Central University in Ada for my senior year. I was fortunate enough to win a state championship and be a runner up in high school, make the all-conference team in college, as well as be named academic All-American. I was always known to juggle and do ball-tricks. I took the game very seriously, but I’d joke around during down time. “Trickster” was one of my nicknames.
How did you get involved in the Bananas?
I grew up in neighboring towns with Tyler Gillum, who also went to East Central and became the head coach for the Bananas in late 2017. My wife and I have spent the last few summers traveling to Savannah to watch Tyler coach and the Bananas play. We loved the idea of the Bananas. I heard through 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 desire to try out for this kind of baseball. It fit my personality and went with how I always wanted to express myself during my playing years. I knew people would be skeptical of me trying to actually pull this off, and I got the vibe that most people thought I was crazy for wanting to try. Without my wife’s encouragement, along with a few others, I would not have gone that day to the tryout and would not have gotten 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 guys do seems very complicated. How much preparation goes into the games? Is there a Bananas equivalent to spring training?
As far as preparation goes, we do have practices where we will work on things that we do daily in games. We have entertainment meetings to discuss new ideas that we are incorporating, and we have a dress rehearsal like practice before a game on the entertainment side. Of course, it is impossible to predict everything that’s going to happen in baseball. You can’t stage where a ball is going to get hit or when you’re going to throw a strike. The game is too difficult for that. A lot of the things we do happen on the fly. Walk-ups, dances in between innings, pregame and postgame routines can be controlled and practiced. Since the tour is going to 33 new cities this year and the season is extending from five weeks to eight months, there will be a spring training-type practice before the season starts in February.
In your regular job as a firefighter, life or death situations can come up at any moment. Does your time with the team help you decompress and recharge from the stress of being a first responder?
I am battling the same battles I had playing college baseball. The game is truly mental like they say. Although the Bananas’ style is a fun take on baseball, I personally still 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 as well as be a good entertainer. Taking things seriously enough to play good baseball and simultaneously entertaining people is challenging at times. If good baseball isn’t played, this doesn’t work. It does give me a chance to be in a different environment and build relationships similar to those at the firehouse. Being in a team-like atmosphere and developing a brotherhood is why I wanted to join the fire department. I also get to bring my family and show them places of the country we may have not gotten to see if I had not of joined.
What is your travel schedule like 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 because of 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 have discussed the more important games for me to make this year, and I will be using my days off to fly to these cites and back to Oklahoma for work. It will replace what I would normally take for vacation. My family will be joining me on several of those trips. Any type of work like this is difficult to balance profession and family life, but we have a good plan to give me plenty of days of rest in between. It is important to be a good father and husband first, while being serious about my job and incorporating these trips. I have put numerous hours into looking into my schedule and seeing what is best for everyone. I am thankful to have a family that is supportive this kind of endeavor.
It’s clear the crowds at the games really enjoy the experience. What is it like to be able to entertain and help create a fun environment for them? Is that one of the most rewarding aspects for you?
My dream was always to play Major League Baseball. I wanted to play in nice stadiums and for big crowds. It’s not exactly the major leagues, but it fits my personality and some of the things I have always liked to do very well.
I do wish I was a little younger. I like to entertain and be different while I’m on the field. It has always been a haven for me to release the stresses of everyday life, and the Bananas have provided an avenue to let loose, have fun and compete. It’s awesome that I get to do this on a bigger scale and impact people, hopefully in a positive manner. The kids are my favorite. This is a kid’s game and, at its heart, should always be fun.