“Why not be that guy today? Why not you? Come on, go ahead, be that guy today! Who says you can’t be that guy today?!”
This is a conversation that Dan Oberst had with himself in the bathroom mirror countless gameday mornings, with his housemates gleefully listening in from the other room. In the end, Danny was that guy more often than not, but boy was it a bumpy ride to the baseball Nirvana he experienced in 2021.
It’s actually one of the wildest roller coaster rides of a journey you’ll ever hear. It was not a path paved with gold for the legendary Banana. No, I think Dan would describe it as more of a scarcely used, winding dirt trail through a pricker filled forest with dangerous predators lurking around any turn you may take. It was a path that took extreme grit, toughness, determination, and many a helping hand to push the Largo, Florida, native in the right direction.
Danny was a superb high school player, which I don’t think is a shock to anyone reading this article. He was a 3-year starter on the Indian Rocks Christian High School varsity squad, manning second base as a sophomore and then as the every-day catcher his junior and senior years. In his final spring in Largo he was the Pinellas County Player of the Year and an All-American, as he hit .424 with a .530 OBP, 39 hits, 30 RBI’s, and 30 runs scored in 30 games played. After his torrid senior season, Danny went from Indian Rocks to Indian River State Community College, and made his decision to go there in pretty typical Dan fashion.
“I wanted to play JUCO ball,” Danny said. “I went to a showcase and that night Indian River called me and I pretty much committed on the spot. I just wanted to play JUCO, I didn’t even care where dude, I just wanted to play and they offered me and I was like ‘yeah, I’ll take it.’”
Indian River State College is in Fort Pierce, Florida, about 3.5 hours from Dan’s home in Largo. So he trekked pretty much straight across the Sunshine State, from Florida’s west to east coast, and dove into JUCO ball. Unfortunately, his dominance of high school pitching didn’t immediately translate at the next level.
“I was struggling at the plate and really only playing because I could catch,” Danny said. “I was hitting like a buck-ninety halfway through the year and my head coach told me if I didn’t stop swinging at sliders in the dirt my career would be over.”
It was sage advice, and Dan made the necessary adjustments in the second half to bring his average up to .267 by the season’s end. He didn’t play ball that summer, but he did hit the weightroom hard and returned to Fort Pierce with damage on his mind. A dominant sophomore season, in which he slashed .392/.449/.536, enticed the University of West Georgia head coach Skip Fite to offer Danny a scholarship to play for the Wolves. As much as Dan wanted to take his talents to Carrollton, two years into his college baseball career his body wasn’t on the same page as him.
“I hurt my elbow in December but decided I could play through it,” Danny said. “Then I blew out my knee in March and had to get surgery on that. I thought the elbow would heal up on its own but I got an MRI in July on it that showed I had actually fully torn my UCL and needed Tommy John. I wasn’t even halfway through the rehab on my knee so I called up West Georgia and told them I was too banged up to play for them that fall. Then I hung up my cleats and called it a career.”
Dan worked on a golf course while he finished his knee rehab, (which funny enough was a job they told him only required someone who could be mobile). He had always contemplated joining the military and once he was fully healed he started training to become a Navy Seal.
“Every day for two months I was swimming 500 meters, running a mile and a half, and doing some serious lifting,” Dan said. “I loved the workout and was killing it at the time but my Mom said it would eat her alive every day if I went into the Seals and I couldn’t have my mom living like that so I changed my plan.”
To help his mom sleep at night, Danny applied to join the Air Force as a member of the Combat Support team. But then he got to the point in the process where they required an MRI of his elbow which of course was still completely torn.
“I knew I was screwed as soon as they asked to do the MRI,” Dan said. “So I had to figure out a job where they wouldn’t be scanning my body for injuries when I applied.”
The answer: construction. Although the work was tough, he was making great money.on the job and because of that he was pretty content with where he was. Then he went back to Indian Rocks Christian High School for an alumni baseball game and an old friend couldn’t believe that he wasn’t playing anymore.
“He hadn’t seen me play since high school but he told me that was enough to know that I should still be playing ball,” Danny said. “That was enough to inspire me to text a coach at West Georgia just to see if they were still interested in me at all. They offered me the same scholarship they had when I was at Indian River and I was like ‘hell you can’t beat that!’”
So in January of 2019 Dan finally did get Tommy John surgery and started the rehab that he didn’t have the heart for half a year earlier.
“I decided if I was going back to baseball I had to do this thing right, so I hired a physical therapist that was rehabbing MLB guys. Unfortunately, he didn’t take my insurance, so I spent basically all of the money I had saved up from my two and a half months of construction on the rehab.”
Spending top dollar turned out to be a really wise move as what was supposed to be 10 months of Tommy John rehab was accomplished in 7, and all in all went far smoother than his nearly 9 months of knee rehab had. Before he knew it, fall had come and Dan was slapping the catcher’s gear on once again..
“Before that first scrimmage someone made a fake instagram and posted a picture of me saying, ‘When you have two surgeries and think you can still play.’ I hit a homer on an 0-2 slider in my first at-bat back. That felt pretty damn good.”
Although he was still able to swing the lumber at a high level, his knees weren’t holding up behind the plate. He caught the first 10 games but then had to be moved to DH for the rest of the season. Luckily his bat needed to be in the lineup, as he slashed .313/.363/.566 in 44 games played, while hitting what was then a career high 8 long balls and driving in 46 runs. Plus he had made a powerful impression on his teammate Cade Marlowe, who happened to be one of the greatest Savannah Bananas players of all-time.
“From the day I met Dan, I’ll never forget it,” Cade said, laughing, “ I mean obviously he’s a big dude but I could tell he was gonna be an impact player too. We kind of think the same way and attacked our work the same way and I just loved playing with him. I figured he would be an awesome addition to the Bananas and I knew Gillumn would really like coaching him.”
It turned out Cade’s endorsement would go a long way with Bananas head coach Tyler Gillum, who was going into his second year on the job.
“Cade was the definition of a ballplayer,” GIllum said. “He was in awesome shape, worked as hard as anyone I’ve ever coached, and utilized the Green Light Special better than anyone I’ve coached, stealing a league leading 37 bases in just 40 attempts in the 2018 summer. Anyway, he’s a guy who I really respected and he told me Dan needed to be a Banana so I made sure I was able to get him a temp contract.”
Before Cade made that fateful call to Gillum, Danny and the UWG Wolves welcomed Bill LeRoy, Kyle Luigs, Nick Clarno, and the rest of the North Georgia Nighthawks to Carrollton.
“Dan pinch hit against me in the craziest game we ever played at North Georgia and I struck him out on three pitches,” Kyle said, smiling. “He came up again a couple innings later and hit a line drive like 190 miles-per-hour straight into our first baseman’s glove. Like he didn’t mean to catch it at all, it was pure luck that Dan hit it literally right into his glove.”
The baseball gods gifted Dan with an infield single in the bottom of the 14th inning off Kyle, who threw 6 innings of scoreless relief and got the win. Bill had doubled and scored what would be the winning run in the top half on a sac fly from second base, (yes, you read that right). The duo ended the game as the first two legs of a 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded. Clarno went 0-6 with 3 strikeouts, but I’m sure he was a big boost to the team chemistry. It feels only right that such a bonkers game would be the introduction of Dan into Bill, Kyle, and Nick’s lives.
Danny found out he would be getting his first ever summer collegiate baseball experience in time for his team’s trip up to Dahlonega for the only other matchup against his future teammates.
“He comes up to the plate and I’m catching and he asks if I play for the Bananas. I said yes and he said, ‘Cool me too man,’ and then he hit a home run.”
The next time Bill heard from the West Georgia slugger was through a direct message online.
“I get a DM from Dan out of nowhere telling me he’s on River Street and asking when I was gonna be in Savannah to meet him down there. That’s Dan for you right there. He didn’t even know me but was reaching out to try and get some team bonding going before our first practice.”
Danny was supposed to be the 3rd string catcher while also getting some work in at 1st base while on his temporary contract, but once again his knee was not cooperating with him.
“I’ll never forget Gillum saying, ‘Dan block everything’ and Dan was like, ‘I would love to, but my knee is toast,’” Bill recalls.
“I honestly can’t really remember that day,” Gillum said. “But I’ve heard the story so many times from the guys that I know it’s true.”
“We picked on him for the next 3 years because of that day,” Kyle said, chuckling.
So there wouldn’t be any catching in Danny’s Bananas career, but that wasn’t going to stop Gillum from sticking him at 1st on Opening Day.
“First play he gets is a little dinky pop up in foul territory and he clanks it in front of four thousand people. He told me he’s not sure he’s ever been that embarrassed in his entire life,” Gillum said, laughing.
Not long after, Dan got a shot at redemption in the field.
“It was a grounder in the infield and the throw was low so I stretched and went for the pick,” Dan said. “As I went for my stretch I felt my hamstring pop and I knew I had pulled it. To add insult to injury, I missed the pick and had to hobble after the ball in foul territory.”
As funny as it is to look back on now, in the moment Danny was obviously crushed. He had come so far just to have his summer season ended without a chance at proving he deserved more than the temp contract he had been given.
“It was heartbreaking for us too,” Kyle said. “We had gotten really close to Dan in the week leading up to the season and just like that he was gone.”
“We felt like we were pretty much best friends with him already,” Bill said. “And then he drops the pop up, blows his hammy, and that’s that.”
Dan went back to Largo to make a couple bucks renting out cabanas on the beach, as well as give his body some well-deserved rest. Then towards the end of the Bananas season a freak injury to 1st baseman Rafi Vasquez opened up a spot on the roster.
“Back-pick to first, Rafi goes to tag the guy, knee goes to his forearm and breaks it, and all of a sudden we need a 1st baseman,” Bill said.
The guys immediately went to Gillum with their solution.
“It was the quickest conversation ever,” Kyle said. “Gillum was wondering what we were gonna do and we were like, ‘Well why don’t we bring Dan back, he should be good to play now,’ and Gillum was like, ‘Wait, that’s the best idea ever.’”
Dan was back in Savannah the next day.
“The guy dropped everything he was doing and shot back up to Savannah,” Bill said through a hearty laugh. “That locker room was an absolute scene when he walked back in. I mean it’s tough to describe the energy he brought to us, the place went wild.”
Danny was an impact player on the diamond in his return to Savannah too, hitting .419 with a .513 OBP, while scoring 10 runs in his 11 games played. After winning the season series over the Bacon 10-9, (by far the closest the race for the Golden Spork has ever been), Danny and the guys saw their season end in a one-game playoff at home against Macon.
He parlayed the summer success into a roaring start to his 2020 campaign with West Georgia. He was a driving force for the team going 13-7 out of the gate, as he slashed .351/.442/.568, racking up 19 RBI’s and 17 runs scored. The most surprising addition to his game was on the basepaths, where he swiped 13 bags in just 15 attempts. Gillum’s Green Light Special baserunning system had clicked for Dan just like it had for his buddy Cade before him.
“I definitely hadn’t mastered it in Savannah,” Dan said, “but I kept working at it and when I utilized it at West Georgia it worked like a charm. Stealing bases had never been so easy.”
“The baserunning was the coolest thing for me because he’s a huge power hitting first baseman and you don’t expect that out of guys like him,” Gillum said. “He just studied the game, worked his tail off, and was a really quick learner.”
Danny’s impressive 2020 college season was unceremoniously cut short due to COVID-19. As disappointing as it was, before he knew it he was back in Savannah for another summer of baseball, this time with a full contract.
With the Cape Cod League shutting down for the year the Bananas were an extremely deep team. On a squad bursting with top tier D1 talent, Dan was relegated to getting action in every other game at most. He compiled 13 hits, 5 of them doubles, in 13 games played, hitting .295 for the summer. In a season unlike any other, the Bananas went to Macon for the CPL South Championship game, and fell in a heartbreaker 6-5.
A first year Banana in 2020 was really impressed with the way Dan went about his business.
“I know he obviously wanted to play more,” Drew Yniesta said, “but he also understood that Gillum had two of the best JUCO hitters in the country with Jose (Gonzalez Jr.) and (David) Mendham. I never heard Dan complaining about his situation once to anyone, the dude was just grinding every day and when his name was pencilled in the lineup he went out there and hit lazer beams.”
The other side of Danny that I heard about from every teammate of his I asked, is the constant positive vibes he brings to the table, and it was really evident to his head coach too.
“It’s really tough for guys to be down when they’re around Dan,” Gillum said. “He’s one of the best energy givers to a team that I’ve ever had. He’s an uplifter, just always has a really positive impact on the locker room.”
Dan’s nearly constant sunny disposition isn’t reserved for his teammates and coaches. I was pretty blown away in my first summer in Savannah with the fact that every time I saw Danny he greeted me with a warm smile, a hearty greeting, and a fist bump. There’s something incredibly genuine about the way Dan greets you, and you see him acting the same way when interacting with everyone he comes across.
Danny is also as honest as they come, and although he was given another year of eligibility, he was very upfront about the fact that as soon as he graduated in the spring of 2021 he didn’t think he would be back for a third summer in Savannah. The real world was calling and it was going to be time for him to join the workforce for good.
In the fall of 2020 at West Georgia he started the application for joining the Coast Guard and the day before it was time to finish the application process he had a change of heart.
“I realized that I wasn’t actually sure I was completely ready to commit to them and it wasn’t something I wanted to do if I wasn’t 100% sure of myself. I still had another spring of baseball and I wanted to see where life might take me before I sealed my own destiny.”
So Dan refocused his energy on a new hobby— mixed martial arts. He trained for a couple months, mostly during his winter break, predominantly studying the art of jujutsu.
“I think the MMA training for him really helped with his athleticism,” Gillum said. “He was always a freak of nature, but he was a different kind of beast in 2021.”
The Gulf South Conference would learn that the hard way. Dan dominated the conference, taking home player of the year honors as he slashed .409/.485/.848, clubbing 17 homers, stealing 16 bases, scoring 45 runs and driving in 54 in just 41 games played. His 67 hits, .848 slugging percentage, and 1.332 OPS all paced the GSC.
“I always had a hunch that he might do something special,” Cade said, “and then he completely torched the conference and region last spring. That was obviously really awesome to see and it was special for me too getting to talk to him basically every week as he was doing it.”
Before Danny went nuclear on the diamond this past spring, he had actually reached out to Gillum about coming back to the Bananas for a third summer.
“Danny gave me a call last January and told me he was thinking about pursuing coaching baseball and that he may go back to West Georgia as a grad assistant the following year,” Gillum said. “So he was wondering if he could start his coaching career with the Bananas, and of course I said we can probably work something out.”
Then Dan started playing baseball for UWG.
“Once the season started he was tearing it up and starting to get noticed by scouts so I told him he should join us as a player and then he could transition to coaching halfway through the season. Then by our season’s start I thought he had a solid chance to be drafted and I said you’re playing whether you like it or not!”
It was the obvious decision to make, and Gillum was rewarded with an Opening Day home run from Dan, the first of his Bananas career.
“That was a moment where we all knew he had just torn it up in the spring,” Drew said, “and then he immediately blasts one for us and we’re all like, ‘Okay Dan’s on a different level this year.’”
That Opening Day homer was a sign of things to come. Danny was one of the best hitters in the league, taking home 1st Team All-CPL honors as he hit .333 with a .404 OBP, crushing 5 dingers, (all of them at home, AKA the largest ballpark in the CPL), while scoring and driving in 32 runs and stealing 27 bases in 31 games played.
Even more importantly to his head coach, he was always going to do what was best for the team.
“Whatever I thought was best for the team, Dan was completely bought in,” Gillum said. “It’s tough to explain how valuable it is to a coach to have one of your best players completely bought in. He really helped me with my job.”
Even though he wasn’t a coach in title, Danny was instrumental in the breakout season of second year Banana Nick Clarno.
“First of all, I’ve never had a negative thought about Dan ever,” Nick said. “Second of all, I credit Dan for my entire season. The high-and-in tee drill he taught me turned me into the hitter I thought I always could be in college.”
What kind of a hitter is that? Clarno hit .314 with a .427 OBP, walking a team-high 21 times while only striking out 17 times, and driving in 27 runs in 31 games played. Danny also gets credit for somewhat keeping the eccentric catcher and 3rd baseman in line.
“Dan was like my big brother this summer,” Nick said. “Anytime I was getting heated or going off the rails people would try to reel me in but Dan was the only one who really knew what to tell me to bring me back to reality, especially in the playoffs.”
It was a star studded Bananas team for the second straight summer, and there were a handful of MLB Draft hopefuls. Danny was realistic about the chance he’d have his name called. He had been one of the best players in Division II baseball, but his injury history, age (23), and the fact the draft was 20 rounds instead of the pre-COVID 40 worked against him.
The Heart of the Salukis, Tristan Peters, ended up being the only 2021 Banana selected, joining 7 Nanners from the 18’-20’ teams.
“We all thought he would get picked up in the draft,” Kyle said. “Working and playing with him every day you can’t believe a team wouldn’t take a shot on him. But he didn’t take it to heart, he was never down when he was around us, and he set his sights on the CPL title.”
After the draft Dan did think it was time to take a look at an injury that had been nagging him throughout his season at West Georgia and the summer in Savannah.
“He gets an X-ray and calls me all nonchalant saying his hand is fractured,” Gillum said. “That’s his throwing hand, the top hand on his bat, and it’s been broken for months. He says it’s no big deal, he’ll tape it up, and to make sure he’s in the lineup tomorrow night. That dude’s a different kind of tough.”
“Can’t forget that he also had a torn labrum,” Bill said. “Talk about setting an example for the team about how much the season meant to him and all the returning guys.”
About a week after finding out his right hand was fractured Dan finally did get an opportunity to play professional baseball.
“The Milwaukee Milkmen from the American Association offered him a contract to come play and he was really interested,” Gillum said. “He told them he appreciated the offer but he really wanted to finish the job in Savannah before he possibly went pro.”
It was another example from one of the team’s best players of how important this season was to him. With the Bananas coasting towards the best record in the league and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, Gillum was able to rest Dan more often to try to get his hand as much healing as possible.
“We had 3 days off and then I rested him the 3 games after that too,” Gillum said. “The first game I got him back in the lineup he homered. He was just that guy for us.”
The Bananas coasted into the Petitt Cup Playoffs with a CPL best 36-8 record, leading the majority of offensive and basically every pitching statistic possible. Then they got shutout in the first game against the Hi-Toms, something that had only happened once in 44 regular season games. All of a sudden they were driving up to High Point-Thomasville for a win-or-go-home game 2. It was a solo home run by Dan with 2 outs in the top of the 1st that gave the Bananas their first lead of the postseason.
“I knew he was gonna his a home run that game,” Drew said. “There was no doubt he was gonna do something big for us.”
“We hadn’t played up there all summer and in a win-or-go-home game like you you’re kind of trying to size your opponent up,” Gillum said. “To throw the first punch was huge, and he was the guy who talked the talk and then walked the walk. He had been telling the guys to burn the boats for at least 3 weeks going into the playoffs.”
“We were definitely trying to force stuff at the plate after getting shutout game 1,” Nick said. “The solo shot completely changed our mindset. All of a sudden we could loosen up. We had a lead and Joe Miller on the mound. That was a turning point in the playoffs for us.”
The Bananas would go on to win 8-2, setting up a decisive game 3 in Grayson. The guys were up 1-0 in the 4th when a 2 hour and 45 minute rain delay struck.
“I had gotten picked off first earlier in the game and was just about as pissed at myself as I’ve been in my entire life,” Nick said. “In the rain delay Dan came up to me and said, ‘I guarantee you something is gonna come to you and you’re gonna have a big opportunity when the game starts again, keep your head up.’ I made a play in the field and then got a hit in my next at-bat and I think Dan was a big part of that.”
The Bananas trounced the Hi-Toms 10-0, to set up a matchup with the two-time defending CPL champion Morehead City Marlins.
Once again it all came down to a decisive game 3 in Grayson, and it was Drew Yniesta who got it going for the Bananas with a 3-run blast on his first swing of the playoffs.
“Dan was the first guy I saw when I was rounding third and coming home,” Drew said. “I knew he and the guys wanted me in the lineup for that final game and I was just so happy to do it for them.”
With the Bananas up 13-3 and 2 outs in the top of the 9th, Dylan Cunningham got a pop up in foul territory. It was headed straight to Dan.
“As soon as the ball went into the air it hit me that everything was coming full circle,” Gillum said. “From dropping the pop fly on his first play here to catching one to win the championship in his last. You can’t make that stuff up.”
“The night before Dan, Bill, and I had stayed up for hours sitting outside and just staring at the walls,” Nick said. “Before we went to bed Dan was the one who said what we were all thinking. As dramatic as it sounds, I know it’s just a game, but we were ready to die on the field tomorrow to win the championship. It was that important to us. It was perfect that he got to make the final play, he had been our most important player all summer.”
“To have a guy like that who played through serious injuries, did everything right on and off the field, and was also one of our best players too, that’s unbelievable,” Bill said.
“To get to go out on top with him and with him playing so well and the energy he brought each and every day, that’s something I’ll never forget,” Kyle said. “He was really passionate about playing here and winning it all meant so much to him. It was just so cool.”
Dan finished up his Bananas career for now with 3 games in the Breakfast Bowl.
“I really didn’t think I would get emotional in my last Breakfast Bowl at-bat,” Danny said. “But then the fans gave me an ovation as I was going up to the plate and it all hit me one more time. Then before I knew it I had two strikes on me and I was just saying, ‘Come on Dan you can’t strikeout.’”
He would hit what was probably a 105mph liner straight to the left fielder who was wisely playing right in front of the warning track. It was a a valiant way to go out, a quality at-bat as Gillum calls them.
“Dan’s one of my biggest progression guys,” Gillum said. “I had him for three summer so I had a lot of time to work with him, but he put in the work the other 9 months I wasn’t around him and that’s why he became the incredible player he was this year. He was a goalie in 2019 at 1st base, just knocking down anything he could with his body. In 2021 he was by far the best defensive first baseman we saw. He worked at every aspect of his game and was such an amazing all-around player at the end of his college career.”
“He’s a hog,” Kyle said. “Dan, Bill, Nick, and I used to call each other the hogs, but nobody was more of a hog than Dan.”
“He’s one of those special guys,” Gillum said. “He’s very unique and I’ll always cherish the time I’ve gotten to spend with him. He’ll always be kind of a little brother to me, Bill and Kyle too, those are guys I’d have in the foxhole with me. That’s a guy you trust to have your back no matter what the situation.”
“If you’re doing something wrong or right, he’ll let you know,” Bill said. “He’s probably the toughest guy I’ve ever met, and wherever he goes and whatever he does I know he’ll always have success because he’s gonna put the work in.”
“I’m very thankful for the impact he’s had on my life,” Kyle said. “I think he’s made me a better person in all aspects of my life. He’s taught me not to get too down no matter what the situation is. The future is always bright.”
Dan missed the last two weekends of the Brekafast Bowl because he took a job with Procpect Select as their National Director of Tournaments.
“I’m doing something different every weekend with them,” Danny said. “Basically driving all over Florida getting video and scouting players. I’m enjoying so far for sure.”
Whether there’s more baseball in the future for Dan is up in the air.
“I know he’s really happy with how everything ended in Savannah,” Nick said. “It was the perfect way to go out. But he’s also easily talented enough to play at the next level, and I would love to see him keep playing. Either way, I know he’ll do what’s best and find success in whatever path he chooses.”
“There’s no doubt he’s got the talent and work ethic to play pro ball,” Drew said, “it’s just if it’s the right move for him and his family you know. I’m pretty sure he’ll at least throw a Bananas jersey on again this spring if it works out for him.”
“Hopefully hem to play some pro ball of some kind,” Gillum said. “He deserves a shot to show how great he can be at the next level.”
Whatever Danny does decide to do in the future, his fellow hogs seem especially seem to think they’re not done playing ball with him yet.
“I think we can convince him pretty easily,” Kyle said.
Bill’s already got the plan of attack laid out.
“It’s not gonna be hard to say, ‘Hey Dan, you wanna travel with us and play ball?’”
Well when you put it that way Bill, I certainly like your odds.