Written by Biko Skalla:
Dylan Cunningham had a fierce concoction of emotions surging through him as he gripped the ball and toed the rubber for what could be his last time pitching in Historic Grayson Stadium. It was August 7th, 2021, and the Bananas were leading the decisive Game 3 of the CPL Championship 13-3 over the back-to-back champion Morehead City Marlins. Dylan was supposed to be back in Louisiana at this point in the summer. He was actually supposed to leave the Bananas in early July. But even with an extra month of time spent in Savannah, it was all ending too quickly for the Nanners de facto closer. On the other hand, they were one out away from achieving the goal they had set back in May, and the sold out crowd was ready to explode in celebration. At the start of the summer he never could have imagined being in such an emotionally charged spot at the summit of such a magical season.
Dylan had come to the Bananas feeling worse about baseball than he ever had before. The game he grew up loving and devoting much of his life to had lost its shine. Even though he had been the closer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham that spring, he hadn’t found the personal success he was accustomed to and the team lost 2 games for every win they were able to snare, finishing 18-36. That, combined with the COVID shortened 2020 season, had soured his feelings towards the sport he used to see as a possible future.
“I was just really burnt out from baseball,” Dylan said. “I hadn’t pitched close to as well as I was used to and our team struggled too. It wasn’t fun for me anymore and I was really looking forward to taking a break from playing.”
The crazy thing is, although the novel coronavirus was the beginning of his falling out of love with baseball, it wasn’t the first time a catastrophic natural event had a major impact on his baseball career.
Dylan grew up in Albany, Louisiana, a small town about an hour northwest of New Orleans. He started playing organized baseball when he was 4, jumping up an age group every other year so he could always play with his older brother Danton. Dylan started playing elite travel baseball when he was 12 and then played his first three years of high school ball in Albany.
“He’s always loved baseball so much,” his mother, Karen told me. “In high school whether they won or lost a game he would go back to the field by himself afterwards, turn on the lights, and run sprints around the bases. One night we decided we should go check on him to make sure he’s alright, and sure enough there he was bent down like he was gonna steal and then he’d take off around the bases. He’s always been dedicated to being the best player he can be.”
Just six days into his senior year, Albany and most of southeast Louisiana was hit with a ‘500-year’ flood. It was deemed a ‘500-year’ flood because there is only a 0.2% chance of a flood of that magnitude happening, which means on average you should only get one that large every 500 years. As you can imagine, a flood that rare and powerful yielded devastating results.
“In a nutshell we lost three homes and two businesses,” Dylan’s father, Darron said. “Plus like our shop where we do all our woodworking and maintenance, harness shop, leather shop. We lost one horse and one cow, most of our goatherd and chickens. Plus all kinds of things we use in the movie industry.”
As brutal as it is to hear of the destruction that the Cunningham’s experienced in the flood, I’m sure you were still taken back by Darron mentioning the “movie industry.” That’s a sidebar that I think is best tackled here. If you weren’t a usual on the Bananas broadcasts this summer, you probably never heard me explain the rather unbelievable business Dylan’s family stumbled into years ago. You can listen to Dylan explain it all, as well as my podcasting partner Berry Aldridge’s absolute astonishment at what he was hearing on this episode of Savannah Bananas: Unpeeled…
For those of you who don’t have time to take a listen, here is the SparkNotes version:
Darron and his father had been making wagons for a long time. One day a movie company came into town and they wanted to use some of the family’s buggies and wagons for their film. Oh, what movie would that be you ask? Just a small-time flick called The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button, starring some no-name actors, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
“Once we did that show,” Darron said, “immediately another wrangler came to town and contacted us and we went into another show and just continued to kind of stay in the movie industry.”
It’s the matter of fact way that Dylan first explained it to me over the phone before the season and then re-told that story to Berry and I on the podcast that cracks me up the most. You get the exact same delivery from his dad, Darron as well. You can hear Darron tell the story himself and see some video of Happy Hills Farm as well as the aftermath of the ‘500-year’ flood here…
Anyhow, the Cunningham’s have now had their equipment or animals in about 40-50 shows and movies. They’ve had a lot of action in American Horror Story, had pigs in 22 Jump Street, loads of wagons and horses in Django Unchained, I mean the list really goes on and on.
That was one of their businesses that was ravaged by the flood. The other was Karen’s beauty salon that she’s had for over three decades. With most of southeast Louisiana in the same or a worse boat than the Cunningham’s, there was no chance to get any kind of contractors in to help rebuild. So whenever Darron wasn’t working for the state at his day job, he and the boys were working on cleaning up the farm. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have Dylan around all the time to help with the restoration because the family had to make a tough decision about his education and baseball career. Luckily for them the Louisiana High School Athletic Association waived the normal year of sitting out of sports that accompanied transferring high schools, and that gave the Cunningham’s a wise idea.
“Basically everything was destroyed,” Darron told me. “His brother and a neighbor were living in a gutted house nearby. Me and his mother were living in a trailer out in the driveway. And we had no idea when schools would be open again and how this would all effect the recruiting process so we talked to his coach and he agreed that we should do what’s best for Dylan and that was probably sending him to his grandparents.”
Dylan got a sense of normalcy by packing up what belongings he had that weren’t destroyed and driving an hour and a half northwest up to Centreville, Mississippi. The Cunningham’s are firm believers that everything happens for a reason, and with that mindset Dylan was able to see a lot of positives from the natural disaster.
“I got to spend a year at Centreville Academy which is where my mom graduated from, so getting to graduate from there too was special. Plus getting to spend all that time extra time with my grandparents was incredible. My grandma basically never stopped baking for the entire year and my grandpa was mayor of the town. It was awesome to see him in his element there. And I got to play ball with my cousin who I hadn’t had many opportunities to hangout with in life and that year turned us into brothers. Even though we went to different colleges and all we still talk every week.”
The move up to Centreville proved to be the right decision for a plethora of reasons. Dylan was still able to come back home every weekend to help put the farm and salon back together, and he got a relatively normal final year of high school with a great baseball season as well.
Dylan originally committed to Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Mississippi, but decided to pivot to Coastal Alabama Community College North in Monroeville, Alabama. He went to the Eagles as a two-way guy, but after a 1 for 9 start to his career at the plate and a run-in with a pro scout who said pitching was his future, Dylan and his coaches decided becoming a pitcher only was his best path forward. After a solid freshman campaign, DC shined as a sophomore, throwing 50.2 innings to the tune of a 3.55 ERA, only giving up 36 hits while striking out 52 batters. His impressive season earned him consistent calls from the University of Alabama at Birmingham coaching staff, who convinced him to stay in Birmingham for a couple nights to see what it’s like.
“I really loved the school and the city,” Dylan told me. “It was a very different atmosphere than anywhere else I had been. Once I visited another school I knew that UAB was really where I wanted to be.”
With the Blazers, (their mascot is a dragon, and I give them a 10/10 team name), he had the legendary Ron Polk as his pitching coach. For those unfamiliar with the name, Polk is considered to be the “Father of SEC Baseball.” He was the head coach at Mississippi State for 31 seasons, compiling an incredible 1218-638-2 (.656) record. With the way recruiting and the game itself was changing, in 2008 Polk signed on as an unpaid assistant with UAB, coaching under one of his former assistant coaches, Brian Shoop. Joining the staff for no pay meant Polk didn’t have to do any recruiting, which is exactly what he wanted.
“That first team reminded me of the Bananas,” Dylan said. “Just a really loose team that clicked, and loved hanging out and playing baseball together. Being in the bullpen with Ron Polk was legendary too. He’d be smoking a cigar and killing us with jokes and stories.”
Polk’s presence was immense, and Dylan had one of the best ways to explain what it was like playing for him.
“I got a call from him at 8:00am on my birthday,” Dylan said, smiling. “I wasn’t going to pick it up but something possessed me to flip my phone over and see who it was calling. As soon as I saw it was Ron I picked up and did my best to pretend I wasn’t just fast asleep. We ended up talking about him coaching Georgia Southern from 1972-1975 and what it was like taking them to the World Series and all. It was an awesome conversation and I was really happy I checked who was calling. Then I went back to sleep.”
The Blazers were off to a 7-9 start and were about to kickoff Conference USA play when their season was cancelled due to COVID. As sad as it was to lose his junior season and have his first taste of D1 ball cut short, Dylan was once again able to look at the bright side.
“When COVID shut everything down it was the longest I had been home since my junior year of high school. It was awesome being able to help out with the farm and spend some quality time with the family.”
Dylan was supposed to play in the Alaskan Baseball League that summer but it was shutdown. Instead he played a little ball in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, gave lessons to kids at home in the batting cage on the farm, and even dabbled in some umpiring of Little League games. When he returned to Birmingham it was with a mostly new coaching regime. Brian Shoot and Ron Polk had both retired. Perry Roth took over as interim head coach.
“I really liked Perry but when you have a big coaching change like that you usually lose a lot of guys and have to kind of start over as a team, and myself and the team both just never got rolling.”
Now we’ve caught back up with UAB’s disappointing 18-36 season. The powers that be were bringing in an outside hire for head coach for next season, which would be Dylan’s third manager in three years in Birmingham. That, combined with losing most of 2020 to COVID and then having a disappointing spring had Dylan feeling far worse about baseball than he ever had before. He was still set to play during the summer though, planning to head to the Northwoods League to play for the Green Bay Booyas until he found out their roster had filled up. At this point Dylan was incredibly content spending the summer working with his family. In early July his dad was set to start working on a movie starring Will Smith with a budget that dwarfed Django Unchained, and his best friend had already signed on to help out wrangling animals every day. Plus Dylan had been wheeling and dealing livestock, “the stock market of Albany, Louisiana,” first breeding goats and then getting a pregnant cow. His dad being a professional auctioneer, (story for another day), had got him into the animal game and he had the bug to build up his heard some more. Then Bananas head coach Tyler Gillum gave one of Dylan’s assistant coaches a call.
“It was 10 days before the season and I was looking for some temporary pitching help,” Gillum told me. “So I called Daniel Furuto to see if he had any recommendations from his guys at UAB. He told me he’s got this really interesting kid Dylan who was their number one reliever and was a JUCO starter before that. Being a lefty, having experience starting and relieving, and having a personality that Daniel thought would be perfect for Savannah made it a no-brainer to try to bring Dylan in.”
Dylan was still in Birmingham when Furuto told him about the Bananas offer. He was at a bit of a crossroads, both metaphorically and geographically. He knew the Bananas were different than any other summer baseball experience, but he still really wanted to spend his summer working with the family. Also, he was basically halfway in between home and Savannah, so if he was going to go it would make more sense to do the 6.5 hour drive to Savannah instead of going over 5 hours home and then 12 more to Savannah. Still unsure of what his decision on the summer would be, Dylan decided it would be great to see the family either way and he could lean on them for some sage advice.
“Dylan was pretty down on baseball when he came home,” Karen said. “He wanted to work with us for the summer but I reminded him that he’s always wanted a baseball career more than anything, and I told him you’re gonna have to play baseball somewhere this summer or you’ll have to hang it up because I don’t see a future for you in the game if you don’t play now.”
That’s exactly the sage advice Dylan needed to hear. So he called Gillum that Friday and found out he would need to be there by Tuesday.
“On that first call with Gillum I asked if it was okay that I had green cleats,” Dylan said. “He said that was great because our opening night jerseys are green. When I wondered why, he explained it was cause we weren’t quite ripe yet. That’s when I knew I really did want to be a part of this team.”
So he saddled up and had tackled the 12 hour drive by Monday night. Just in time for a four-hour music video shoot on Tuesday.
“It’s funny because getting to do the music video was actually the perfect first day for me in Savannah,” Dylan told me. “I still didn’t really want to be around baseball and spending so much time and effort on the video was just what I needed to break me in a little.”
Just two days after that fateful music video shoot, it was Opening Day, AKA time to actually play baseball. Dylan had a plan of attack for this.
“I just pretended I liked baseball,” he said, chuckling. “I was excited about all the extra stuff we had going on so I decided it would be best to just pretend I wanted to play baseball too.”
The Bananas won the opener over the Bacon and before he knew it Dylan was out for the 8th inning with a 2-0 over the Blowfish in game 2 of the summer. Pretending he was having the time of his life out there on the mound, Dylan struck out the side in his first inning of work and had a menacing stare out towards left field before he trotted off the field. The fans loved what they saw, and let him know it. Then he struck out the first two batters in the top of the 9th too, making it 5 straight K’s to start his career as he completed the 6-out save and win number 2 for the Bananas.
“That first night out there I realized I actually did love playing baseball again,” Dylan said. “I was having fun playing and I felt like I was pitching really well because of that. Plus the team was dominating and the fans were unreal. I realized that this could actually be a very different season than I had had so far in college.”
It would be. Both for Dylan and the Bananas. The big lefty was an instrumental part of what was by far the best pitching staff in the CPL. He would earn First Team All-CPL honors as he had a 2.08 ERA, tossing 17.1 innings across 14 appearances, striking out 33 while just walking 6 and only allowing 11 hits. His 5 saves led the team, and if you took away an outlier of an outing in which he allowed 3 of his total 4 runs on the summer, he would have had a 0.52 ERA.
“He just competed his butt off,” his head coach, Tyler Gillum said. “He threw a ton of strikes and was really competitive and he had the perfect mentality for the end of games.”
Dylan gives credit for his meteoric success with the Bananas to two main sources. The first of course is the change of scene. Getting to let loose, be his weirdest self on the diamond, and get to do it with such a wild and fun group of guys in front of the most rambunctious fans he’s ever experienced. The other reason is Bananas pitching coach Corey Pye.
“In the first intersquad we had before the season started I was very wild and inconsistent with location,” Dylan told me. “I felt like my spring 2021 performance was carrying into the summer which I did not like at all. After 2 strikeouts, a walk and a double, I walked off the mound the same pitcher I had been, the same pitcher I didn’t want to be. Pye met me at the sideline though and asked a few questions about my delivery. He asked me to stand up taller and to use my leverage to my advantage. I believed in what he said and trusted a stranger I had met that day and boy am I glad I did because that changed my career.”
The Bananas environment combined with a small mechanics tweak. A tale as old as time in Savannah. Having fun playing the game and great coaching. A recipe for success that many before Dylan have found in Grayson Stadium over the past six years as well. And if you ask Dylan WHICH part of the one-two punch had more of an impact, well he gives a slight edge to his pitching coach.
“It was a simple change, but I really think that was the main reason I was so successful,” Dylan said.
By the time early July arrived, Dylan had no thoughts of the Will Smith movie his dad was working on that Dylan himself had so badly wanted to help out with before going to Savannah. There was no way he was leaving the Bananas now.
“I don’t remember talking to Gillum or anything when my time was supposed to be up,” Dylan told me. “I just stayed and kept pitching and that was that.”
Tyler Gillum was enthused to have Dylan around for the 2nd half of the season, for numerous reasons that do not need to be explained. The Bananas would steamroll into the playoffs with the best regular season record and homefield advantage for both rounds. Dylan got the ball when it was time to eliminate the High Point-Thomasville Hi-Toms in Game 3 of the Western Divisional Championship. Then Dylan threw the most important six outs of the Bananas season in Game 1 of the Petitt Cup Championship against the Marlins. After storming back from a 4-0 deficit to take a 5-4 lead, the Nanners turned to DC to shut the door, and he retired all 6 Marlins he faced for a necessary win on the road.
He would get the ball again for the final three outs of Game 3, this time with a 10 run cushion to work with. Dylan getting these final three outs was more symbolic than necessary.
“Cunningham, Beck, Steidl, and Armstrong were all pretty much automatic for us all summer,” Gillum said. “Even though we had a big lead, it felt right to have Dylan close it out for us.”
“When I was warming up in the pen for that last outing I was honestly really sad the summer was about to be over,” Dylan told me. “I had a lot of emotions running through me as I took the mound. I did my best to soak it all in. I didn’t want all of us to leave Savannah now that we were about to win it all. But I was also so happy to be able to do this for Dan, Bill, Kyle, and Dearman. That’s what meant the most in the end, being able to do it for those guys.”
It was an emotional moment in southeast, Louisiana too.
“We were shouting back in Albany,” Karen said. “It was so special to see him get to get those final outs and the joy on him and his teammates faces when they won.”
“For me it was the best to see him finish up that first championship game,” Darron said. “The last game was great, but seeing him dominate when his team needed him to most all, through the season and then in the closest game of the playoffs was the best. He loved those guys and they all had their jobs to do and they picked each other up.”
Although his family was very aware of the headspace Dylan had entered the summer in, his head coach never found out until after they had won the championship.
“Dylan came into the coaches office and told me how much he appreciated it all and said the summer changed his life,” Gillum told me. “I had no idea how he had felt coming in at all. I never saw that in him at all, so he did a heck of a job putting on a brave face for us and his teammates. But him telling me that was really special. That’s what it’s all about right there.”
It was a transformational summer on and off the field for DC. He changed pitching mechanics, found his love for the game again, won his first collegiate championship, transferred schools (UAB to the University of New Orleans), got a girlfriend (now doing long-distance between New Orleans and Savannah), and now has something major to look forward to for the summer of 2022. Making sure Game 3 of the 2021 CPL Championship is not the last time he pitches in Historic Grayson Stadium.
“I would love to come back and pitch again and entertain the fans and try to repeat,” Dylan said. “Gillum and I are gonna talk again about halfway through the spring to see if it does make sense to come back. But I think it will.”
Wherever Dylan does end up next summer, his parents are thankful for the experience he’s already gotten.
“It was a really big breath of fresh air,” Darron told me. “Winning nearly every game and then the championship, the whole experience was so positive. It changed his whole career.”
“It made my heart happy to hear he found his love for the game again,” Karen said. “He’s put so much work into it for so many years. Plus it was great to see him finally learning how to dance too. I think he kind found his groove once he was there a little while.”