Ryan Kennedy’s Unique Journey to Bananas Stardom

Written by Biko Skalla:

Ryan Kennedy is not your typical Banana. He doesn’t bring a ton of energy. He’s not going to be the most outgoing or goofiest guy on any team you put him on. But what he does possess is a killer work ethic, a fierce competitive spirit, and the willingness to step out of his comfort zone. That’s how he’s found success in the most bizarre baseball arena in the country. That’s what has him set up to possibly be the greatest pitcher in Bananas history.

Ryan has been a man on the move throughout his life because of his dad’s work. He was born in Salem, Virginia, but moved to Alabama at two years old. There he started his baseball career at four years old playing t-ball, and quickly fell in love with the game.

“He was just one of those kids who gravitated towards the game and loved it,” Ryan’s father, retired federal agent Scott Kennedy, said. “I really didn’t have to push him to do anything, he wanted to work.” 

A few years later Ryan started pitching for the first time, under the tutelage of Larry Thomas, a family friend who pitched for the Chicago White Sox in the mid-90’s. Ryan and his older brother Sean both had plenty of skill at the plate and in the field, but with Thomas’s instruction it was clear where both brothers excelled the most was on the mound.

When Ryan was eight the family moved back to Virginia, this time to the Fredericksburg area. Although he dabbled with a year of basketball and wrestling each, nothing ever came close to his love for baseball. When he was 12 he joined his first travel team and saw that he was in this thing for the long haul.

“That was when I realized that it was only going to keep getting more serious from here,” Ryan told me.

He wasn’t wrong. In ninth grade he was already pitching and playing the field for the North Stafford High School varsity team, although most of his success was found on the mound. He hit a big time growth spirt in 10th grade, and all of a sudden was a force to be reckoned with in all aspects of the game. But after 10th grade his dad got a better job about an hour and 15 minutes north and the family moved again, this time to Winchester, Virginia. Now Ryan had a tough dilemma.

“I had to decide if I was going to stay in Stafford and live at one of my assistant coach’s houses, or do I transfer high schools and get a fresh beginning,” Ryan remembered. “My dad gave me the choice a little bit, but he reinforced the idea that change can be good so why not embrace it.”

Although it took a couple weeks to settle in, Ryan found his people and fit in well at Millbrook. While college recruitment really started to take off after his stellar sophomore season, it would greatly intensify the following two years. Although he didn’t pitch a ton as a junior, as the 2nd ranked left handed pitcher in Virginia as a senior he tossed three no-hitters. The first came with a 9 RBI performance at the plate as well. The second was in front of three MLB scouts. And the third was in the playoffs, with Ryan having no idea he was doing it until he checked the scoreboard in the 6th inning. He was flooded with pitches from big time college coaches on why he should go to their school, and he had the San Diego Padres saying they were going to draft him. In the end it was Kennesaw State University that made the most sense, and they were rewarded with a four-year starter for their efforts.

“They gave me a great scholarship, it was where I wanted to be, and I had an opportunity to be a starter as a freshman,” Ryan told me. “It felt like where I was going to fit in too, so that checked all the boxes.”

There were of course some adjustments to be made, but once he had settled in, Ryan found his stride at the next level.

Freshman year was a big growing year for me,” Ryan said. “I started 0-5 on the spring, but then I got my first win at Georgia Southern and everything kind of settled down for me. I pitched well against FGCU and then had a great start against Georgia State and a solid performance against Clemson, and those all made me feel a lot better about where I was at as a pitcher.”

The other big win from his freshman season was logging 43.2 innings of work and starting nine of the 14 games he pitched in. The solid start to his college career earned him a spot on his hometown summer team, the Winchester Royals in the Valley Baseball League. He was the best pitcher they had, starting 7 games with a 3.95 ERA over 41 innings thrown.

As a sophomore Ryan went from a midweek starter to throwing on Saturdays, and found a lot more consistency than he had as a freshman. He pitched in 14 games again, this time starting all of them though, throwing an impressive 75 innings. He had a 5.16 ERA, which was ballooned by two outlier bad starts, and he struck out an impressive 66 batters compared to just 25 walks.

When it came time to figure out where he would play the upcoming summer, his pitching coach had a unique opportunity.

“He asked me if I wanted to play for the Bananas, and I didn’t know anything about them but as soon as I looked them up I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” Ryan told me.

Bananas head coach Tyler Gillum was enthused to snag Ryan, who was a luxury in summer collegiate baseball as a high quality lefty starter. But he also certainly recognized Ryan wasn’t his prototypical Banana.

“I don’t think he said much that first summer,” Gillum said with a chuckle. “He’s a guy where it takes some time to break through the shell a little bit. But he took care of his business on the field and he was a hard worker, so he was a great player to have.”

Ryan would have to leave the Bananas halfway through the season because he hit his innings limit, but it was a life changing month in Savannah.

“I remember seeing that 4,000 person crowd for the first time and being amazed,” Ryan said. “I had never played before so many people before, so I learned how to develop kind of a tunnel vision when I was on the mound, so I could focus on making the best pitch possible instead of the crowd or any other distractions in Grayson Stadium.”

He went back to Kennesaw state a different person and player. He had seen things he had never imagined before in a baseball stadium, and now was a man on a mission after the Owls missed the playoffs by a game the year before. They started 3-0, but then faltered a bit. The team was 11-8 when a 2-11 Quinnipiac team came into town and stole a game 7-5, with Ryan throwing a scoreless top of the 9th in the losing effort. The next day they got word that spring athletics may be cancelled due to the novel COVID-19 virus, and in the afternoon their coach confirmed their fate.

It was a, ‘What do I do now?’ moment,” Ryan told me. “We had been training for this all fall, and then the world kind of just stopped. You could hear a pin drop in that locker room. But I had to focus and keep working because summer baseball could be a possibility still and I was going to be ready for any opportunity I could get.”

Ryan worked out at home and would throw with guys at Kennesaw anytime there was a chance, and he was elated when he saw the Bananas had an emergency press conference planned to discuss the summer.

“I can remember like it was yesterday watching Jesse say on Facebook that the Bananas would play in front of a half capacity crowd for the summer,” Ryan said. “That was so exciting, because now I was preparing to pitch in games in front of fans, when most of the country wouldn’t get to play at all.”

While it was special getting to play at all, it was certainly a season unlike any other.

“We had two pairs of masks in the locker and had the rubber dishwashing type gloves for when we went out and saw the fans,” Ryan remembered. “We couldn’t sign autographs and tried to be socially distanced for pictures and stuff after the games which was hard. But it was a special summer. It was incredible to be a part of putting on a show for fans during such a strange time and getting to play baseball in general was huge.”

Ryan put up his best college season yet amidst all the madness, with a 3.31 ERA over 6 games pitched, 5 of them starts.

“I had Ryan start the Banana Ball scrimmage to kickoff the summer because he was one of our veteran guys,” Gillum told me. “It was his first start since COVID had cut the season short and he had a terrible inning where he had no control and a bunch of runs scored. He wasn’t too happy about it. A few people thought I was nuts for still starting him on Opening Day a week later but he went out and threw a gem, and then was a stud for us all summer.”

His pitching coach Corey Pye saw a big change from year one to year two with the Bananas.

“Although he always did a good job of hiding his emotions on the mound, that first summer anytime he wouldn’t have a great outing he would really let it eat at him for days and it was hard to give him critiques when he was like that,” Pye said. “But that second summer he was much more mature mentally and way more willing to workshop stuff no matter how he had performed in a game.”

Pye had seen promise in Ryan from day one, but the biggest thing he wanted to instill in the young pitcher was confidence.

“For basically a year after that first summer I would text him or we would talk on the phone before every one of his starts and I would give him a word of confidence,” Pye told me. “It felt good to feel like I was still helping him from afar when he was at Kennesaw, but he really only needed that his junior season. Once he was back in Savannah he found all the confidence he needed in himself.”

Ryan and his newfound confidence went back to Kennesaw for his senior season with high hopes but then he started slowly. He was hit hard in his 2nd and 3rd outings, and had an ERA north of 13.00 going into his fourth appearance. After 2 innings of scoreless relief, his head coach Mike Sansing, who was in his final year at the helm of the Owls, gave Ryan the tough task of starting against Georgia.

“He hadn’t told us who was starting and then like an hour before the game in the bullpen he said it would be me,” Ryan recollected. “I didn’t have enough time to properly get ready, but he said not to worry, call my own pitches, and see if I can’t figure something out.”

It was a turning point for Ryan, one where he had to show if was ready to turn around his final season at Kennesaw or give in to its rough beginning. He chose the former path, shutting out Georgia through 6 innings of work and officially getting his mojo back.

Ryan would finish the spring with a 4.16 ERA over 71.1 innings pitched, a miraculous number compared to how the season started. The Owls won 7 of his final 9 starts, and he struck out 56 while only walking 16. He went into the summer looking for a new school to play his final year of college baseball at when he got a call from Tyler Gillum asking him to return to Savannah.

“Ryan’s always throwing so many innings in school so it’s tough to see if we can add him for the summer team or not,” Gillum said. “So he has always been a last minute add once we figure out if he can actually throw for us or not. Safe to say he’s been a great addition every summer we’ve had him.”

No summer was greater than 2021 though. Ryan joined the team a couple weeks into the season, and he wouldn’t give up an earned run over his first 27 innings pitched. His second start he threw 5 no-hit innings, setting the stage for Cole Kitchen and Jakob Barker to throw an inning each, closing out the Bananas first ever no-hitter. He ended up with a league best 0.73 ERA over 37 innings pitched, racking up 56 strikeouts and only 14 walks. He would help the Bananas to a franchise best 40-10 record, as well as their first CPL Championship since the inaugural 2016 season.

I couldn’t have asked for anything better than getting to pitch in those playoffs games,” Ryan told me. “When you get out of those innings the crowd just explodes and I could always hear my host family the Santangelo’s screaming from the top deck. Somehow every game I could hear them with the rest of the 4,000 fans. From start to finish of the season, from getting the Pit Vipers to the championship belts, I don’t think I’ve had more fun playing baseball in my life.” 

On top of the whole fun aspect, it was one of the greatest pitching seasons in Bananas history, only possibly trumped by the summer his teammate Joe Miller had, who narrowly snagged the CPL’s Pitcher of the Year award over Ryan. They were the only two guys who could have possibly been on anyone’s ballots.

“Gillum told me at the start of the summer that he wanted me to help them dogpile at the end,” Ryan remembered. “It was an incredible moment finally getting to win it all with those guys, especially with how many of them I’ve been playing with for years.”

Being around nine hours north of Savannah, Scott and the family can only make it to a couple games every summer. But they had friends over the house to watch nearly every other game on Facebook, and it was a wild ride to follow from Winchester.

“From the family perspective we were in awe,” Scott told me. “It was kind of surreal because you’re watching your son just dominate. Every pitch this summer we were on the edge of our seats. We’ve been on the other side of it when he has a bad game and it’s not fun, you know. But just watching this summer, it was an extension of the spring because he was so dominant for Kennesaw too. But then he has the no-hitter and the crazy scoreless streak going, and team just keeps winning the whole time. I was tickled to death by it all.”

And of course the Bananas winning it all was as special as it got for Scott and the family.

“It just was fantastic to see the championship,” Scott said. “It was like having the MLB Playoffs and then getting into the World Series. The two teams were tremendous and it was such a good battle in that championship. We had a big celebration here when the Bananas won it all.”

On top of the historic summer on the mound, Ryan also secured his baseball future, deciding to join Bananas teammate Eduardo Malinowski at Virginia Tech University for his last year of eligibility. His older brother Sean played three years for the Hokies, and while it’s cool to follow the family path, the decision was entirely based on Ryan.

“It was an opportunity to still be a starter, make an impact on the team, and hopefully compete for a conference championship,” Ryan told me. “Plus I’ve actually got some kids I played with in travel and high school on the team, and Eduardo helped bring me there too. While I was having my great summer the Virginia Tech coaches were keeping a close eye on me through Eddie, and I appreciated how much they pushed to get me.”

Ryan has one more spring season to prove he’s an elite D1 pitcher, something he clearly proved he can be in each of his last two seasons. And while a successful spring and being drafted in the summer is the immediate plan for Ryan, he certainly wouldn’t mind one more pitstop in Savannah along the way.

“If I can pitch this summer, and they give me another invite, I would love to play for the Bananas again,” Ryan said.

Tyler Gillum will be monitoring Ryan’s innings pitched once again, and is hopeful he can bring him back for what would be a Bill LeRoy and Kyle Luigs record tying 4th year as a Banana.

“Ryan obviously didn’t come for the entertainment back in 2019,” Gillum told me, “but he has excelled in it these past two years. Especially this past summer, he’s a guy that’s looking to help on entertainment in any way possible when he’s not pitching. So there’s a lot of reasons we would love to bring him back, anchoring our staff is probably still number one though. It’s always great to bring back one of the best two pitchers in the league.”

While he’s been a force to be reckoned with in all three seasons on the mound for the Bananas, if he can actually dance is still up for debate.

“It’s been so cool watching him dance with the Bananas because that’s not something he’s really done in life,” Scott said with a laugh. “Plus we love the atmosphere and everything that happens in Savannah, so of course I’m hoping for one last ride down there.”

As are we Scott, as are we.

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