Celebration & Reinvention: Durham Bulls shut out Gwinnett Braves

hands up

Photo by Elizabeth Matheson.

I heard that Kool & the Gang song twice yesterday, once in a store and once at the ballpark after the Bulls blanked Gwinnett, 3-0. As the band’s website puts it, “‘Celebration,’ which played as the American hostages returned from Iran, remains de rigueur at joyous occasions worldwide.” So of course it’s quite obvious that you would play the song, de rigueur — dap for spelling “rigueur” correctly, with two “u’s” — after the home team triumphs (again, for the sixth straight night); or while you enjoy that other, deeply American victory experience: shopping.

What springs to mind when you think of Kool & the Gang? Do you even stop to think about what an absolutely ludicrous name “Kool” is? The band’s popularity is so long-lived (their first album came out the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon) that our minds no longer even hear the absurdity in the phrase. Kool, with a K. Like the menthol cigarette. And the Gang.

“Celebration” is de rigueur, all over the world, at joyous occasions, and so you hear the song quite often: let’s face it, it’s easy to complain about all the bad things there are out there, but we find ways to celebrate on a regular basis. That’s what sports are for, and what Kool & the Gang are for, too. But don’t forget that Kool & the Gang have reinvented themselves any number of times and are not quite the band you might assume them to be. They called themselves The New Dimensions, The Soul Town Band, and Kool & The Flames before settling on Kool & the Gang. Their first album was all instrumental.

But they changed with the times. The breakthrough hit “Jungle Boogie” could almost be an instrumental, but without that chromatic title refrain, the “Get down, get down” chant, and what the late, great Scott Miller called “probably[…] the single best ‘uhhh’ on record,” you wouldn’t be bopping in your seat to it while it runs through your head as you read this.

“Jungle Boogie” is a funk classic, played at wedding receptions everywhere, but maybe you aren’t as familiar with Kool & the Gang’s second album. Their website describes this as “their audacious sophomore set Live At The Sex Machine” (1970) and notes that it “peaked [heh-heh] at no. 6 on Billboard’s R&B chart.”

By the time we get to “Celebration” (1980), Kool & the Gang had already evolved again through the smooth R&B hits “Ladies Night” and my personal favorite, “Too Hot.” “Celebration” was the meteor hitting earth for them, though, crossing them over into the global mainstream. “Cherish,” “Joanna,” “Fresh”: all those one-word song titles that require no further elaboration. Kool & the Gang have sold seventy million albums, claim to be “the most sampled band of all time,” and just in case you thought you had them pegged, last year they toured with that other group of well-known R&B compatriots, Van Halen.

I go into all of this detail for two reasons. One, it’s celebration time these days in Durham, rain notwithstanding. No one is raining on the 61-35 Bulls’ parade of fine starting pitching — a shutout last night — and a lineup that manages to find a new, too-hot hitter on a weekly basis. Right now it’s Cole Figueroa, who homered and doubled last night in going 3-4, is batting .414 over the last week and a half, and has essentially taken over the leadoff spot in the Bulls’ lineup. Something catastrophic would have to happen to keep Durham out of the playoffs for what would be the twelfth time in the team’s sixteen seasons as Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate. No wonder I heard “Celebration” twice yesterday.

There is also the matter of reinvention. When Figueroa came up to Durham in 2012, he re-established the credentials that made his reputation. His father, Bien Figueroa, was a player, manager, and coach, and it was no surprise that the kid played a heady, patient game, the kind that spoke to inherited baseball acumen. He had walked more than he had struck out in all but one of his professional seasons, and pulled off that now unheard-of feat again last season, his first in Triple-A. He isn’t especially fast, or especially big; in fact, he’s quite small, and you’d never guess he was an athlete if you saw him in civvies — out shopping, say, while “Celebration” played. His size and shape, his coach’s-kid bio, and his plate discipline made it easy to assume all kinds of things about him.

That is what International League pitchers did coming into 2013, having seen Figueroa’s game for much of 2012. They started busting him inside with fastballs early in the count, rendering his patience ineffective, taking away his ability to his the ball to the opposite field. About a month into the season, Figueroa had a weak .625 OPS, an empty .263 batting average, and had drawn just six walks in 112 plate appearances.

So he reinvented himself. If he got one of those middle-in fastballs early in the count, he developed a plan to jump on them and yank them into right field or line them up the middle. I don’t have minor-league hitters’ spray charts at my disposal, but I bet if you looked at Figueroa’s from Mothers’ Day until now, you’d see a very different hitter than the one you saw in April and all the years before this one.

After last night’s game, Figueroa was asked about this new, aggressive, pull-hitting tendency, and he acknowledged that he had changed his approach somewhat, while adding that he had the pitch-taking, patient routine “still in my repertoire.” (“Repertoire” — awesome, even de rigueur, that he used that word.) He said that, of course, middle-in fastballs are great pitches to hit, especially for lefties, who like to drop the bat head down on them. And he recognized that opposing pitchers were challenging him with those pitches to begin the season, perhaps thinking that he couldn’t handle them.

He could, and he does, and this “quiet” coach’s kid wasn’t taking those pitches lying down. “It was definitely just to let them know they can’t throw the first pitch down the middle,” he said. “I’ll swing at it.”

Figueroa and the Bulls had just seen the Braves’ starter, David Hale, in Gwinnett five days earlier. Figueroa went 0-4 against Hale, hitting the ball to the right side all four times. He knew, coming into last night’s game, that Hale was likely to be around the plate with his sinker, so he jumped on the first pitch Hale threw in the first inning and lined out hard to right field. He singled to right on the third pitch he saw in the third, homered to right field on the second pitch Hale threw him in the fifth, and doubled to right on reliever Mark Lamm’s second pitch in the eighth.

The fifth-inning home run trot was useful to watch. Figueroa ran briskly around the bases, but he was clearly quite pumped about his homer, and he crossed the plate with emphatic triumphal velocity, getting animated high-fives from his teammates. So much for the “reserved,” “quiet” role player. Figueroa will never be a big-time power hitter; he’s just not big enough. But that was his third of the season, and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t hit eight or ten a year as he moves into his prime — if not as a Tampa Bay Ray, then as a useful player for some other big-league team.

If nothing else, the threat of home run power and pull-hitting aggressiveness will eventually scare pitchers into being more careful with Figueroa, and he’ll start drawing more walks again (although he has twenty-six of them this season against just eighteen strikeouts, and the second-lowest strikeout rate in the International League behind former Bull Will Rhymes). He’ll re-re-invent himself.

More reinvention. Evan Gattis began a rehab assignment with the Gwinnett Braves last night. This came off as a biggish deal, because Gattis has been reinvented as a big-league bopper this season. He has an interesting story. He was a hot commodity out of Texas at age eighteen, but then had some drug and alcohol problems that led him on what may or may not have been a “spiritual” “journey,” which took him to Boulder, spiritual advisers, odd-jobs like ski-lift operator, and so on. In 2010, out of baseball for four years, he re-re-invented himself (or maybe un-reinvented himself), re-entered the draft, was selected by Atlanta in the twenty-third round, and made the big-league squad to start 2013, a twenty-six-year-old rookie.

And he wasn’t done there. Gattis homered in his very first game (while reporters were interviewing his dad, live, on TV) and proceeded to thirteen more homers in the season’s first couple of months before an oblique strain sidelined him.

All fine and all good, and a great story, but who knows how long it will last? Gattis could wind up the next Luzinski. (I chose that comp mainly because Luzinski, a 1970s-80s slugger, was known as “the Bull,” ha ha, and Gattis acquired the nickname “El Oso Blanco,” the White Bear, while playing in Venezuela.). Or he could wind up the next Shane Spencer, the former New York Yankee who as a twenty-six-year-old rookie rocked the baseball world with ten homers in his first sixty-seven big-league plate appearances, but never amounted to more than a part-time player. His major-league career was finished by 2004.

Durham Bulls starter Merrill Kelly knew Gattis not as a dropper of big-league bombs or the next Greg Luzinski, but rather as a Double-A Mississippi Brave last year, when Kelly was in the same league as a Montgomery Biscuit. Kelly couldn’t remember exactly how he had fared against Gattis in 2012, but he wasn’t going to be cowed by Gattis’s sudden emergence as the White Bear.

Also, Gattis was rusty, not having played in nearly a month. Kelly struck him out swinging in the first with a changeup and high fastballs, and then fanned him again in the third with sliders. That second strikeout ended a bases-loaded, one-out threat, as Kelly punched out not just Gattis but, before him, the dangerous slugger Ernesto Mejia, also with sliders.

Kelly is mostly a changeup specialist. After the game, he said that he knew that the Braves knew about Kelly’s changeup, having just seen it five days earlier in Georgia, when Kelly shut them out for seven innings on three hits, beating David Hale (last night was a rematch). He noted that the G-Braves’ Brandon Boggs put some good swings on the offspeed pitch early last night, hitting a deep fly out to center field in the second inning and fouling off a bunch more in the fourth (and again in the sixth, when Kelly walked him). So as the game went on, Kelly said that he used his fastball more, both his four-seam and two-seam versions, and to my eyes more slider, as well. He reinvented himself between starts, and shut out the G-Braves again for six innings before giving way to the Durham bullpen.

Kelly punctuated his night with the last pitch he threw. A runner was on first with one out in the sixth inning. Jeff Beliveau was ready in the Bulls’ bullpen, and Kelly had topped 100 pitches. Gwinnett’s Philip Gosselin smacked a line drive up the middle, but Kelly speared it. The runner on first, Boggs, was caught way off base, and Kelly trotted toward first for what looked like it might be a rare pitcher-unassisted double play. But then Kelly’s training caught up with him, and he flipped the ball to first baseman Shelley Duncan to end the inning, and his night.

I asked Kelly if he had any remorse over forsaking the solo double-play, and he answered, “No. I was just glad I caught it.”

Kelly may not have remembered how he did last year against Evan Gattis simply because he blocked it out. He faced Gattis exactly one time in 2012 in Double-A. Gattis took the first two pitches for balls, then walloped the third pitch for a triple.

Celebration and reinvention. My sister’s baby shower is today. There will be about sixty people there, some of them flying in from other states. That may seem a long way to travel for a shower, even if it is for twins. But they happen to be in on a little secret: the nature of the celebration is going to be reinvented. About an hour into the occasion, it will turn in to a wedding. (Maybe we’ll play “Jungle Boogie” afterward.)

Apologies if any of the unknowing guests happened to have read this and thus had the surprise spoiled. I doubt it, though. I only take the liberty of going public with the news of the wedding because I have to reinvent myself for it. You may know me as a sportswriter, but today I’m officiating the wedding, and I’ve got a ceremony to conduct and a homily to give in a few hours. But with any luck, I’ll be at the ballpark tonight to see what further reinventions the game of baseball has in store.

One Comment on “Celebration & Reinvention: Durham Bulls shut out Gwinnett Braves

  1. Pingback: The Process Report » On Cole Figueroa

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