An Ode to Chase Utley
Women want him, and men want to be him. That’s a scientific fact. Do I have a man crush on Chase Utley? You bet your sweet ass I do, and I’m unfailingly unapologetic about it, too. No, he himself isn’t the answer to all the problems confounding the Phillies’ putrid offense, but getting him back is certainly an encouraging step in the right direction, if only symbolically. In Philadelphia, the epitome of a “what have you done for me lately?” sports city, fans have a tendency to vilify players just as quickly as they fall in love with them. Utley is not exempt from this kind of treatment, and it enrages me to no end when I hear mouth breathing morons call in to sports talk radio nowadays to bash the greatest second baseman in team history. Old? Washed up? Damaged goods? Have some fucking respect. The guy is 32 and still very much in the prime of his career. This isn’t football or basketball, when a player is generally clearly on the decline as he traverses his early 30’s. Now, I’m not going to pretend the knee tendonitis that has forced Utley to miss nearly the first two months of the season shouldn’t be a cause for concern. We’re talking about a degenerative knee condition that is a direct result of how hard he’s played the game over the course of his career, and you have to wonder if he’s truly capable of playing any other way. As such, this could very well be the end of the Chase Utley who has spoiled us with his Hall of Fame-caliber play over the past seven years.
Regardless of what happens next, however, let’s not lose sight of what he’s meant to this franchise and this city. Without Chase Utley, Philadelphia would be still mired in a championship-less drought entering its 28th year. So maybe he inexplicably sails a throw over Ryan Howard’s head here and there during the playoffs. Shit happens. Nothing changes the fact that the fake-to-first-then-throw-home to nail Jason Bartlett at the plate in the top of the seventh inning in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series with the score tied 3-3 remains, for my money, the best baseball play I’ve ever witnessed. Utley then somehow managed to outdo himself, as he followed up his October performance with the best proclamation in the history of championship parades, uttering a phrase that will forever live on in the annals of Philadelphia sports.
If ever there has been an athlete who has embodied the spirit of this town and everything the natives hold dear, it’s Chase Cameron Utley. His cool, laid back southern California demeanor belies the intense, burning passion he has for the game of baseball and balls-to-the-wall style that has made him so beloved. How many players score from second base on a ground out to the pitcher? Pure hustle, desire, and sheer determination. Nobody works harder, and nobody cares more. Utley’s presence alone should inject life into an otherwise listless lineup that is approaching unprecedented futility. He is, after all, the heartbeat of this team, and his impact cannot be measured just by on-field performance. Make no mistake, this is still Chase Utley’s team, and its grit and resilience over the years reflects his identity as a baseball player.
It all began a little over eight years ago. Contrary to popular lore, Utley did not hit a grand slam home run in his first major league at bat — which came during the home opener on April 4th, 2003, when he struck out. Rather, it was in his next at bat a few weeks later that he belted said salami for his first major league hit. I was sitting in my kitchen, watching the 13” relic (see: piece of shit) TV my parents bought in the 80’s. The home run was vintage Utley: A quick, compact swing that allowed the head of the bat to get out in front and connect with a pitch low and inside, resulting in a screaming line drive that roped over the right field wall. I still remember Harry Kalas shouting, “COULD IT BE?!”, followed by a formal welcoming of Utley to The Show as the sinewy 24-year old briskly raced around the bases like he was trying to stretch a double into a triple. There are certain times when you just get a good feeling about a player, when you know you’re watching something special. That’s how I felt at that exact moment. Besides, with a name like Chase Utley, how could he not be good at baseball?
Based on some less than rigorous research — because I’m blatantly neglecting my responsibilities here at work — I’ve unearthed the following statistical nuggets. In the history of modern baseball, only three second basemen have posted a .900+ OPS in five consecutive seasons: Rogers Hornsby, Jackie Robinson, and Chase Utley (Joe Morgan missed out on being in this club by .001 and .005 in the two bookending seasons). Pretty good company, I’d say. Furthermore, Utley is one of only two second basemen — the other being Jeff Kent — to record four consecutive 20+ home run, 100+ RBI seasons. And just for good measure, his career .894 OPS is second only to Hornsby (1.010 OPS). Unfortunately, the only thing keeping Utley from cementing his place as one of the game’s all-time best second basemen — at least from a hitting standpoint — is longevity, which can be attributed to the fact that he didn’t become a full-time player until he was 26 and has also been afflicted by various injuries. Even so, there’s no denying Utley put together a five-year stretch of production that rivals any other second baseman to ever play.
If, like me, you’ve been fortunate enough to watch Chase Utley develop into one of best power hitting second basemen in the history of Major League Baseball, then you also know you’ll probably never see another player of his ilk don a Phillies uniform. For that reason I say, just for once, drop the “what have you done for me lately?” shtick. Instead, appreciate what Utley has meant to your recent experience as a Phillies fan — he’s done more than enough already.
Welcome back, Chase.
Edit: This is my version of a Chase Utley love letter.