There are very few professional athletes in the grand scheme of sports that transcend the sport in which they play. Athletes come and go, but teams [usually] stay put and fans stay put with them. I’ve always been a firm believer in rooting for your team before an individual athlete, because just like owners and general managers, players also go into business for themselves at times. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but everybody involved in professional sports is a salesperson first, athlete second.
That’s not what we see in Chase Utley. Since he came onto the field at Veterans Stadium on April 24th, 2003, two months before I graduated high school actually, we’ve seen one version of Utley on the field and off the field. He doesn’t like playing into the media’s hands when they try to frame him for a quote. He pretty much prevents that from ever happening. He – wait for it – hustles his ass off every moment he’s on the field, and most of us appreciate the hell out of that, which has somehow become taboo recently simply because he’s just not as good a player anymore.
But we knew this day was coming. We knew players like Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard and
Geoff Jenkins would eventually hit that proverbial wall as an athlete and lose a step. We just thought that group of players would have more than one World Series championship to their name. Losing Rollins, Hamels and Utley shouldn’t be mired in the depression of the Phillies not winning more than one World Series title, but we should celebrate everything they’ve given to us, because it was more than just a World Series title. They brought us the best stretch of Phillies baseball, probably in the team’s history, and although each year became progressively worse in terms of playoff runs, those players gave us something to yearn for during the summer. In Philadelphia, that’s a huge deal. That five year run was so memorable that these guys will be forever etched in Philadelphia baseball lore. The core in the lore. Or something.
At the heart of that core was Utley. Despite being criticized for working his ass of because he didn’t have the talent level of a Rollins or Howard, Utley didn’t listen to them. Yes, it happened. Yes, I heard it. Utley went on about doing his stringent routine – take extra grounders, take extra swings, watch videotape in the clubhouse, take more grounders, take more swings, go watch more videotape. The guy is a born athlete who doesn’t worry about the outside world. Some people look at that as a fault, which is their right. But Utley isn’t in this game for himself. He’s not a salesperson trying to sell his worth to teams so he can play a few more years. He’s going about his usual routine, 12 years after his first hit in the Majors, the same way he did on April 24th, 2003.
That doesn’t just happen in today’s world. You’d be lying if you told me Rollins, Howard, Ruiz or even Jayson Werth is currently utilizing the same routine they have their entire professional career. It just doesn’t happen. For some athletes, it doesn’t need to. I’d be the first to admit someone like Rollins has more talent than Utley. We’ve seen that play out over the course of their careers. Rollins has gone on record stating he didn’t hustle all the time for fear of incurring an injury – notably his calf muscle which he’s had consistent problems with through his years with the Phillies. It makes sense, but it also makes people look at Utley and say, “What is he doing differently that he’s not getting hurt and Rollins is?”
Of course, this was before Utley’s knees died and the Phillies weren’t exactly forthcoming with his injury details. But that’s how Utley wanted it. He may not have even been truthful with people inside the organization given how he works. He missed about two months and came back and didn’t really miss a beat. It was the Chase we’ve come to know and adore hustling his ass off on the field. He wasn’t the best fielder – not even close – but he made some fantastic plays on defense because he worked at it. If I had half the heart Utley does, I may have played college ball. I’m not trying to make this about me, but I see a lot of my own characteristics in Utley. And that’s why I formulated such a strong bond to him after he made his debut with the Phillies. And that’s why I may have been the first person to actually buy a Chase Utley jersey. And that’s why I’m going to root for him until he retires, and then hope the baseball gods smile down on us and send him into the Hall of Fame. I know that’s a different discussion, but it’s never too early to have it.
It’s really annoying when I hear people say, “Well, he’s not a Philadelphia type of athlete!” That happens so often in today’s landscape because all of our sports teams suck. So, I kind of get it. But Utley really did embody what Philly is known for – a blue-collar town. That’s why he was so beloved. As annoying as I think the whole we’re hardworking and blue-collar people mantra is – and it really is overdone quite a bit – Utley connected to this city because of that. And he’ll be connected to this city forever. Not many professional athletes, much less baseball players, can say that.
Utley made memorable plays on the field. That throw to home in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series will probably be his best defensive play ever. He hit a game-tying home run that same year in Game 1 in Los Angeles when it looked like the Phillies would drop that game. He hit five home runs in the 2009 World Series. He got hit by pitches with the best of them and continued playing without incident. I mean, that time he threw the baseball back to Jonathan Sanchez in the 2010 NLCS in Game 6 was simply awesome. That, in fact, was the reason Sanchez was lifted from the game by Bruce Bochy. Utley can play some mind games.
And he made the competition continually make mistakes due to his hustle. Chase is the man. Take it away, Harry.
World F&^#ing Champions! Enough said.
For all intents and purposes, it looked like Utley was enjoying playing with the young guys this season – especially when he came back from his DL stint. I don’t think he would have minded staying in Philly the rest of his contract. He said that, and I don’t think he would lie. But, he’s also being given a legitimate chance to win another World Series title with his old friend, Jimmy Rollins.
No, I won’t root for the Dodgers to win. Utley already has his championship, and it’s with us. I’ll root for Utley simply because he’s the only athlete in this city in which I have a bond with. I’ve never met him. I probably never will. I’d like to. But Utley went about playing baseball the same exact way I did in Little League and high school, and I clearly wasn’t as good as he was. Hell, I’m not as good as he is.
And take this, New York.