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An ode to ‘The Man,’ Chase Utley

PHOTO: AP/Kathy Willens

PHOTO: AP/Kathy Willens

As a smallish kid in Port Richmond, I grew up idolizing infielders. I loved what little of Mike Schmidt I remember, and soon I was intently following guys like Ozzie Smith and Dickie Thon. Then Mickey Morandini came aboard. I began playing second base, shortstop, and third base for the Port Richmond Leprechauns and Port Richmond Tigers, and proudly wore No. 12. I was a small white kid. Guys like Morandini were small and white. That made sense to me. I could be him one day. That could work.

My favorite player during those years, however, wasn’t a Phillie, but Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles. I adored Ripken. He could hit, hit for power, run, field his position, and of course, he played every single game without rest. I cheered and cried on Sept. 6, 1995, the night Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak. Retrospectively it’s odd – we cheered and honored a man because he came to work every day. He battled through injuries, had some luck, and played well enough to never need to take off. So he never took off. That was worth hours of celebration, a historic moment with balloons and streamers, a 25-minute game stoppage.

Ripken retired in 2001. Luckily the Phillies had a player a lot like Ripken – except for the perfect health – in Scott Rolen, and naturally I had grown to admire him. For maybe a year Rolen was unquestionably my favorite baseball player. Then he was traded. So for another small moment Bobby Abreu became my favorite player because I loved his level, fluid swing.

And then came Chase Utley, called up from Scranton in 2003 to ride the pine while Placido Polanco manned second base. He socked his first major league hit – a grand slam – and toiled in Phillies purgatory until he was officially named starter in 2005 after Polanco was traded to Detroit. And for 10 seasons, Utley remained the starting second baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies, until he was traded Wednesday night to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Chase Utley is, unquestionably, my favorite baseball player ever.

I met him once, on St. Patrick’s Day 2009 in Clearwater. We attended the Moyer Foundation’s St. Patrick’s Day barbecue outside Bright House Networks Field. Coming off the 2008 world championship, this provided the opportunity to tell every Phillie near and far how much I loved him. Like Chris Farley to Paul McCartney, I sidled up to Geoff Jenkins.

“Hey, how about that double you hit in Game 5, huh? That was great, right?”

I walked over to Greg Dobbs.

“Dude, that pinch hit grand slam against the Mets during the ‘07 run was awesome, right?”

I saw Clay Condrey.

“You throw a good fastball, right?”

And there, in his t-shirt, nursing a beer, stood Chase Utley. I asked his favorite beer, which resulted in a non-answer. And I think I probably told him he was amazing, that words couldn’t describe the way he played. I’m not sure, I was pretty tipsy. But we took a photo together. It’s the best. My favorite player.

But that’s it with Utley. You can’t just describe his game. People have called him a gamer and a tough guy, a leader by example and a dirtball – one of the early nicknames given to him. But his natural swing snaps through the strike zone like a whip. Head down, elbows tightly packed, knee bent, hips swiveling, his bat has been the catalyst for 346 career doubles, 49 career triples, and 233 career home runs. Take a picture of him connecting with the ball – you’ll note he’s thin as a rod with excruiating focus on the ball.

Then there’s the power. Many of those 233 career home runs weren’t wimpy liners. Utley can pulverize a ball, lifting it into the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park, sometimes clearing the bullpens out in right-centerfield. He has struck enough rightfield home runs at Citi Field to be honored with his very own corner. And Utley played a one-man Broadway show during the 2009 World Series, willing the Phillies with timely blasts. I recall openly laughing after one of Utley’s World Series bombs. I had never seen someone that locked in at such an important moment.

In 2008 he marked a turning point in the Phillies postseason with the crucial home run in Game 1 of the NLCS, delivering a blow to Derek Lowe and the Dodgers. A little more than a week later, Utley shot a Scott Kazmir pitch into the seats at Tropicana Field, opening the scoring in the World Series and providing a deal of comfort to me and fans around the Delaware Valley.

They called Utley a scrapper, but the man makes fluid and hyper-intelligent plays at second base, generally knowing when to hold a ball, when to attempt the magic throw, and how to cut off an angular grounder in the hole. Yes Utley suffered from a small case of the yips during the peak of his career, but all was forgiven in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, when he cleverly shocked the Fox camera crews, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, Jason Bartlett, the Tampa Bay Rays and the 48,000 packed into Citizens Bank Park with a fake and throw to home, saving the Phillies victory hopes to end the seventh inning.

Guys who hustle are guys who hustle, but Utley is rated as one of the most successful baserunners in major league history. He has been caught stealing just 18 times in his career, scoring an 88.75 percent success rate. He dashes, but with force, like a one-legged gazelle, from first to third. He reads perfect opportunities to score from first, and rarely has he been stopped. Then there’s the iconic play from 2006, when Utley raced from second base on a Ryan Howard infield chop, taking advantage of the Braves’ lax defensive response. He stormed home with a commanding slide, popped straight up and walked away from his business.

Few mention, however, how he reached second in the first place. Utley slammed a three-run opposite-field double, a pure smack into the left-centerfield gap at Turner Field. It was pretty as any Utley swing.

In fact, that entire sequence – from the swing to the slide home – epitomizes Utley’s entire career. He’s a quick swinger with fantastic power, a demon on the basepaths, and one of the smartest ballplayers in recent memory. Couple that with his undeniable want and need to play baseball, to be among baseball, to live baseball, and that’s him. My favorite baseball player ever.

Yes Utley has been injured, and yes he often played through injury to costly results. Yes he wasn’t the most open interview subject, and yes he had a rare penchant for softening his guard at inopportune moments, when the camera was on him. But he was ours. For 13 years he was ours, no doubts, no questions, no second thoughts.

There’s a mythology that cycles through Philadelphia, coming like a breeze that tickles every hardscrabble neighborhood. Philadelphians are lunchpail people. We like our heroes ripped and scarred. The hard-talking Italian living by the Market-Frankford Line in Kensington becomes our international hero, a symbol for the common man done good in a pair of gray sweatpants and a schoolboy cap. The invisible lines that separate our contentious communities act as the walls on our blueprints. Stay on this side of Aramingo. Don’t go past Lehigh. You stick with us, kid, you’ll be good.

Some of us get out and find new opportunities and meet new people; some of us lose our way home. Some of us fall out with friends and family members; some of us still wonder what wind may blow through next. We believe in the shared table, the big dinner, and the Friday night hangout at the local pub. We drink lager and reminisce about Randall and Fast Eddie, all the heroes and villians of our hazy youth and curious upbringing. We look with weathered eyes at outsiders. You gotta prove yourself to be one of us.

In some small way, the proving grounds – the theater, so to speak – became Citizens Bank Park. We’d collect our friends, drive our cars down, or take the Broad Street Line, and emerge in a warm parking lot no matter the time of year. We’d arrange our party games by the cars, laugh, pour plenty of beer, and waste away the hours knowing whatever happened that night at the ballpark would cap it off rightfully. We barely worried in those days. We had Ryan and Jimmy, Cole and Chooch, and Jayson and Shane, Roy and Cliff, Brad and Ryan, and Jamie and Brett. And we had Chase. We had winners fighting for us in the red pinstripes. They were big-market, the surest thing in the city; hell, the surest thing in America. Those were our boys; Chase was our guy.

He didn’t talk a lot. Didn’t make predictions. Didn’t step on toes. It just wasn’t his way, so we watched him play with abandon, stun us weekly with another outstanding defensive stop, another momentous hit. He symbolized the quiet fury raging inside us, the need to prove ourselves, the hunger to survive and find beauty in life’s trenches. With every stop and every hit, Chase Utley showed us that in Philadelphia – just as it is in life – to be successful means to attain complete focus of your abilities, and to execute on your goals with great passion and determination.

That sequence in Atlanta, the one spurring Harry Kalas to call Chase Utley “the Man,” distills all of those quailities. It’s not just the swing, the baserunning, the slide, and the dutiful step to the dugout. It’s the laser focus of his swinging motion, the desire to spike the Braves during a lapse, the flawless execution of the finish, and the private confirmation of one’s abilities through the simple act of standing up and confidently walking away from the scene. He doesn’t celebrate. He doesn’t smirk. He just goes back to work.

It’s not that it’s right. It’s not that Chase is the perfect model of a baseball player. Far from it; in fact, there is no perfect model. But what Chase Utley did for 13 years in Philadelphia was prove that the mythology of a place and people could be packaged as bones and brain, personified by an infielder that happens to be my favorite baseball player ever.

He’s still playing, and he’ll be out there for the Dodgers. It will be eerie. But I won’t stop rooting for him. I can’t stop rooting for him. Chase Utley is a part of my DNA, just as the stony sidewalks of Port Richmond will forever live in me, just as I’ll always in some small way be a little boy manning second base, wearing No. 12 in an umpkempt field on Gaul Street.

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