Thursday, September 6, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: Chase Utley

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.

I don’t think about Chase Utley as much as I should.

If you asked me on my deathbed if I was a Phillies fan, I would probably say, “Yeah, sure.” I grew up outside of Philadelphia in Bucks County. But I moved to Long Island before I turned 10. And anyone who has spent anytime living in or around Philadelphia knows that the Eagles are far and away the most important team in that city. It was the same way for me—most of my conscious life has been spent riding the agony and the ecstasy of being an Eagles fan. Behind the Eagles, because I love basketball so much, the Sixers were my second Philly team.

I don’t really like baseball that much, so the Phillies always lagged behind. Besides the magical 1993 team that lost in painful, painful fashion to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series, there really wasn’t that much to cheer for as a Phillies fan for most of my life. However, when I started this blog nearly 10 years ago, the Phillies were on the cusp of winning the World Series. Then, they won it. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Chase Utley was one of the most important players on that team. Utley is retiring at the end of this baseball season. He’s only appeared in 73 games this year, all of them in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform, just as he has since 2015 when the Phillies traded him. He’s been injured or unproductive for most of the season. It is time for him to retire.

In his career, Chase Utley has been a hero, a villain, a force of nature, and a piece of shit. He might end up in the Hall of Fame. If Chase Utley isn’t playing for your team, you hate him. If he is playing for your team, you think he’s one of the best second basemen that ever lived, that he represents the essence of baseball. If he plays or has played for your team, some part of you wants to buy him a beer.

But I haven’t really thought about Chase Utley in about two years. I didn’t even realize he was retiring until about a month ago. He is probably one of my favorite baseball players ever. He’s my favorite Phillie ever, at the very least. However, during the peak of his career, when the Phillies were arguably the best team in baseball every year from 2008-2011, he was maybe not even the best player on his own team. During some of those years, it was Jimmy Rollins; in others it was the late, great Roy Halladay. On the 2008 team, you could make the argument for Cole Hamels or Ryan Howard (just kidding, despite all the home runs, no one ever thought Ryan Howard was the best player on those Phillies team). Throughout it all, though, the player you always believed in, the one you trusted in the biggest moments, was always Chase Utley.

Since his career is coming to an end after 16 seasons, I’ve of course been reminiscing about Utley’s career and the time he has been in my life as a sports fan. As with all great players, you don’t remember all of the fine points of his career. For instance, I don’t remember that he batted .167 in the 2008 World Series. I only remember that he hit two huge home runs and that he made one of the best defensive plays in World Series history. I don’t remember that he went 2 for 11 in the 2007 NLDS against the Rockies as the Phillies were swept. I remember that he hit 5 home runs in the 2009 World Series, even as the Phillies lost 4-2 to the Yankees in a series they should have won.

Looking back at Utley’s career highlights, his arc in Philadelphia has a certain balance to it. In 2003, Utley’s first Major League hit was a grand slam. As the ball sails over the outfield fence, you can see that the bleachers in the now-demolished Veterans Stadium are basically empty. The Phillies went an unremarkable 86-76 and finished 15 games out of first place. In 2014, the stands are empty again (this time in the new Citizens Bank Park) when Utley hits a walk-off, two-run home run in the 14th inning against the Miami Marlins. The Phillies finished 73-89 that year, 23 games out of first place and last in their division. The next year, he was traded in the middle of the season to the Dodgers. In the middle of that 12 year stretch, the Phillies won the NL East for five straight seasons, they won one World Series, lost another, lost in the NLCS, and lost twice in the NLDS. Utley made the All-Star team 6 times. If you asked any Phillies fan, if they were being honest, he was their favorite player.

Utley has had a nice late-career run with the Dodgers, albeit a controversial one. In the 2015 NLDS he infamously slid right into New York Mets shortstop Reuben Tejada to break up a double play. He broke Tejada’s fibula. He was suspended for two games, but appealed the suspension as was able to continue to play. The MLB later dropped the suspension outright. The incident caused, rightly, a lot of controversy and drew, rightly, the ire of Mets fans. The MLB changed their rules on sliding.

The last time Utley was the center of attention was earlier this year as part of a feel-good, viral video. Dave Roberts, the Dodgers manager, set up a meeting with Utley and a pitcher named Devin Smeltzer in the Dodgers’s minor league system. The pitcher was a cancer survivor and he had a real chance of making it to the majors. The twist was that the pitcher had grown up as a Phillies fan and that when he was a kid, Utley had met him and signed a baseball for him. The two embraced in the Dodgers clubhouse in front of the rest of the team—Utley greying (one of his nicknames is “Silver Fox”), at the end of his career and the young pitcher inches away, trying desperately to make it as a professional baseball player. Chase Utley is a hero. Chase Utley is a piece of shit. Chase Utley is a legend. Chase Utley is a villain. Chase Utley’s nicknames, on the record, are “The Man” and “Silver Fox.”

Like with all great athletes, or most of them at least, Utley’s legacy and career are complex. He wasn’t perfect. He played hard—and he clearly played dirty at times. To someone who rooted for him, he appeared to fit the mold of “baseball player.” If I was asked to draw a baseball player, I would probably end up drawing someone who resembled Chase Utley.

If I’m being honest, Jimmy Rollins was probably the best player on those tremendous Phillies teams. And he came up in big moments just as many times as Chase Utley did. But Chase Utley was my favorite player. He was the most important player. He’s the one I’ll remember the most from that era of the Phillies.

But I probably won’t think about him that much after today. My memories of him will come unexpectedly. One random fall evening in the future though, I’ll suddenly remember that he absolutely destroyed C.C. Sabbathia in the 2009 World Series. And I’ll smile. The Phillies lost that series. That kind of bittersweet memory seems fitting for a Philadelphia fan like me. But they won the World Series the year before. They can’t take that away.

Chase Utley was a hero. Chase Utley was a piece of shit. Even though I’ll forget him for periods at a time, I’ll never forget how much I loved watching him play.

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