Jim Salisbury | A marriage made in heaven
Newlywed Utley and the team are hoping for big things together.
Chase Utley was in town yesterday, and he brought the best catch he ever made with him - his new bride, Jennifer.
They met as undergrads at UCLA. Freddie Mitchell introduced them.
Yes, that Freddie Mitchell.
"It was Valentine's Day 2000," Jennifer explained on the day her man passed his physical and officially signed a seven-year, $85 million contract with the Phillies.
Mitchell, Utley and Jennifer Cooper were all in the same social policy class. In addition to catching passes for the Bruins' football team, Mitchell, who later became a receiver and cartoon character with the Eagles, played a little baseball with Utley at UCLA.
After class that day, Utley pointed to Cooper and said he'd like to meet her.
"Oh, I know her," Mitchell said with his typical I-just-want-to-thank-my-hands-for-being-so-great modesty.
Mitchell made the introduction - then hit up Jennifer for a ride home. Before long, Utley had a date with Ms. Cooper, and he even managed to get a second one after calling her Jessica on their first night out.
Utley and Jess . . . um . . . Jennifer became Mr. and Mrs. two weekends ago near her native San Francisco. That was the same weekend his new deal with the Phillies was ironed out.
Jennifer's family loves Chase, and all things being equal, they're glad he's a Phillie as opposed to, say, a Colorado Rockie. Her dad, Al Cooper, is from the Philadelphia area. He went to Cheltenham High with Reggie Jackson before relocating to the West Coast.
"It's surreal how this all worked out," Jennifer said. "I remember my dad asking Chase once, 'What are you going to do if baseball doesn't work out?' "
No need to ask that anymore. Utley is signed through 2013. The Phillies have never given a longer guaranteed contract, and that speaks volumes about the player and person who received it.
"I've worked extremely hard to get to this stage," the hard-hitting, 28-year-old second baseman said. "I'm excited to see where it goes."
Utley, the team's first-round draft pick in 2000, would not have been eligible for free agency until after the 2009 season. The Phillies could have tried to sign him to a shorter-term contract, and Utley might have been able to get more money if he had kept his first free-agent year intact.
But the player wanted lifetime security, and the Phillies had no reservations giving it to him over seven years. Utley is the best offensive second baseman in the game - he's led them all in hits (361), runs (224), homers (60) and RBIs (207) over the last two seasons - and he should remain so deep into his contract, which expires two months before his 35th birthday. He also has winning intangibles and plays the game in an aggressive style that has made him a big-time fan favorite.
"We feel this is one of our guys, on the field and off," assistant general manager Ruben Amaro said. "He's the type of player most organizations dream of having. That's why we were so comfortable with the length of the deal."
Utley made $500,000 last year. He'll make $4.5 million this season, $7.5 million in 2008, $11 million in 2009, and $15 million in each of the final four seasons of the deal.
That's nice coin.
But Utley says it won't change him.
"All this gives me is some security," he said. "I'm still going to work hard and try to improve every year. I'm still going to prepare myself to play every day and give it everything I have."
With a contract like this comes a responsibility to lead. Really, though, Utley already does that.
"The best way to lead is to play hard," he said. "Whether you feel great or terrible, you've got to be ready to go every day."
Ultimately, the reason the Phillies gave Utley this contract is they think he can help them break their long postseason drought and, along with Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and a few others, lead them to a World Series.
Rollins has already anointed the Phillies as the team to beat in the National League East, a statement that has been noticed in New York and Atlanta.
Utley was a little more guarded in his predictions. But, then again, he usually is.
"I think we have a great shot," he said. "We came up a couple games short of the playoffs last year. If we had played better at the end of the season, we would have gotten there. All you have to do is get there. Look at the Cardinals. They didn't have the best record, but they won the World Series. It's anybody's ball game if you can get to the postseason. I'm excited. The sky's the limit for this team."
Two weeks before spring training begins, it's safe to say that it's been a great winter for Utley - $85 million and a beautiful bride.
Freddie Mitchell was a better matchmaker than he was a receiver.