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More than just a bat

Chase Utley used to have a favorite BP stick.

"Having a good batting-practice routine allows me to lock in for the game," 
Chase Utley says. His favorite BP bat broke in San Francisco earlier this season. (Jerry Lodriguss/Inquirer)
"Having a good batting-practice routine allows me to lock in for the game," Chase Utley says. His favorite BP bat broke in San Francisco earlier this season. (Jerry Lodriguss/Inquirer)Read more

Two weeks ago today, Chase Utley stood in front of his locker at Citizens Bank Park and packed for a West Coast trip.

Utley tossed his fielder's glove, batting gloves, spikes, sneakers and sunglasses into a red equipment bag. He then reached into his locker, pulled out five brand-new ebony bats - gamers - and stuffed them into his bat bag.

Before zipping the bat bag closed, Utley reached for the one piece of equipment he hadn't left home without for more than a year - a banged-up filthy, pine-tar-encrusted piece of wood that felt so good in his hands that he just couldn't bring himself to retire it gracefully.

"It's seen a lot of miles, but I like it," Utley said of the beat-up piece of wood, his all-time favorite batting-practice bat.

"It feels comfortable and as a player you're always looking for that."

Utley playfully chided a reporter for wanting to talk about the bat. He had used it for every batting-practice session - and this guy hits a lot - that he had taken since the start of the 2007 season.

That was a very good year, with Utley hitting .332 with 103 RBIs while starting in his second straight All-Star Game. The new season had started promisingly, as well, with Utley winning National League player-of-the-month honors for April. Talking about the bat would surely doom it to the kindling pile.

Nah, the reporter said.

What's one old, batting practice bat when you go through nine or 10 dozen gamers in a season?

Utley gave in and talked about the 331/2-inch, 311/2-ounce maple bat, made by the Marucci Bat Co. of Baton Rouge, La.

"It gives me that same feel everyday," he said. "There's so much repetition in this game, so much routine. Having a good batting-practice routine allows me to lock in for the game.

"It's really hung in there. I want to see how long it lasts."

Hitting .357 at the time, Utley slid his ugly stick into his bat bag, next to all the new ones he planned to use in games, and headed out on the road.

Five days later, it happened.

Utley was on the field at AT&T Park in San Francisco for a casual, early round of batting practice.

Pitching coach Rich Dubee was on the mound. Teammates were spread about the field, some waiting their turn to hit, others shagging in the outfield.

Utley swung at the third pitch Dubee threw. There was a crack, which, as observer and teammate Shane Victorino explained, was followed by silence.

Phillies players had long marveled at the longevity of Utley's batting-practice bat. It was almost as if it had become a character, a member of the team. Some teammates joked that it needed a name.

Around the batting cage, there was jaw-dropping shock when the bat broke. Finally, in the outfield, teammate Chris Coste let out a yelp.

"Everyone started screaming and yelling because we all knew the significance of that bat," Coste said.

The significance was this: While it's not unheard of for a hitter to use the same bat in BP for over a year, it is far from common.

To pull off the feat, a hitter would probably have to use a bat made of maple instead of ash. Ash bats tend to chip and flake over time. Maple bats are generally more durable. Utley had a good piece of wood and it saw lots of work. He constantly takes extra batting practice, be it in the batting cage or on the field, long before the team's regular BP sessions. In spring training, he is a legitimate "cage rat." This past spring, he used his favorite bat for every round of BP that he took.

In addition to good wood, good hitting skills are needed to keep a bat alive as long as Utley did.

Utley, 29, hit over .300 the last two seasons and drove in 310 runs, the most by a big-league second baseman, the last three. His favorite batting-practice bat is - make that was - a testament to his hitting acumen. The paint on the sweet spot was completely worn away, proof that he hit the ball over and over on the good part of the bat.

"Unreal," manager Charlie Manuel said. "That shows he's putting the fat part of the bat on the ball because you can break a bat in BP if you hit it in the wrong spot."

It took thousands of swings, but Utley finally hit a ball in the wrong spot last weekend in San Francisco.

"I wasn't very happy about it," said Utley, still upset about breaking the bat several days later. "It had plenty of life left in it - until people started talking about it."

So what happened? Utley hit the ball off the end of the bat, the result, he said of Dubee throwing him a sinker.

Dubee was able to laugh about the bad break the other day, but when he first heard Utley's bat crack, he said, "I felt terrible. I never broke bats back when I pitched. How could I break a bat in BP?"

After the bat broke, some teammates joked that Utley should bury it at sea and heave it over the right-field wall, into San Francisco Bay. Victorino suggested putting nails in the handle to hold the crack together.

A few nails would not have hurt the appearance of the bat. Shoeless Joe Jackson had his Black Betsy. Utley had his Black Messy.

The bat handle was covered by layers of gummed-up pine tar that made it look like a cross between a half-eaten Sugar Daddy and a dirty oil dipstick. The pine tar extended so far up the handle, beyond the legal 18 inches, that Utley could never have thought of using the bat in a game. From top to bottom, the bat was nicked and scarred and those who touched it risked needing a tetanus shot.

Not to worry, though. Other than athletic trainer Mark Andersen, who earlier this season repaired the knob by gluing a chip back in place, no one besides Utley touched it.

"We won't even pack it," equipment man Phil Sheridan said. "Nasty bat."

Bullpen coach Ramon Henderson concurred.

"It was ugly," Henderson said. "But that bat was a reflection of Chase and the way he plays the game - hustling, dirty, aggressive. He doesn't care how he looks as long as he gets the job done."

Utley is among the league leaders in a slew of offensive categories, though his batting average has tailed off over the last couple of weeks. Truth be told, it had slipped before his comfy old batting-practice bat broke. He brought the bat back to Philadelphia and it sits in his bat bag. Maybe he's waiting for a miracle cure.

"I'll be disappointed for a little while," he said. "Once I find a replacement that I like, I'll be OK."

In the meantime, may Utley be comforted by the memories of that beat-up old bat that felt so good in his hands.

"It may not have been an attractive bat," Coste said. "But you could have made the argument that it was one of the most beautiful bats in here because what it signified was pretty impressive.

"It's the only bat that I can ever remember that was both ugly and beautiful at the same time."