EVERYONE HAS his list of greatest playmakers. Christian Laettner, with his prayer. Magic, with his junior, junior skyhook. Scottie Reynolds, running past five Pitt defenders, running Villanova into the Final Four. Tiger Woods on almost any Sunday that he's healthy.
Most of those lists do not contain the name of one baseball player. How come? The game's individuality, the layers of statistics that organize stars in well-defined categories, seem to crowd out the term, playmaker. Clutch hitters, great fielders, all may possess the innovation of a Larry Fitzgerald. But when is the last time you heard a manager plead for just one "playmaker?"
Occasionally, though, the game's matrix burps long enough to give us someone like Chase Utley, someone who bends our reality to the brink of disbelief.
Remember Utley's run-saving play in the seventh inning of Game 5 last October? Who else thinks to swoop up a grounder running hard to his right, pump a fake to first and throw home to nail the runner?
Better yet, who else has the guts to try it under the pressure of a 3-3 tie?
He pulled another one of those puppies while you were sleeping Monday night. Back to the backstop, Chase Utley caught a ball, full stride . . . in his armpit. Honest. The ball hit his forearm, he squeezed it into his body, and there it lay wedged until he pulled it out and flipped it to the umpire.
No laugh. No smile. Not even a wink.
The late Harry Kalas had it right: Chase Utley is the man.
Not because of hits or home runs. Certainly not because of any on-field personality or clubhouse proclamations. Not because he's an advocate for our furry friends.
Chase Utley is the man because of all those times it seems that he is more than a man, more than a compilation of gaudy statistics. Historically, baseball has loved its numbers more than any other sport, often obscuring the true value of players who provide the intangibles of say, a Brian Dawkins. And while a healthy Utley can certainly be assessed through statistics - he was a leading MVP candidate before injuring his hip last season - his value can not be. That World Series play, Monday's armpit grab, playing that 2008 season with a similar injury to the one that has sidelined Brett Myers - it defines the player more than any home run or RBI total.
Busting it on routine grounders, creating something from nothing on the bases or in the field, playing hurt - Utley arrived with that athletic personality already attached to his considerable offensive skills. He also arrived with a stoic intensity not unlike the protagonist Neo of the popular "Matrix" movie trilogy. Clearly he has evolved into a folk hero to fans, maybe even to some of his teammates.
The first time I heard Harry's "Chase Utley, you are the man," was when he scored from second on a bunt during the 2007 season. Back then the Phillies were better known for doing dumb things that cost them victories more than they were for doing the little things that gained wins. They were known as a team that wilted under the heat, a team of maddening inconsistency, a team that often lacked accountability.
They are the reverse of that now. They play their best against the better teams, and they keep each other in line. When Jimmy Rollins failed to run out a ball last season, he mentioned how Shane Victorino had jumped on him immediately afterwards. As Victorino offered a convoluted mea culpa for trying to steal second two runs down in the ninth inning during a recent homestand, Matt Stairs walked by and said - with a smirk - "Dumb ass."
Stairs was at the plate during Victorino's brain cramp. For sure, winning a championship together buys you that kind of chops-busting. And the manager deserves some credit for the tone, too. But Charlie Manuel did not have this kind of club when he managed in Cleveland. And one look at that roster will tell you why.
Can you imagine anyone calling Manny Ramirez or Kenny Lofton "dumb ass?''
Even in jest?
The Phillies are this way, in no small part, because one of their best and most respected players sets a tone of expected excellence. He is their front man, their Neo. He bends the baseball matrix without so much as a laugh, a smile or a wink, as if there was no other possible outcome.
And the more he does it, the more we believe that. *
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