Chase Utley is just trying to relax. The Phillies defeated San Diego a few hours ago, and Utley is talking quietly with a teammate at a rooftop lounge next to Petco Park. Someone told them it would be quiet here, a good place for conversation, but the roof is stuffed with baseball fans, young men in Padres and Phillies jerseys shouting over techno music.
Utley hangs near the bar, facing away from the crowd and listening to his teammate tell stories of life in the minor leagues. He is wearing well-pressed jeans and a dark sportcoat over an untucked white shirt; his hair, gelled straight back during games, has been arranged in stylishly messy fashion. Patches of gray have begun to invade.
Superfan approaches. The man appears similar in age to the 30-year-old Utley and is wearing a Phillies cap, jersey and T-shirt. He is stumbling, seemingly drunk and very excited. "Hey, can I get a picture?" he blurts. "Come on, can I get a picture?"
Utley's teammate demurs. "Sorry, I don't do pictures," he says. "You don't know where they'll end up."
Utley bites his lip, winces and nods. "OK, sure, man."
Superfan hands his phone to someone and stands next to Utley, who smiles for the photo. Superfan leaves without thanking him.
Utley looks at the floor. "It's hard," he says. "You do something like that for one person, and say you don't have time for 12 other people, they go through the rest of their life thinking you're a jerk. It's hard to figure out what to do."
This is the difficult part for Utley, the part that hours in the video room and batting cage and weight room cannot control, a reminder that in some inescapable way it is about him. Working long hours, competing fiercely, chasing greatness with a focus that might land him on a list of the finest second basemen in baseball history (though he doesn't want to talk about that) - those are comfortable.
But watch Chase Utley when the focus is on him. Not just when approached by Superfan, but after he hits a home run and reveals nothing about himself. He does not gape at the ball sailing over the fence. He runs with his head down. He does not smile, nor does he thank God or point to the sky. Seeing Utley circle the bases, then reluctantly accept high-fives in the dugout, it is natural to wonder: What is he really thinking? Is he having fun with this baseball life?
"I am having fun," Utley says a few days later, sitting in the first-base dugout at Dodger Stadium during batting practice. He attended many games here as a baseball-obsessed Southern California kid, observing from the happily anonymous stands. Now, he is gamely trying to accommodate another request to analyze himself.
"When I'm on the baseball field, that's where I love to be. I'm not joking around and smiling. That competition, that heat-of-the-battle intensity, that's how I have fun. The other stuff is kind of a learning process. "You [Utley often slips into the second person when forced to reflect or praise himself] start playing the game because it's something you like to do. You stick with it because you're really good. I played the game because I enjoy it, not to get recognition."
One story is essential to understanding Utley's most deeply held belief: When he was 12 and playing in a Little League game, an opposing player irritated young Chase with showy, demonstrative behavior. Utley sulked about it long afterward, prompting his father, Dave, to reassure him by saying, "If you're good at something, you don't have to tell people - they'll tell you."
Now, Utley smiles in the dugout. "I guess I may have taken that idea to an extreme."
No Chuck E. Cheese
Debbie Mayfield wanted to include the new kid on a trip to Chuck E. Cheese. The family that had just moved in directly across Ashbrook Street in Long Beach, Calif., had a 2-year-old son, a potential friend for Dane Mayfield, 18 months.
She walked across the small front lawn and knocked on the door of the gray ranch house at 1817. Terrell Utley answered.
"Thanks, but I don't think so," Chase Utley's mother said to Debbie Mayfield. Midway through their brief conversation, a toddler's head appeared between Terrell's knees. Chase glanced furtively at Debbie, curious about this new person but too afraid to speak. "He's very shy," his mother explained. "I don't think Chuck E. Cheese is something he would enjoy."
It was an inauspicious beginning to an important relationship with the Mayfield family. The Utleys moved to a different part of Long Beach in 1983, when their son was 5, but Chase continued to visit Ashbrook Street through high school. He couldn't stay away from Denny Mayfield's demanding Wiffle Ball marathons. Mayfield, Dane's father and Chase's first organized-baseball coach, led a rotating roster of neighborhood kids who played on the front lawn past dark almost every day for years. The competition drew something out of Chase that had been buried.
"Denny's intensity rubbed off on Chase," Dave Utley, Chase's father, says.
"He was kind of a wuss to start with," says Denny Mayfield, standing on the spot where he used to pitch. Mayfield is a longshoreman sidelined by back troubles. His voice is gravelly and blunt as he remembers the Wiffle Ball days, but his eyes are soft and his face smiling. "Very timid and shy. But the shyness he had, the game brought him out of it. He would slide into the fence, throw his body into the tree [the imaginary base] to be safe. I'd say, 'You're crazy.' "
The games were not for the timid. Mayfield pitched, standing 10 to 15 feet from the young batters and whipping the ball at them with maximum velocity. "We played real hard," he says, demonstrating by throwing the only remaining ball from those days against a fence in his front yard and smiling as the smack reverberated through the quiet neighborhood. "You better run hard, throw hard, and catch hard."
At that age, Utley did not have the skills to separate him from the other kids, but his resolve struck Mayfield as phenomenal, if not bizarre. The "mercy rule" held that, after a batter made contact with a pitch, Mayfield could get him out by hitting him with the ball.
As when pitching, he threw hard. If a boy yelled "mercy," he avoided the throw but was automatically called out. Many in the group, which included future major-leaguer Sean Burroughs (Burroughs' father, Jeff, also a big-leaguer, was later one of Utley's coaches) and others who would play in a Little League World Series that came one year late for Utley, chose this option. Utley never did.
"He looked at me like he wanted to kick my ass, but he never said anything about it," Mayfield said. "He would just take that shot in the ribs, legs, head."
The games changed Chase. "Oh, he wasn't shy around us anymore," says Debbie Mayfield, sitting on a chair in her living room and rolling her eyes. "He was so wild, he used to hang off our curtains. Chase was like a second son. And he was always so tough. One time he got his fingers slammed into the car door of my Volvo. He didn't even cry."
"He's still quiet," Denny Mayfield says, punctuating his words by pounding the Wiffle Ball into his chest. "I say, 'What the hell, Chase? Do more interviews. People are interested in you.' "
Debbie enters the living room with iced tea. "He's a man of few words," she says. "Chase has a kind heart. He's very sweet, and he loves animals. You can always tell if someone is a good person by the way they act toward animals."
That behavior foreshadowed his charitable work in Philadelphia. Utley grew up with dogs, cats, birds, even an iguana. Terrell worked for a veterinarian and passed along that sensitivity to her son.
Utley also was fiercely competitive at home. Dave Utley hosted smaller Wiffle Ball games, usually with Chase and his sister, Taylor, seven years younger. It was here that Chase first hit lefthanded. Hitting in his natural righty stance, the kid tended to launch the ball into the street, forcing his tired father to retrieve it. So Dave turned him around, and Chase began knocking balls off the house and back to his father.
The boy didn't want to waste all his time hitting. Sometimes he would demand that Dave pitch to Taylor, affording Chase an opportunity to work on defense. "He was just a kid, but that's how he thought," Taylor says. "I think that's pretty interesting."
It wasn't just sports. It was everything. "He was always so intense and competitive," Taylor recalls. "It was always, 'Who can brush their teeth the fastest? Who can get into bed the fastest? I can beat you. Let's go.' "
Dave and Terrell trusted their son to make a decision. He didn't say much about it, but clearly was agonizing. (As Jayson Werth says of his friend, "He doesn't talk a whole lot, but he thinks a lot.")
Chase grew up a Dodgers fan, admiring the small and scrappy outfielder Brett Butler, and now the team had drafted him. As Dave, a lawyer who represents injured longshoremen, negotiated with management, Chase mulled over signing with the team or enrolling at UCLA.
"The Dodgers were telling us he was the second coming, and it was intoxicating," says Dave, leaning back in a field-level seat at Dodger Stadium after watching Chase play in a game. Dave Utley, like his son, wears unwrinkled jeans, a sportcoat, and an untucked white dress shirt. Unlike his son, he speaks garrulously and at length with strangers. His close-cropped hair is white. "You get swept up in it. But Chase went back and forth over what he wanted to do."
Chase Utley had just graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, a sprawling, diverse public school that had seen tennis icon Billie Jean King, baseball's Milton Bradley, and NFL star Willie McGinest pass through its athletic fields (and entertainers Cameron Diaz and Snoop Dogg pass through its auditorium). Poly may boast famous alumni, but it is hardly sheltered or privileged. Black, Asian, and Latino students from various socioeconomic origins made middle-class whites like Utley a minority, and the school stands next to 97-cent stores and auto-body shops.
Many future big-leaguers are products of baseball-centric prep schools, but not Utley. Because he was not considered a major talent until high school and his parents were not wealthy, public school seemed the logical choice.
"We weren't baseball stage parents," Dave says. "We had lives, too. We took him to one of those private coaches once, but I don't know. I just got a weird vibe."
Chase Utley's focus on baseball intensified in high school, and scouts began attending his games. (Asked about his son's academics, Dave shrugs and says, "They were good enough, mostly A's and B's.") The Utleys had not viewed their son as an elite talent until then and were trying to handle the sudden offer of a professional contract. But Chase was quiet and cool while considering the choice.
"The only thing was, I noticed a difference in his body language when he talked about college," says Terrell, whose shy smile and cautious demeanor strongly connect her to Chase. "He would get more animated and excited when he talked about that."
Travel sealed Utley's decision: The camaraderie on a senior trip to Cabo, Mexico, made him crave college life, and a visit to UCLA and discussion with senior and future major-leaguer Troy Glaus persuaded him to attend.
"The night before he had to decide, it was a Friday night," Terrell says. "He comes in the backdoor and says" - here she assumes a gently mocking, almost Droopy Dog tone that Chase's wife, Jen, also uses with affection - 'Uh, I've decided not to' sign. And that was that. But it had been intense."
'A total jock'
The decision proved wise. Utley used the time to work on infield skills that lagged behind his hitting, and in his junior year he met Jen Cooper. The San Francisco native had just returned from a study-abroad fashion design program in Italy, and her friend Freddie Mitchell - later to achieve infamy as an underachieving Eagles first-round draft choice - wanted to introduce her to Utley.
"My first impression of him was that he was a total jock," Jen says of Utley, laughing affectionately. "He was wearing Adidas shower shoes, these big baseball socks, and a backwards hat. I was like, 'Who is this dork that people are trying to set me up with?' I was not someone who went for jocks. I didn't even know we had a baseball team."
But she immediately was impressed with Utley's character. "When he said he was going to call, he would call," she says. "He's not a game player. He is very direct. That's how he is with his career, and that's how he is as a person."
Utley was drafted again in 2000, this time in the first round by the Phillies. As he climbed through the minor leagues, he and Jen spent winters together in Los Angeles. They married in 2007. The pair have become well-known for their work and fund-raising on behalf of animals, although Jen bristles at the suggestion that Chase is just along for a "yes, dear" ride. "To me, that's just white noise," she says of anyone who questions her husband's commitment. "No good deed goes unpunished, right? Believe me, Chase does not do anything he doesn't want to do."
That may be true, but Utley has been forced to adjust their relationship in ways he would have preferred to avoid. Fame encroached slowly. It was an expected and mostly noninvasive part of life in Philadelphia and bothered the couple only after following them west. Settling in for a quiet dinner at a favorite Los Angeles restaurant two years ago, they were annoyed when their evening was disrupted by a starstruck waiter. It was a small but telling moment.
"I have you on my fantasy team!" the server proclaimed.
"Neither of us was prepared for how much this would affect our lives," Jen says. "It was around that point where it really started to change our way of being."
People took a closer interest in Utley than he thought was appropriate. He understands that his job involves dealing with the media, but he does not often enjoy those interactions. Any reporter forced to ask Utley about an injury knows the look: a long stare and impatient sigh, followed by a curt and unrevealing answer.
"This might sound selfish, but it's nobody's business," he says. "Let's say my foot hurts and I go 0 for 4. Well, people might say my foot was the reason I went 0 for 4, and that's not the case."
The unease with public speaking also has led to embarrassments, notably two publicly uttered profanities last year. Wearing a microphone during the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, Utley quietly cursed at booing fans. During a speech after last year's victory parade in Philadelphia, he famously split the phrase "World Champions" with a hastily chosen expletive. Both times, he issued a sheepish apology, which he believes is adequate in addressing the issue.
Jen says that her husband is warm and comfortable in his personal relationships. The couple enjoy regular-season life in a Center City apartment, and she attends most of his home games. They typically return to Los Angeles during the winter, where they spend time with a tight group of college friends.
"He's very good about not taking baseball home with him," she says. "He's not a quiet person all the time. He just doesn't want to be everyone's best friend in five minutes."
And he doesn't want to talk about himself. "He's great when the topic is someone else," Jen says. "But if he has to talk about his feelings, he gets really quiet and his voice drops. It's so funny."
Her description proves accurate. Asked in the Dodger Stadium dugout what his wife means to him, Utley stammers and squirms. A suggestion is offered: Could it be that, because she knew you before you were famous and isn't easily impressed, she helps keep you grounded?
"Yes," he says, looking relieved. "You . . . you said it."
No easy in baseball
Baseball is the part that doesn't make Utley squirmy or uncomfortable, the part that he loves. But he does not love it because it's easy; it never was, especially at second base. "My offense has always been better than my defense," Utley concedes, though Denny Mayfield is more blunt.
"We went to some of his high school and college games," Mayfield says. "His defense was pretty lousy."
By the time Utley reached the major leagues in 2003, he had improved. Still, then-Phillies manager Larry Bowa did not regard Utley as a player who could rely on his natural gifts, but one whose success depended on work ethic. Bowa later was third base coach for the New York Yankees, and noticed how easy and natural the game seemed for shortstop Derek Jeter. Utley was a different type of player.
"Chase wasn't like that," Bowa says. "Offensively, I thought he was going to be great. Defensively, I didn't think he was bad, but I didn't think he was that good. But he was obsessed with being a complete player."
That obsession has led to significant improvements. Last year, Utley was named the best defensive player in baseball by Fielding Bible, a respected book that evaluates defense by charting every play of the season.
"He's gotten much better at turning the double play," shortstop Jimmy Rollins says. "Also, you don't see him missing random balls anymore like he maybe once did."
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is more effusive discussing Utley than when talking about any other player. "I've seen some guys who really love to play the game, but he might be No. 1," Manuel says. "I've seen some great players. I used to think Pete Rose was the most hustling player I've ever seen, then I was fortunate enough in the minor leagues to have Kirby Puckett. I used to think Kirby Puckett, what he brought to the table, that he was the best baseball player probably I've ever seen.
"And then, the more that I'm around Utley, as far as preparation and the way he goes about the game and how much he loves it, I can't talk enough about it. And he doesn't like when we talk about it, probably, because that's the way he is."
When Utley underwent hip surgery last November and was expected to miss the beginning of this season, Manuel never doubted that he would have his second baseman on opening day.
"I knew he would be back ahead of schedule, because it's Utley and I know how hard he works," Manuel says. (Utley is characteristically guarded about that injury, which seemed to affect his performance late last year. "The reason I had" the surgery "was so it wouldn't get worse," is all he will say.)
It isn't only the old-schoolers who appreciate Utley's approach; peers seeking a helpful example learn from him. Werth, at 30, is midway through a season that Manuel has called a test of whether he can perform consistently as an everyday player. Watching Utley has served him well.
"He's an intense guy," Werth says. "He's very serious. I've never played with anyone who prepares as much, almost like a manager would prepare."
Werth often benefits from Utley's homework in ways that the rightfielder insists are not for public consumption. "We're talking about very esoteric stuff here," he says. "Esoteric in the sense that it's very specific, and you wouldn't want other teams to know what you're thinking."
Pressed, he offers an example. Occasionally, Werth will be at his position and notice a subtle gesture from Utley; the second baseman, having studied scouting reports and remembering where a particular batter tends to hit the ball, will tell Werth to move a few steps in a particular direction. "If Chase Utley tells me to do something, I'm going to do it," Werth says.
Why so driven?
The big question is still there. Why is Chase Utley so extreme in his focus and work ethic?
"I think about that all the time," says Jen Utley, who doesn't yet know how her husband will occupy himself after retiring but notes a growing obsession with golf. "And I can't think of anything other than it's just the way he is. He wants to be very successful for himself. He always says, 'I don't want to come home and look in the mirror and think the reason I didn't do well was because I didn't prepare.' "
The same question posed to his mother, father, and sister halts a lively postgame conversation in the Dodger Stadium stands.
"Well, one thing that could explain it," Dave Utley says after a pause: "I told Chase something once that I think stuck with him. There was a kid in Little League who was acting cocky, drawing a lot of attention to himself, and I said, 'If you're good at something . . .' "
Taylor finishes the sentence, feigning boredom, having heard it many times before. "You don't have to tell people - they'll tell you." OK, but why was Chase Utley predisposed to let that one comment form his entire philosophy?
More silence. "That's a really good question," says Taylor. "Believe me, I would love to know where he got all his motivation and drive from."
The mystery hangs in an empty stadium, and Chase Utley emerges, showered and changed. Dave stands, and the men hug. "Hey, buddy," Chase says. He then kisses his mother and sister. The game is over, the fans are gone, and for a few atypical minutes, life is almost normal. Chase Utley smiles.