CLEARWATER, Fla. - An era is supposed to last longer than elementary school. Second basemen are supposed to last longer than senators. Six years might be a long time between albums, but it can't be all the time we'll get to watch Chase Utley at his peak.
Look, there is no delicate way to start this discussion. Shel Silverstein could illustrate a children's book about an anthropomorphic vegetable's career-threatening knee injury and most Phillies fans would still find themselves curled on the floor in the fetal position. The impact of the story does not change, whether the story happens to be called "Tom Tomato's Tendinitis" or "Daddy Has a New Infield." At 33 years old, the best second baseman in Phillies history is fighting just to make it back onto the field. And until he succeeds, we can't help but wonder.
Intuition says no. Hell, no. Not Utley. Not now. This is an athlete who has played an entire half of a season with a tear in his hip, an athlete who has beaten sprained thumbs and fractured wrists without once slowing down. Chase Utley was born to be buried beneath infield dirt, to be placed in an upside-down-coffin so he can go in headfirst.
"I know Utley," Charlie Manuel said yesterday, "and I know how much he likes to play, and I know what he'll do to get back to where he's always been."
As the manager of a team that finds itself heading into a season without the right side of its infield and two of the most important hitters in its lineup, Manuel has few options besides optimism. All of the glowing reports about Freddy Galvis do not change the fact that he is a 22-year-old kid who has played just 33 games above Double A and until 2011 had never hit better than .240 in a minor league season. Yesterday, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said that the slick-fielding shortstop had shown enough at second base this spring to make him a strong candidate to start there on Opening Day. But with Ryan Howard expected to miss at least 2 months at first base and a duo of unproven players expected to share time in leftfield, the Phillies already might have all the batting-order mulligans that they can afford.
So yeah, Manuel believes Utley will be back in the three-hole sooner rather than later. What other choice does he have? The faith is not blind, at least not to anybody who has watched Utley play since he broke into the majors in 2003. We are talking about a second baseman who once seemed destined for the Hall of Fame. When Utley became a regular in 2005, Major League Baseball had seen just 14 seasons in which a second baseman hit at least .276 with a .375 on-base percentage, .445 slugging percentage and 16 home runs. Utley did it in each of the next six. The only player to have a longer run was Rogers Hornsby, the all-time great who played 23 seasons in the first half of the 20th century. Utley has yet to reach even half that total.
"He's not that old," Manuel said.
At 33 years old, Hornsby won his second Most Valuable Player award, hitting .380/.459/.679 with 39 home runs. Then again, that year was the last in which he played more than 100 games. Medicine is far more advanced than it was in 1932, when Hornsby's season was derailed by a case of boils on his feet. But you can say the same thing about the conditions that defy that medicine, and after more than a year of doctors' opinions and assiduous rehabilitation, Utley has yet to find the cure for the chronic soreness in his right knee.
Yesterday, Amaro revealed that Utley is now battling the same issue in his left knee. As recently as last week, the GM was insisting that Utley, who has not appeared in a Grapefruit League game, would be ready to play on Opening Day.
"I worry about Chase because it's a chronic problem," Amaro said when asked if he was worried about Utley's long-term future. "About his career? I don't know."
Utley's focus is still on 2012. After a 2-month absence to start last season, he was still one of the better offensive second basemen in the game, although nowhere close to the six seasons prior. In a mid-February news conference, Utley expressed confidence that his body was better equipped to perform at an elite level than it was a year prior. But those are the last extensive comments he has made about his health. As is usually the case with Utley, the specific details of his physical condition are shrouded in secrecy. If heads of state were guarded as closely as the identity of the specialist he left camp to visit, we may never have witnessed the presidency of LBJ.
It is worth noting that Utley admitted in February that he could not yet rule out surgery. The exact procedure that is on the table is, of course, a secret. But all the information you really need about that surgery - the expected length of recovery, the chances of success - can be inferred from the fact that he did not choose to have it this offseason. Carlos Beltran missed a calendar year after undergoing a procedure known as microfracture. Last year, he returned to play at an All-Star level. Grady Sizemore underwent a similar surgery in 2010 and continues to be plagued with health issues.
A lengthy surgical recovery would come uncomfortably close to the end of Utley's contract, which pays him $15 million per year and expires after the 2013 season.
"If he doesn't play again that would be something horrible," said Jimmy Rollins, Utley's longtime doubleplay partner. "That would be horrible. But I don't see it that way. At least I hope that's not the case."
Every member of the Phillies organization has that hope. Six years might mean a long run for a beagle. But for an athlete the caliber of Utley, it should mean a career that has barely begun.
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