SAN FRANCISCO - Chase Utley found serenity here, at a baseball diamond named for a coach who accepted a $1 salary for 16 years to save his college's team from abolishment. Dante Benedetti Diamond is squeezed into the corner of a sleepy neighborhood at the edge of the University of San Francisco's campus. Large black netting prevents home run balls from littering Golden Gate Avenue.
Two freshman dorms overlook the field from behind home plate. An undergraduate student stuck a cardboard cutout of Mitt Romney in the window, so the smiling politician is always watching baseball. One afternoon, a bunch of college kids were playing pickle with a tennis ball to stretch before a jog.
This was Utley's sanctuary during the winter. This was where Utley came to play baseball last October when baseball ended for his Phillies. If Utley rescued his career, this is where it happened.
When Utley arrived, one week after the Phillies lost in Washington to seal a .500 record, San Francisco assistant coach Troy Nakamura posed a question.
"What is your plan?"
"My plan," Utley said, "is to keep going."
"And he did," Nakamura said.
Back to a high level
Chase Utley is relaxed. No, wait, he despises that word. Yet everyone around him invokes it when describing the evolution in Utley's behavior.
"I've been seeing the old Chase but with a newer, different mind-set," longtime teammate Ryan Howard said. "There is a little bit more calmness about his demeanor. Still, intense when needed."
No National League second baseman has hit for better numbers in 2013 than Utley, which is particularly significant because Utley failed to play a game before May 23 in each of the last two seasons. The pain in his chronically injured knees befuddled him in 2011 and 2012. He reported to spring training both times and could not do what defines him.
"The last couple of years didn't go well," said Utley, before an 0-for-4 day in another Phillies loss last week that preceded his sixth annual charity event in Center City. "Once I was on the field, I wasn't as prepared as I have been in the past because of the workouts. Relaxed? No. More confident in my routine? Yeah. For sure."
He is again playing at a high level and moving like Chase Utley was always supposed to move. It was his reckless abandon to reach grounders in the hole and wanton sprints to first base on routine outs that endeared him to Philadelphia. He became "The Man" in Harry Kalas' eyes, cursed at the parade, and matured from a myopic, twentysomething star to proud father with perspective. That is why Utley was destined to be a Phillie for life until he was not.
The nebulous condition inside his knees - described as patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia - renders any planning useless. It makes the success of seven weeks in 2013 both welcoming and vexing for these Phillies.
Utley is a free agent at season's end. If the team continues to stumble, his name will surface in trade rumors. Maybe a trade is unlikely because of Utley's stature inside the Phillies clubhouse. But, beyond that, can they commit to a multiyear contract with a man who turns 35 in December and plays on chronically injured knees?
Ruben Amaro Jr. will require more evidence than these seven weeks to choose either scenario. Utley refuses to entertain any talk about his future. But there is an energy about Utley unmistakably absent during the last two seasons. His knees are cooperating, so Utley demands more.
"There's no doubt that if I can continue to make strides on what we've done over this past year, I feel like I can play three, four, five more years," Utley said. "Obviously, it's too far to look ahead. I've played in pretty much every game. I haven't had to shut it down or hold back at all."
Where he started over
The baseball offices at the University of San Francisco are in the basement of Memorial Gym, underneath the school's basketball court. Head coach Nino Giarratano has his own office. His staff shares the adjacent room, a small space with six desks and a tiny refrigerator.
The afternoon before the Dons beat Stanford for the first time in three years, the coaching staff is biding time. The best development of the day, so far, is a large Home Depot box stuffed with cookies and brownies placed in the center of the room.
"There are a ton of them," one coach excitedly said.
These are the men Chase Utley learned to trust. He is closest with Nakamura, an assistant coach in his 15th season at the school, who answered the phone when Utley's agent called two years ago. Utley had moved his family to Sausalito, just north of San Francisco. He was looking for somewhere to work.
The taciturn second baseman wanted privacy, a place where he could practice without disruptions. He visited one day and decided this was it. During the first winter, he did not take grounders and only hit.
"That first year, we gave him as much space and privacy as he wanted," Nakamura said. "He started feeling more comfortable around the team and he started integrating himself into more what the team was doing. He'd interact with players. He'd jump in a hitting group with the guys. He really started to open up."
After another season halved by his troublesome knees in 2012, Utley stewed. He sought the opinions of five doctors, which Utley said yielded "five different opinions on what to do and five different ways to treat it." He consulted with Scott Sheridan, the Phillies' head athletic trainer. He confided in Brett Fischer, a physical therapist in Arizona.
Utley's condition is typically treated with conservatism. Two years of that made him crazy. He asked for more last winter.
"There is no doubt that how I approached this offseason made a difference in how I feel," Utley said.
Nakamura designed a schedule that called for Utley to take grounders two or three times a week for several hours. They enlisted senior infielder Jason Mahood to serve as Utley's "ground ball buddy." One or two Dons hitters joined Utley for batting practice every session.
"He got after it," Nakamura said.
Sheridan twice visited to monitor Utley's status and told Nakamura, "this is the guy I worry the least about in the offseason."
"You could tell he had a plan for every day," said Chris Hom, a volunteer assistant coach. "He'd take a ground ball and he would say, 'OK, that's good. I'm done for the day.' Same thing for his swings. He'd get what he wanted to get in and always left with a good feeling."
One day, Nakamura and Hom alternated between hitting grounders and catching them at first. The coaches went to fetch the balls when practice ended.
"Hey, guys, do me a favor," Utley said. "Count the balls when you put them back in."
The two coaches shouted their totals.
"He added it up all together," Nakamura said, "and he said, 'That's 75. Perfect.' He knew he wanted to take 75 ground balls. He wasn't keeping track in his head, but he just knew how much his body needed that day."
How much longer?
Many baseball people have a Chase Utley story, Chad Durbin included. The Phillies pitcher first encountered Utley in 2003, when the two were opponents at triple A. Mike Mason was Scranton Wilkes-Barre's pitching coach, but he tutored Durbin in the Kansas City system before that. He called Durbin the night before his start.
"Don't pitch to Utley," Mason said.
Durbin scoffed. Utley homered in his first at-bat. He returned to Scranton's dugout, shrugged, and stuck out his hands. "Next time up, we'll see if he can do it again," Durbin said to himself. Utley doubled.
"So he doesn't look quite as young as the first time I saw him," Durbin quipped. "It's good to see him be able to just play, be angry, and be Chase."
How much longer can he do it? Utley's previous solutions for his knees put him on the field for the second half of seasons. This new program had him active on opening day, but it required a flurry of winter activity. Can his knees sustain the rigors of an entire year? Is he not best served prolonging his career as a designated hitter in the American League?
Utley blocks those questions. "I just feel a difference on a daily basis," he said.
Manager Charlie Manuel was encouraged from the start, when Utley e-mailed him at Christmas and told him, "If you're a good boy, you'll have a healthy second baseman."
Manuel sees the results in Utley's running and energy. Utley's .814 on-base-plus-slugging percentage leads the Phillies starters. He has seven home runs in 165 plate appearances after hitting 22 homers in 816 plate appearances in 2011 and 2012.
"He's going to have a tremendous season," Manuel said last week.
When the Phillies visited AT&T Park for a series against the Giants, Utley invited the entire University of San Francisco baseball team as his guests. "As many as could come," Utley said. He gifted the staff with green fungo bats with each coach's name engraved. He donated baseballs and other equipment.
He shook his head when asked if there was a way to express his gratitude.
"I don't know how many big-leaguers have a home facility where they can schedule workouts whenever they want," Nakamura said, "and have three people there to hit, throw, and catch any day of the week in a private atmosphere. He's smart enough to know it's a pretty good setup."
Yes, Chase Utley will keep moving. He will keep moving even if the Phillies flounder and trade him. And he will return this winter to Benedetti Diamond, on the college campus where maybe - just maybe - Utley saved his career.
"Oh," Nakamura said, "he'll be back."
PLAYER TM AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
Robinson Cano NYY 168 23 50 11 0 10 26 11 25 .298 .341 .542 .882
Ian Kinsler TEX 162 24 49 11 0 7 20 12 16 .302 .369 .500 .869
Dustin Pedroia BOS 159 26 54 10 0 1 17 25 23 .340 .429 .421 .851
CHASE UTLEY PHI 146 21 41 7 2 7 24 13 21 .281 .335 .500 .835
Matt Carpenter STL 146 31 43 13 0 3 12 19 23 .295 .380 .445 .825
Jose Altuve HOU 153 17 51 9 1 2 18 11 20 .333 .371 .444 .816
Brandon Phillips CIN 158 22 45 10 0 7 36 11 28 .285 .326 .481 .807
Omar Infante DET 136 22 43 5 2 3 14 8 14 .316 .349 .449 .798
Daniel Murphy NYM 151 25 45 13 1 3 18 8 22 .298 .335 .457 .792
Marco Scutaro SF 154 23 49 10 2 1 9 11 11 .318 .361 .429 .790