Back there, behind a heavy metal door that separated them from the home clubhouse at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., under a ceiling that blocked the west Florida sun and kept the whole area as cool and comfortable as a McMansion's living room, in front of a blue park bench where Chase Utley sat and gulped down the last mushy bite of a banana, were two batting cages.
This has been Utley's sanctuary, maybe his last one. He spends more time in the trainer's room than he ever has before, and no wonder. He sprained his right ankle in January while putting himself through offseason workouts, and the injury had demanded an extra half-hour of physical therapy each day through the first month of spring training, just to establish enough mobility and strength in the ankle so he could swing the bat here or field ground balls during pregame batting practice. His knees are old problems - inflamed tendons, softened cartilage. He learned how to manage those long ago.
He is 36. He is married, with a 3-year-old son and a 5-month-old son. The Phillies were a good team when he debuted for them in 2003. They were a great team for a five-year stretch in the middle of his career. They will be a terrible team this season. But he still spends the same amount of time in the cage here and at Citizens Bank Park that he always has. The batting cage is the last place where everything is the same for him.
"There's a lot of time, especially the last few years, where I'm trying to keep this" - he lifted his hands near his head and moved them down until they were near his feet - "in one piece," he said the day before he appeared in his first game this spring. "I wish I didn't have to spend as much, but I still enjoy playing. I still feel like I can contribute. So I'm going to continue to put that time in."
Contribute. The word itself signaled a concession that Utley has made to age, to the passage of time, to his pell-mell playing style and his insistence on being in the lineup on any summer day that he draws breath. He acknowledged that that style has truncated his career and, over the last five seasons, limited his playing time. He acknowledged it, but he does not regret it.
"As a professional athlete," he said, "you try to have blinders on. You're not looking two weeks ahead, two years ahead. You're focused on that day, and I've always felt that every single day, I've had the ability to help our team win, some days more than others."
It has been that persona that so endeared Utley both to the fans and to the franchise's power people. That, and that five-year stretch from 2005 through 2009 when he batted .301 with a .922 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and capped it with his incredible five-home-run performance - less than a year after undergoing arthroscopic hip surgery - in the 2009 World Series.
As Utley took grounders one day this spring, a Phillies official, watching from near the dugout, suggested that, because Utley had not maintained that productivity over a long enough period, he was unlikely to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But for those years, the official said, the Phillies had a Hall of Fame second baseman. (Utley was asked if he cared whether he might someday be enshrined in Cooperstown. "No," he said.)
They also had, at that time and by that standard, a Hall of Fame shortstop in Jimmy Rollins and a Hall of Fame first baseman in Ryan Howard. Look, though, at how each one's career in Philadelphia has ended or will end. The Phillies have done everything short of having Ruben Amaro Jr. grab a couple of semaphore flags and stand on a Broad Street median to signal their desire to have another team take Howard off their hands, and Rollins, given the option to leave, took it, accepting a trade to the Dodgers.
Utley is different. He's the chosen one, their Cal Ripken, their Derek Jeter. The Phillies don't want him to leave, and he doesn't want to go, no matter how bad this year's team, or next year's, might be.
"I never envisioned myself wearing another uniform," he said. "I never wished to wear another uniform. Obviously, this year we made a few adjustments on our personnel. I don't have to look at the what-ifs. I have tunnel vision. The Phillies drafted me in 2000. They've supported me on the field, off the field. They've given so much back to me, and I haven't given up on the organization."
That tunnel vision, he said, prevents him from gauging just how far he is from finishing his career: "The sooner I think about the end, the sooner the end's going to get here."
He played 155 games last season, his most since 2009, and if he's not the hitter he was (he is not, but at 36, how could he be?), there is enough evidence to hope that you might still appreciate who he is and what he was without wincing, without the poignant discomfort that often accompanies watching a once-great athlete in the twilight.
You search for a glimmer of sun in what will be a night-dark summer of baseball in Philadelphia, and maybe it's this: Chase Utley will stand in the batting cage before each game, and everything will be the same. He will stand in the batter's box in as many games as he can, and it will be close enough.
A Second Baseman of the First Order
Thanks to injuries, age, and the attrition caused by his all-out style of play, Chase Utley has seen his production and playing time decline since the end of the 2009 season. But when he has been in the lineup, he has remained among Major League Baseball's best offensive second basemen. In his last three qualifying seasons (2010, 2013, 2014), he has finished no worse than sixth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage among second basemen in the American and National Leagues, and over the last five seasons his 162-game average would still make him a potent bat - if he were playing every day.