After 16 seasons, Phillies legend Chase Utley’s ride through major-league baseball comes to an end
Chase Utley was not on the Dodgers' playoff roster, but he still had an impact on the team. "Chase might be our most valuable player," one teammate said.
Chase Utley had not yet helped snap Philadelphia's title drought or blasted five home runs in a single World Series or picked up a nickname from Harry Kalas when he stood 15 years ago inside a Subway sandwich shop and waited for a ride.
Utley's career — which ended Sunday after the Dodgers lost Game 5 of the World Series to the Red Sox — began with him waiting alone for a driver to whisk him to South Philly after he was summoned from the minor leagues.
That ride lasted 12 ½ seasons with the Phillies, as Utley's gritty, intense style made him one of the most popular athletes for a generation of Philadelphians. The ride continued in Los Angeles as Utley finished his career playing three-and-a-half seasons for the team he grew up rooting for and playing in the stadium where he watched his first major-league game. Utley announced this summer that his 16th season would be his last. His ride was over.
"It's a blue-collar city. It's a city that respects guys who play hard, guys who want to win," Utley said this summer about Philadelphia. "I feel like I did that when I was here. I still do that."
Utley was not on the Dodgers' postseason roster, but he was with them for their series wins against Atlanta in the NL Division Series and Milwaukee in the NL Championship Series, and for the World Series.
His Dodgers teammates sent him into retirement with a rocking chair, a fitting gift for the gray-haired Utley, who is 39 and went by "Dad" inside the Dodgers clubhouse. Utley batted .213 with a .610 OPS in just 164 at-bats this season. His role with the Dodgers, who won 92 games in the regular season, was more clubhouse sage than lineup threat.
"Chase hasn't been on the field as much this year as he has in the past, but the fact that he hasn't been on the field doesn't take away any of his value to this team," said Enrique Hernandez, who often wore a shirt with Utley's face on it during batting practice. "All 24 of us, our coaching staff, and front office, they can all agree that Chase might be our most valuable player because of what he brings to this team with his experience and what he does for everyone. He finds a way to help everyone out."
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A few weeks after selecting Utley in the first round of the 2000 draft, the Phillies invited him to Veterans Stadium to take batting practice with the team. It would be a taste of the majors for Utley before he began his climb through the farm system.
"I was like, 'This is the guy? This is the first-rounder? He looks like a kid,' " said Pat Burrell, who himself was a first-round pick just two seasons earlier. "And then very quickly I realize that it's the size of the fight in the dog and this guy was just intense."
Utley crossed paths in the minors with several of the players who would form the core of the Phillies' golden era. He was playing third base at triple A in 2002 when Brett Myers, a first-round pick in 1999, made his first start at that level.
"The ball was an ice cube," Myers said. "They were scraping snow off the field in Ottawa. He fielded it and threw it away, made an error, and I was like 'I'm 0-1. Thanks, dude.' I'm just kidding. He was just always so intense."
It was Utley's intensity — and his ability always to seem a step ahead — that won over Philadelphia. Kalas labeled Utley "The Man" after he scored in 2006 from second base on a groundout to the pitcher. He broke his hand in 2007 and returned a month later to kick-start the Phillies' run to a division title. Utley homered in the first inning of the Phillies' first World Series game in 15 years and then made the signature play in the clinching game with a surprising throw home to end the seventh inning. He hit five home runs in the 2009 World Series and nearly finished as the MVP even though the Phillies fell to the Yankees.
"I just always respected the way he played," said Geoff Jenkins, who joined the Phillies before the 2008 season. "Early on, you could see that he was going to be a lifelong player. The way he carried himself was the utmost professional. He hustled every ball out. The stats speak for themselves, and he's just an awesome guy."
It was Utley's intensity that caused Burrell to field a phone call in 2006 from Utley's wife, Jen. Utley was in the midst of what would be a 35-game hitting streak. Burrell and Jen Utley grew up near each other in California, and she used to call Burrell for details on the various injuries Utley was quietly playing through. During his hitting streak, he refused to talk about his health out of superstition.
"Something was wrong with his knees or something. He was limping, and she said, 'He won't talk to me,' " Burrell said. "I said, 'Jen, he ain't talking to us, either.' "
Utley boarded a bus with his triple-A teammates in April 2003 for a five-hour ride from Scranton to Ottawa. The bus pulled over 30 minutes into the trip. The Phillies had lost Placido Polanco to injury. They needed Utley. He left the bus and waited inside the Subway for a half-hour for a ride back to the Scranton ballpark. Utley drove himself to Philadelphia, and the next afternoon, he hit a grand slam for his first major-league hit. That intensity was evident as Utley sprinted full-speed around the bases. His ride was just getting started.