COLLINS: Chase Utley Is “The Man,” Forever
“Yo. Hold up.”
Heard those words, hushed as they were, from about 20 yards behind me. Walking through the parking lot at Rochester’s Frontier Field on a cool late-spring night, I turned and stopped in the middle of an empty parking space an hour or so after the game’s final pitch, just a few blocks from the old Crowne Plaza as midnight beckoned and a hard-earned night of sleep stood at the ready. Sixteen years ago, Frontier stood as the lone ballpark in the International League close enough to the team hotel to walk back and forth even in the wee hours. Still, most players chose to ride the bus from the clubhouse to the lobby in what probably amounted to a two-minute drive. That night, he decided to walk.
“Fudge,” he said as he got within a few steps of me, except this is a family newspaper, and he didn’t exactly say ‘fudge.’
He had just taken an 0 for 4 against the Red Wings, and he didn’t take many 0 for 4s against anybody. Even worse, the Red Barons lost, and with him in the old red and grays, they didn’t take too many losses either.
“It’s one game,” I responded. “You’ll get ’em tomorrow.”
“Yep. That’s what they say,” he shot back, shaking his head.
So, he took a few steps past me toward the main drag back to the hotel, and I turned and followed along. Neither of us said another word.
And as much as the hustle and the hard-nosed attitude and the clutch hits and the quiet and unrelenting leadership that even then belied his youth, perhaps even a little bit more than any of those things, that’s the Chase Utley that I got to know. The Chase Utley we all got to know here, before he was the star he’d become, when he was just a kid trying to make it, showing the one trait that would most help him get where he wanted to go.
In Rochester in June. Or in Shea Stadium in late September. Or in the World Series at Yankee Stadium. He couldn’t stand to lose. So, he focused less on tomorrow than he did on today, and more often than not, he won.
It has been more days than it seems since that walk back to the hotel in my early days on the baseball beat, and it has been many more days than it feels since the Red Barons last played a game at Lackawanna County Stadium. It has been so many that the living legacies to that era are starting to fade. There are just four players active in professional baseball today that once wore one of those pinstriped uniforms here — pitchers Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ and Ryan Madson are the others — and the greatest of them all announced Friday that we’re only a few months away from making it three.
Utley told reporters and teammates at Dodger Stadium that he’d be forfeiting the final year of his contract and retire following the 2018 season. He’s 39 now and not near the player he used to be when he was young and a Phillie and the heart and soul of a group that incubated in our backyard before going on to become the best team in the world. But as he sloughed through that hastily called press conference, it grew clear that success and fame and rings and financial fortune didn’t change Utley very much. In fact, he called it off early because he had to attend a team meeting to prepare for the game.
Typical. Winning that night has been his utmost professional priority, even from the beginning.
Before we go further, let’s address the hard slide that took out Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada during the seventh inning of Game 2 during the 2015 National League Division Series. Because that’s part of the type of player Utley was, too. Down, 2-1, in a game his team had to have. One-hopper gloved up the middle. A double-play ends a runners-at-the-corners, rally. Not sure what anybody who had ever seen Utley play thought was going to happen there.
But that’s always been Utley. You don’t get the winner without the guy who for 18 years as a pro was willing to fight for every inch. You don’t get the guy who famously scored a run against the Braves in August of 2006 from second base on a high chopper to the pitchers mound without the furious hustle that put him in position to break up that double play in the first place. You don’t get the guy who became one of the better defensive second basemen in the National League without the work and dedication and frankly the bitterness toward the critics put in by a player who heard so often in places like Scranton that he wasn’t a good enough defender.
You don’t get the unquestioned leader without an unrelenting example.
Day in and day out, with the Phillies and the Dodgers and certainly as a kid who acted much more like a veteran with the Red Barons, Utley provided that example.
Aaron Judge might wind up the biggest star who has ever played for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Jon Zuber or Greg Legg might be the biggest fan favorite. Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard certainly have a claim to the title of greatest Red Baron ever. But Utley played in 271 games here, hit .291 with 41 homers and 172 RBIs, and it was his presence and play and attitude that best typified the greatest era in Red Barons history on the field.
Soon, he’ll be gone. All who watched him grow up as a ballplayer here will feel a little older and a little more nostalgic for baseball the way it was once played, the way we know he always played it.
An old colleague of mine once asked Utley to delve into his past a little bit. What are your hobbies? What other sports did you enjoy playing?
Utley stared at him, confused. Almost angry.
“I don’t know,” he grumbled back. “Does skateboarding count as a sport?”
“It’s almost like he’s insulted,” my colleague complained later, “when you ask him if he likes anything besides baseball.”
He probably is, I answered.
DONNIE COLLINS is a
sports columnist for The
Times-Tribune. Contact him at
email@example.com and follow him on Twitter