With NBC Sports Philadelphia set to re-air Chase Utley’s return to Philadelphia as a Dodger tonight at 8 p.m., we are taking a look back at some of the moments that made Utley, as Harry Kalas once said, The Man.
In the spring of 2000, Phillies scouts were in a quandary. They had the 15th overall pick in the draft and were leaning toward taking a hitter. They were torn. They liked a New England high school kid named Rocco Baldelli and envisioned him knocking balls over the wall and becoming a fan favorite in South Philadelphia. (With a name like that, how could he miss?) But they also liked a pure hitter from UCLA by the name of Chase Utley.
The Phillies scouted both players extensively leading up to that draft. After frequent conversations with clubs picking ahead of them, the Phillies believed Baldelli might be available when their pick came around at 15. The only team the Phils were worried about was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Sure enough, just a couple of days before the draft, then Phillies scouting boss Mike Arbuckle sent his top lieutenant, Marti Wolever, up to Rhode Island to watch Baldelli one more time. When Wolever arrived, he saw an army of Tampa Bay scouts behind the backstop. He phoned Arbuckle back in Philadelphia. The two men laughed with resignation. There was no way the Rays would break up their pre-draft meetings if they weren’t taking Baldelli.
The Rays made the Phillies’ decision easy that June. They ended up taking Baldelli at No. 6 and the Phils grabbed Utley at 15.
Eight years later, a few months before Baldelli’s Rays met Utley’s Phillies in the World Series, Arbuckle recalled the draft dilemma of 2000.
“The crystal ball is not always real shiny on draft day,” he said. “If Baldelli had been available, it really would have been a toss-up between him and Utley. It would have been one of those serious draft morning discussions.
“But obviously we’re thrilled with the player we got.”
Yes, everyone — from the front office to the fans — eventually became thrilled that the Phillies ended up with Chase Utley. And it had nothing to do with the path of Baldelli’s playing career, which was sadly cut short by illness. (He is now a member of Tampa Bay’s coaching staff.) It had everything to do with Utley, the player and the person he was during a 13-year run in Philadelphia.
Utley became the latest target of the big, red-pinstriped wrecking ball when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday. The Phillies are rebuilding and deconstructing at the same time, so for every Aaron Nola and Ken Giles and Maikel Franco that comes through the door, a Jimmy Rollins or a Cole Hamels heads out.
Rollins departed in December, Hamels last month.
Now it’s Utley’s turn.
Each departure has been a nostalgic trip down memory lane, a reminder that, wow, we had a pretty darn good run of baseball, and a bunch of really good players, around here for quite a while.
Rollins’ exit stirred memories of his “We’re the team to beat” boast — a mantra that kicked off the most successful era in franchise history — of his MVP season, of his dazzling defense, big hits against the Dodgers in the playoffs and of one final hat tip on the day he became the franchise’s all-time hits leader.
Hamels’ exit made us recall a smooth-faced, squeaky-voiced California kid who showed up with a killer change-up and an assassin’s mentality on the mound that was never more lethal than in October 2008.
And Utley? Where do we begin? The guy should have showed up with the words: 100 Percent Pure Ballplayer branded into his thigh. No one worked harder. No one prepared more diligently. No one took more ground balls, more swings in the cage or watched more video than this guy. No one wanted it more — it being personal and team greatness. And though Utley has never told me this — it’s one of those private, personal places that he won’t go — I’ll always believe that no one played in more pain. His knees hurt and he played through the pain long before he could no longer do so and had to miss significant time in 2011 and 2012.
Utley was the game’s top offensive second baseman for half a decade and may have been on a Hall of Fame track before his knees let him down. He was also a pretty capable second baseman, which was a tribute to one thing: Hard work. That short, quick, powerful swing? You can’t teach that. That swing was uniquely Utley’s, honed over years and years and hours and hours in the batting cage back home in Long Beach, California. Becoming a steady defender was simply the product of hard work and a gazillion practice ground balls because, in rare moments of openness, Utley would tell you that defense was always a struggle for him, a struggle that stirred his competitor’s spirit.
Utley was the kid your dad pointed to and said, “That’s how you play the game!” when he sprinted to first base or made a heads-up play in the field. (Remember the one in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series?) He was the guy you named your kid after — go to a Little League game and hear all the calls of “Come on, Chase!” — and the guy who signed your autograph down the right-field line before he ran pre-game sprints. He was the guy that the venerable Roy Halladay idolized (true), the guy that Team USA manager Buck Martinez demanded be on the World Baseball Classic club in 2006 (Martinez wanted Utley’s bat and will to win) and the guy that Harry Kalas most aptly dubbed "The Man."
Utley’s exit is not a sad moment. He helped author a great run in Phillies baseball. We should be glad we witnessed it — and the best years of his career. It was a treat. It really was.
But change is good. It’s good (and necessary) that the Phillies are shedding their old skin and bringing in something new. It’s good for Utley that he’s moving on to a place where he can get more playing time and prove to clubs that he still has enough tread on his tire to warrant a contract for 2016, when he will be 37. He also has a chance to win another ring with Rollins by his side.
For more than a decade, Chase Utley was everybody’s favorite Phillie, and he can still be that. He just doesn’t work here anymore. Like Rollins and Hamels, he left a great legacy and a ballpark full of special memories. He will always be a World (add your own adjective) Champion in these parts.