For Chase Utley, it was a time to say hello again.
The former Phillies second baseman, beloved by fans for his hard-nosed style of play and prominent place on the Rushmore of young talent that grew up and became World Series champions in 2008, returned to Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night for the first time since he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago this week.
Last summer, on the night of Aug. 19, the Phillies were playing the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park. At the executive level of the ballpark, the deal to send Utley to Los Angeles was being wrapped up, but nothing could be officially announced because the Dodgers, for logistical reasons, hadn’t informed two minor leaguers that they were headed to Philadelphia.
Utley was not in the lineup that night, but he was in uniform, leaning on the dugout railing, watching every pitch, as he waited for word that the deal was complete. The plan was for him to walk out in front of the dugout and acknowledge the fans as a quick tribute played on the video board above left field. Utley was in on the plan — he wanted it to happen — but it never came to fruition because the game ended with the Phillies winning, 7-4, before the Dodgers could tell their minor leaguers and the deal could be officially announced.
In the social media world of 2015, word had filtered through the stands that Utley was about to be dealt. As he walked off the field after shaking hands with his soon-to-be-former Phillies teammates, he sheepishly tipped his cap to the fans around the dugout who by this time knew he was about to be traded. Moments after the game ended, the deal was made official and Utley appeared at a hastily called news conference. He said all the right things, saluted all the right people, and headed home to get ready to join his new team.
It wasn’t until this moment, nearly a year later, however, that Utley got to say his real goodbye to the fans.
He did it as he said hello again.
“I’m sure excited to be back,” he said during a news conference three hours before the game. “We had a lot of great times here at this stadium.”
Utley was asked how he believed he’d be greeted by the fans.
The answer came shortly before the first pitch.
And it was pretty special.
Public address announcer Dan Baker was drowned out by applause as he announced Utley at the top of the Dodgers’ batting order.
Moments later, Utley took his final swing in the on-deck circle and started toward home plate. Fans rose from their seats and the first chords of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir — Utley’s trademark walk-up song — began to blare over the stadium sound system.
The significance of the moment was lost on no one.
As Utley reached the batter’s box, home plate umpire Ron Kulpa backed off and let the moment breathe. Catcher Cameron Rupp backed off as well. Pitcher Vince Velasquez delayed his ascent of the mound. In the field, shortstop Freddy Galvis clapped into his glove. So did Ryan Howard, Utley’s longtime teammate.
And in the stands, the fans stood and applauded Utley for one minute and 25 seconds.
Utley backed out of the batter’s box and doffed his helmet toward all corners of the ballpark, making sure to include the Phillies’ dugout. He tried to get back into the batter’s box, but the applause wouldn’t quit. He backed out again, waved his hand and patted his heart.
It took a year, but Chase Utley finally had the chance to tell the Philadelphia fans how he felt about them.
And they reciprocated with two standing ovations that produced two curtain calls after Utley belted a solo homer and a grand slam in the Dodgers' 15-5 win (see story). A homer and a grand slam. Two curtain calls for a visiting player. Who could have scripted a night like this? The whole thing was one big love-in between Utley and the fans who still hold him dear.
Utley is one of those athletes who gets it.
He knows the importance of the fans. He knows that the product on the field was only part of the equation that made the Phillies a powerhouse from 2007 to 2011 and Citizens Bank Park, site of 257 sellouts, a tough place for opposing teams to visit.
“When you look back on it, I just feel fortunate to have been on the team at that time,” Utley said. “We had a pretty good squad.
"I can’t really say enough about the amount of support that I received [from the fans]. Not only me, but the support my teammates received over the years.
“I truly believe that without the fans’ support and without them pushing us to be better, we would not have had the team that we had. Obviously we had some great players and great coaches, but the fans kind of took us to the next level.
“There are so many memories, so many great times in this stadium in front of these great fans.”
This was another one, really.
Many of the memories Utley alluded to played on the video board after the second inning. There was Harry Kalas’ famous “Chase Utley, you are the man!” call, the heads-up defensive play he made in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series. There was an elated Utley sprinting in from second base to join the celebratory dog pile after Brad Lidge and Carlos Ruiz hooked up on the clinching out in that World Series. And, of course, there was Utley wearing that you-know-what-eatin’ grin after making his famous “World (Bleeping) Champions” proclamation on Halloween Day 2008.
The fans loved that one. It might have gotten the biggest roar of the night, and fittingly so. Because you can say what you want about Chase Utley, that he was one of the best offensive second basemen of his era, that he was a guy who appealed to the Philadelphia fan because he was a fierce competitor who played the game with intensity, passion, toughness and hustle, but Utley’s legacy, like the rest of the 2008 Phillies, is still the thing Philadelphia fans like most.
Tuesday night, Chase Utley came back to Philadelphia and said hello and goodbye and all that good stuff.
And the fans said thank you.
It was perfect.