Hey, Teach! Chase Utley weighs in on quarantine, playing ball with no fans in seats

Hey, Teach! Chase Utley weighs in on quarantine, playing ball with no fans in seats

The greatest second baseman in Phillies history is now a math teacher.

Or at least he was for a while.

Over the past couple of weeks, Chase Utley's son, Ben, has been taking his school lessons with his regular second-grade teachers and classmates via Zoom video. But before that, Ben and younger brother Max were being tutored by mom and dad at home during the coronavirus quarantine.

"I was essentially the head of the math department," Utley said with a laugh from his Los Angeles area home Thursday. "I ran some math lessons for the boys, which was actually fun, and Jen was doing the reading and writing. We tag-teamed 'em a little and got through it. But it's definitely better now that Ben has got the video going.

"He has class from 8:45 in the morning till 1 o'clock every day with a lunch break and a snack break. I do go in and check on him, and as soon as I walk in, he shushes me out of the room."

Sounds like Ben has his dad's intensity. Chase didn't like to be bugged when he was focused on work, either.

Utley played with the Phillies from 2003 to 2015 and finished his career with the Dodgers in 2018. Nowadays, when he's not teaching math, he does some consulting in the Dodgers' front office and a little in-studio work during some of the team's TV broadcasts. He is still involved in baseball and is paying close attention to how the coronavirus health crisis has impacted the game and whether there will actually be a season in 2020.

If there's a season, it will be shorter than the usual 162 games, and there may be changes — perhaps seven-inning doubleheaders or the DH in both leagues — to speed up play.

Whatever it takes, the old-school Utley is for it in this unprecedented time.

"I'm a traditionalist and I don't love change," he said. "I like the way that I always grew up playing baseball. But under the circumstances, I understand that there possibly needs to be adjustments if we want to watch baseball being played this year. From that standpoint, if I was still a player, I would be open for some change just to speed the games up, to get as many games in as possible because I think everyone benefits from the more games being played. 

"I would be open to some change. Now, how much? That really depends on what's being thrown out there. I'm not really privy to those conversations anymore now that I'm a math teacher."

One of the proposals being discussed by MLB is playing all games at spring training sites in Arizona. That would require quarantining all players in the Phoenix area for several months. Some players, like Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler, have already voiced their objections to this plan because it would keep them away from loved ones for a long period of time.

Utley was asked if he believed the Arizona plan could really work.

"That's a good question," he said. "I think it really all depends on how the players feel, also how involved their families can be. I think the most difficult challenge would be to expect a veteran player who has two kids and expect them not to see their wife or kids for four or five months. I think that would be difficult to do.

"But as of now — and I'm reading the same things you're reading — there's not a great number of alternatives. I know they're doing their best to come up with different options, different game plans, trying to protect the players and staff as much as possible.

"I think we all want to see baseball being played this year. It's going to look probably a little bit different, as we all know. We're going to have to adjust and hopefully, that's just for this year. I do think, though, they'll figure something out. What that will be, I don't know. It will be a challenge in Arizona, but I haven't heard of any better options assuming we all want to see baseball being played this year."

Every plan being discussed has a consideration for social distancing. That means baseball with no fans in the stands. Utley was a Phillie when the team played in front of 257 straight sellout crowds from July 2009 to August 2012. He played three-plus seasons in Dodger Stadium, which yearly boasts some of the largest and liveliest crowds in the majors. Utley knows all about the booster shot of energy that a crowd can give a player and a team. What would it be like to play baseball with no fans in the seats?

"I think at first it will (have an effect on players)," he said. "There's no doubt. Because part of what is exciting about major-league games is the fan interaction and the amount of noise and just the excitement, the adrenaline that that creates. So, yes, I think it'll be definitely an adjustment. Until the guys experience it, they probably don't know what they're getting into. But I think the guys that are able to focus and draw that extra adrenaline that you need to perform at that high level without the fans, those guys will succeed more than the guys that aren't."

Utley said he and his family were safe and doing well. Some employees of major league clubs have been tested for coronavirus antibodies as part of a nationwide study, but Utley has not.

"We feel lucky where it hasn't exploded like it did in New York," he said. "I think the East Coast is getting hammered a little bit more than we are here. We've been in quarantine now for, what, a month. It's an interesting, challenging time, but we're all in it. Hopefully, we can get past it and learn from the experience, just the way to attack it if this ever happens again."

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2020 Phillies schedule: Looking at long list of elite pitchers Phillies will face in 2020

2020 Phillies schedule: Looking at long list of elite pitchers Phillies will face in 2020

Bryce Harper spent the bulk of his video press conference last Friday discussing the unprecedented circumstances surrounding this 2020 MLB season. There were a lot of questions about health protocols, social distancing and doubt from some players that attempting to play this season is actually the right decision.

Harper talked a little baseball too. And one answer towards the end of the press conference stood out. 

He was asked whether he felt he'd have enough time in a three-week training camp featuring just three exhibition games to adequately prepare for the season. 

Harper acknowledged it would be a challenge, particularly given the Phillies’ regular season schedule.    

"East vs. East, are you kidding me?" Harper said of his team's 60-game slate consisting of solely NL East and AL East opponents. "We're going to face a lot of good teams, a lot of good organizations, a lot of good pitching. I went down each roster and was thinking to myself there could be 14 Cy Youngs in this East vs. East. I mean, that's crazy."

Harper's math is spot on. 

I identified 12 starting pitchers that the Phillies could face this season who have either won a Cy Young or are capable of pitching at a Cy Young level.

And if you add a pair of Harper's teammates — Aaron Nola, who finished third in the NL Cy Young voting in 2018, and Jake Arrieta, who won the NL Cy Young in 2015 — that brings the grand total of Cy Young caliber pitchers in this East vs. East format to ... 14. 

Just like Harper said. 

Let's run through all the big arms the Phillies could face in 2020. 

After a season-opening three-game series against the Marlins, the Phillies play four straight games against the Yankees. They'll almost certainly face Gerrit Cole and James Paxton during that four-game stretch. Cole, who signed a $324 million contract with New York in the offseason, is generally regarded as the most dominant starting pitcher in baseball. Paxton is fully recovered from a back injury in the spring and has been among the top starters in the American League over the last six years.

The Phillies get their first look at the Braves a week later. Atlanta's rotation features 22-year-old ace Mike Soroka and 36-year old veteran Cole Hamels. Soroka posted a 2.68 ERA in 29 starts last season, finishing sixth in the NL Cy Young voting and second in the NL Rookie of the Year race behind the Mets' Pete Alonso. Hamels has finished in the top 10 of the Cy Young voting four times in his career and remains an elite starter when healthy. 

The Mets come to town in mid-August, led by two-time reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. New York's rotation also includes Marcus Stroman, who finished in the Top 10 of the AL Cy Young voting three years ago and finished with a 3.22 ERA in 32 starts last season. 

The Phillies don't play the Nationals until late August. But their 10 games against Washington will feature a heavy dose of three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, who finished fifth in the NL Cy Young race two years ago and 11th in the voting last season. 

If there's a team that has a “Big 3” comparable to the Nationals, it may be the Rays, who the Phillies visit in a three-game series to end the season. Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow highlight Tampa Bay's rotation. Snell won the 2018 AL Cy Young, Morton finished third in the 2019 AL Cy Young race, and Glasnow is an emerging star who posted a 1.78 ERA in 12 starts last season.


But there is a silver lining — the Phillies don't have to worry about Chris Sale, Luis Severino or Noah Syndergaard. They're all out for the season with injuries. 

Nonetheless, the Phillies' bats better be ready from the outset. They'll be put to the test early and often. 

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Bryce Harper has earned right to speak his mind on J.T. Realmuto's contract status

Bryce Harper has earned right to speak his mind on J.T. Realmuto's contract status

Bryce Harper provided the first memorable moment of Phillies summer camp on Wednesday afternoon. 

It wasn’t with a swing or a web gem, but rather it was two words that has everyone talking.

“Sign him!” 

That’s what Harper exclaimed as he returned to the dugout following a home run by J.T. Realmuto in an intrasquad game. 

Harper can claim to be a five-tool player, but you might be able to add a sixth tool to the arsenal because he’s been as effective a representative for Realmuto in contract negotiations as Jeff Berry, Realmuto’s agent. 

In addition to Wednesday’s on-field statement, Harper donned a t-shirt with Realmuto’s name and number during his initial workouts at Citizens Bank Park earlier this month. While Harper denied sending a message to the front office with his wardrobe, he did acknowledge that it would be “terrible and sad” if the Phillies were to lose Realmuto in free agency this offseason. 

If you want to argue that Harper’s actions and statement are an admirable attempt to help a teammate to a large pay day, that’s fair. It’s also likely that Harper views retaining Realmuto as the best path towards contention for the ballclub. 

The Phillies would be naive if they did not expect Harper to have a significant voice in team construction when they inked him to a 13-year, $330 million deal last year. Although it’s fair to assume they would prefer if Harper wasn’t hurting their negotiating position.  

Either way, a player of Harper’s stature and salary certainly has the right to speak his mind on roster matters.  

Let’s say Realmuto and the Phillies agree to a record-setting contract extension for a catcher. That would make the All-Star backstop the third nine-figure player on the Phillies’ payroll (Harper and Zack Wheeler). Keep in mind, this is an organization without a winning season since 2011 and that looks to be several key pieces away from true contention. 

Who knows where the Phillies will find themselves four years down the road? It’s possible Harper and Realmuto will have taken a late October ride or two down Broad Street in that time. It’s also possible that the club will have failed to take the next step in their development, the young pieces never reaching the level needed to contend. At that stage, the club could lack the flexibility to improve due its significant financial obligations. 

If the latter happens, let’s be clear: Harper has forfeited the right to justifiably complain about a perceived lack of commitment or a feeling of being misled about the intentions of ownership. It might be hyperbole to suggest the former NL MVP is forcing the Phillies’ hand with Realmuto, but he’s certainly making it known how he wants the team built. 

Harper does not appear to be that type of person that will turn on the Phillies if things do not go as hoped, but we’ve all been down this road before with unhappy superstars across the sporting landscape. 

It might not be an issue for today, but there’s a chance that day just may come.  

Stay tuned.

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