I grew up watching bad baseball. A lot of us did. And the Phillies were bad.
The Terry Francona-managed Phillies were an abomination. No 8-year-old should ever have been subjected to Desi Relaford as a full-time player in the majors. Veterans Stadium was a cesspool. It smelled. It was Philly. I was just a kid, but I loved it. My favorite ballplayer growing up was Scott Rolen.
I remember the 700 level. I remember Robert Person for his two homers in 2001 more than his 4.19 ERA. There was Brandon Duckworth’s major-league debut. It was Aug. 7, 2001, against the Padres. The Phillies won 7-3. Tony Gwynn had just one at-bat. I was there because my dad was stationed in San Diego when he was in the U.S. Navy, and it was Gwynn's final series in Philly.
Then Chase Utley came around, and things got better.
Utley announced 10 days ago that he will retire at the end of the season. The timing couldn't have been coincidental. The Dodgers were coming to Philly in less than two weeks, and he spoke about how it wasn't fair to the people who've helped him become the person and player he is today to ride off into the sunset quietly like he initially had planned a few years back.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t fair,” Utley said July 13. “I’ve played for some amazing coaches, unbelievable managers. I’ve been parts of teams where training staffs were amazing. Front office staffs … I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of organizations that want to win. I feel lucky to be a part of that. I feel like I owe it to them to let them know what’s on my mind and let them understand this is going to be it for me.”
The night has arrived. Utley's final trip to Citizens Bank Park is here. The first-place Dodgers are in town for a three-game series against the first-place Phillies. Perfection.
It was Thursday, April 24, 2003. Take your child to work day. I was 12 years old, and it was an excuse to miss school. My dad worked at QVC as a video producer, so I spent the day with him.
The Phillies were playing the Colorado Rockies at Veterans Stadium with first pitch at 3:05 p.m. By then, I had seen most of QVC Studio Park, and we were now in my dad’s editing suite.
While my dad was working, I watched the Phillies on the TV. It was the bottom of the third inning, and the Phils were up, 2-0, with the bases loaded and two outs. Utley came to bat.
We all remember what came next. Utley, in his third professional at-bat, creamed a grand slam that landed in the Phillies’ bullpen in right field, and it was accompanied by the first of many memorable Utley calls from the legendary Harry Kalas.
“Here’s Chase Utley with a chance to do some damage here with the bases loaded, two outs,” Kalas said. “Long drive, could it be? It is outta here! Grand slam home run, Chase Utley.
“Welcome to The Show, Mr. Utley.”
Utley’s first big-league hit was a grand slam. Aaron Cook was his victim, but the 24-year-old didn’t showboat. He put his head down and sprinted around the bases. That was it for me.
I found my new favorite athlete.
When the Phillies signed Jim Thome in December 2002, they sent a statement to Philly, kids like me, and MLB. They were no longer going to be the game’s laughingstock.
Thome was the biggest free-agent contract in team history and the first baseman “overnight changed the way that people look at the Phillies.”
The Phillies were committed to winning, and they did, but ultimately without Thome. Utley did not become the team’s everyday second baseman until two years after his first season in the bigs. On July 29, 2005, the Phillies traded Placido Polanco to the Tigers and the Utley era officially began.
From 2005-2011, Utley was not only the best second baseman in the majors but one of the best players in the league. He was a Philadelphia Phillie, and he was everybody’s favorite player. He spearheaded the Phillies’ golden era from 2007-11 and helped end the city’s 25-year championship drought in 2008. He smacked five homers in the 2009 World Series.
Utley was the epitome of the player our parents wanted us to be in little league. He hustled every play and wasn’t afraid to get his jersey dirty. He wasn’t afraid to get hit by a pitch. In fact, that’s part of his legend. He’s the Phillies’ all-time leader with 173 HBPs and now has over 200.
There is an abundance of Utley memories in red pinstripes, and we all have our favorites.
There was the play that defined Utley in the World Series-clinching Game 5.
The origin of “The Man.”
Chase Utley, you are The Man, but he was so much more than that.
Utley was someone we looked up to, and he never gave us a reason not to.
He showed us how to work the right way.
He was the face of the best period in Philly sports of my generation.
He was part of Phillies teams that provided us an escape from our ordinary lives.
He is a player I’ll be telling my grandkids about one day.