I was getting ice cream for my dad, so, even though I was at Citizens Bank Park, I didn’t get to see it. But I heard the cheers and excitement it generated from the crowd. I asked an usher what just happened, and he told me that Chase Utley had hit an inside-the-park home run, which helped the Phillies beat the San Francisco Giants, 7-2.
Figures that it was Utley. He is the heart and soul of this Phillies team. Always has been. Why else would all of the Philly newspapers’ sports writers be fretting last March about the knee condition (patella tendinitis) that caused him to miss most of spring training and the first two months of the season? Everyone was worried that the injury would keep Utley from playing at all this year. I was confident he would be back. If anyone could overcome this type of injury, it is Utley.
And how about the press exalting his grand return to Citizens Bank Park on May 23 against the Cincinnati Reds? You would have thought that a triumphant warrior had come home after winning a war.
You see, Utley, the All Star second baseman (except for this year because he missed so much time due to his injury), is to the Phillies what Derek Jeter is to the New York Yankees: their spiritual leader. He leads not by words, but by action.
Utley is an intuitive player with his mind always on the game. It is an intuition based on instinct, knowledge, experience, and focus. He always understands the situation by knowing what has just happened, what may happen and what is presently happening. He knows the batter, the runner, the pitcher, the catcher, the fielder, and the play that is unfolding in front of him. With his cool, calm approach to the game, you could say he is the Zen Master of baseball. I particularly enjoy seeing him coolly strutting to take a lead off first base when he threatens to steal.
This calm, collected approach does not mean he is not passionate about baseball. It’s quite the opposite. You can feel his love for the game in every move he makes: his swing, his stealing of a base, his leap to catch a line drive, his sidearm throw to first base. That throw to first is an excellent example of his Zen-like moves. Utley always seems to take a moment to center and calm himself before he throws after snagging a groundball. I have never seen him rush a throw.
It is no coincidence that the Phillies’ bats came alive on the day Utley returned. Even though he did not get a hit in that game, his mere presence was uplifting for the other players (not to mention the fans and manager Charlie Manuel.)
The Phils still have a core group of stars from the 2008 World Series championship season: first baseman Ryan Howard (current NL RBI leader), shortstop and leadoff man Jimmy Rollins, center fielder Shane Victorino (leading the Phils in batting average and triples), catcher Carlos Ruiz, and All-Star pitcher Cole Hamels. But Utley, more than any other player, exemplifies the Phillies’ winning attitude.
On a team filled with cool, confident personalities, such as pitchers Roy Halladay (last year’s Cy Young Award winner), Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, rookie Vance Worley, and closer Ryan Madson, Utley is the coolest of them all. He is an unflappable, hard-working team player who shuns the spotlight and would rather let his bat and glove do the talking.
Halladay, the ace of the pitching staff and, arguably, the best pitcher in baseball, had high praise for his teammate after Utley dived and recorded an out with a brilliant catch during a June 5 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates
“You know he’s always going to run balls out,” Halladay said. “He’ll be diving for balls. He’s going to give you the best at-bat every time. He’s never going to give an at-bat away. It’s his professionalism, the way he goes about things. To be one of the best players and still go about it the right way, like he got called up a couple of days ago, to me that’s what stands out. You need guys like that who are successful players who continue to grind things out. It sets a tone.”
Set a tone he does. On July 18, when the heat index was close to 100 degrees in Chicago, Utley saw that Halladay was in some physical discomfort (he later had to leave the game with heat exhaustion) and went to the mound to give him a pep talk and a breather. Later, Utley called timeout to tie his shoes in an attempt to bide time for the ace. His acute awareness of events is so evident in the intangible things he does for his teammates, and they know it and appreciate it.
I will always remember one play he made during Game 5 of the 2008 World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. With a runner on third, the batter hit a groundball to Utley. He faked a throw to first and gunned the ball to nail the runner at the plate, prompting the late, beloved Harry Kalas to proclaim, “Chase Utley, you are the man!”
He was and still is “the man.” Even after missing the first two months of the season, Utley is batting .283 with a .383 OBP, 7 homers, 27 RBIs, and 30 runs scored. It is no accident that the Phillies have the best record right now in baseball (65-37). They have an excellent pitching staff, great position players, a brilliant manager (who may sound like a country hick, but is a baseball genius and a calm, usually, Zen master himself).
But the heart and the soul of this team is Chase Utley. And everyone will acknowledge that except for the humble Zen master himself, the ultimate team player.