Utley’s play speaks volumes
PHILADELPHIA -- You can take the kid out of L.A., but you can’t take L.A. out of the kid. Unless, that is, the kid is Chase Utley, who would no sooner brag about himself than play second base naked.
Utley is a metronome, a three-time All-Star and the most popular player on the Philadelphia Phillies, by far. In a town that eats its stars, he is beloved.
He left L.A. without the Hollywood ego. He never had one. He shows up early every day, works hard, plays hard and deflects attention onto others. He would rather not talk at all, thank you very much, and he says nothing even remotely controversial.
We tried. This is as close as we could get: There is no hamburger in Philadelphia quite as good as the one he loves in L.A.
“There’s no In-N-Out,” Utley said. “I do miss that. I get my fair share when we get out to the West Coast.
“Here they have their cheese steaks. You can only eat so many of them.”
The kid was born to play second base for the Dodgers. He grew up at Dodger Stadium, cheering for Orel Hershiser as he pitched a shutout in the last World Series game played there, in 1988. Utley was 9.
He played Little League in Long Beach, where his manager was Jeff Burroughs, the former American League most valuable player.
He played high school ball at Long Beach Poly, the alma mater of Tony Gwynn, teammates with Milton Bradley.
“I would never have suspected he’d be this good,” Bradley said at the All-Star game last month. “But nobody, probably, would have suspected I’d be here either.”
Long Beach Poly played many of its home games at Blair Field -- cool, damp and spacious Blair Field.
“He didn’t have power like this in high school,” Bradley said. “Me either. I hit two home runs.”
The scouts took notes, and they took Blair Field into account. The Montreal Expos took Bradley in the second round in 1996; he signed.
The Dodgers took Utley in the second round in 1997. He said no to the Dodgers, yes to UCLA.
Terry Reynolds, then the Dodgers’ scouting director, said Utley had agreed to sign, then took a trip to Mexico. When he returned, Reynolds said, Utley had changed his mind.
Utley said he could not remember the details of his decision to turn down the Dodgers.
“It came down to the opportunity to go to college during college age,” he said. “They said I could always go back. I wanted a normal college experience. I figured, if baseball was meant to be, there would still be that opportunity after college.”
So he headed up the 405 to UCLA, the jewel of a recruiting class that included Garrett Atkins, then of Irvine University High, now of the Colorado Rockies.
By the end of his freshman year, Utley’s defense at shortstop was so poor that the Bruins limited him to designated hitter. They moved him to second base the next year, and the rest is history, including a junior year in which he hit .382 with 22 home runs.
“He’s skinny now,” Atkins said. “He was skinnier then. He’s always had power, despite not being the biggest guy.
“But you’d never predict someone would be an All-Star in the big leagues and the best second baseman in the game.”
Utley played a good game, but he did not talk one. Fortunately for him, Freddie Mitchell did.
Mitchell was the star receiver on the football team, an occasional center fielder on the baseball team and a people magnet on Bruin Walk, and at the Playboy Mansion.
When Utley saw an attractive woman in his social policy class at UCLA, he asked Mitchell to make the introduction.
“He did know everybody,” Utley said. “He was the mayor.”
He knew Jennifer Cooper. Today, she is Mrs. Chase Utley.
Mitchell ended up in Philadelphia too. The Eagles picked him in the first round of the NFL draft, a few months after the Phillies selected Utley in the first round of the baseball draft.
For Mitchell, this did not work out so well. He told everyone how great he was -- same as he did at UCLA, with the same smile -- but he could not walk the NFL walk.
For Utley, this has worked out enormously well.
He has 31 home runs this season, one shy of his career high. He has hit more home runs, driven in more runs and scored more runs than any major league second baseman since 2005, when the Phillies traded Placido Polanco to clear the position for him.
In fan balloting for this year’s All-Star game, he got the most votes of any National League player.
“He’s a businessman without a briefcase,” Phillies coach Mick Billmeyer said. “He takes 1,000 grounders, hits early every day . . . “
Those are not the only reasons they love him here. The Phillies last year signed him to a seven-year, $85-million contract. The money was good, and so was the security, but Utley gave up four years of free agency -- almost unheard of in any major league city, and especially in this one.
This might be his one big contract. He won’t be a free agent until he’s 34. He might never get the chance to play in L.A., or anywhere else.
“I felt like we had a good corps of young guys here,” Utley said. “We were just getting started. There were good people here. I wanted to stay here as long as I could.”
In Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies have the last two winners of the NL MVP award. But Howard and the Phillies fought in salary arbitration, and the fans boo Rollins nightly after he called them “front-runners.”
So it is little wonder that the Phillies have sold more merchandise with Utley’s name than they have with the names of Howard, Rollins and All-Star pitchers Cole Hamels and Brad Lidge -- combined.
All those fans just might see their hero around town. Utley and his wife bought a condominium in the heart of the city, worked on behalf of local animal charities and even spent part of the winter here.
This so stunned the locals that Philadelphia Magazine ran a glowing feature on the Utleys with this headline, dripping with disbelief: “The Couple That Loves Us Back.”
Hamels, who grew up in San Diego, also bought a condo here. He heard all about the notorious Philadelphia fans, but after pitching here for three years, he has them figured out.
He said there are only two ways to get on their bad side.
“Play really bad,” Hamels said, “or say the wrong thing.”
There’s little chance of Utley playing really bad. No chance of him saying the wrong thing, or much of anything.
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