Schmidt: Utley is best player in baseball

For the Associated Press

Editor's Note: Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hit 548 home runs and was a 12-time All-Star before retiring in 1989. A three-time NL MVP, the third baseman was MVP of the 1980 World Series when the Phillies won their only championship.


If you're a baseball fan, you know Chase Utley as the best player in the game right now.

Bold statement, huh? Well, he's among the major league leaders in many offensive categories this season, as he was the past few years. And this is a second baseman, mind you.

Last year, his Phillies double-play partner, Jimmy Rollins, won the NL MVP award. Not because he outpolled the Rockies' Matt Holliday, but because Utley broke his hand and missed a month.

Utley was the MVP at that point and came back, after missing 100 at-bats, to finish with 22 homers and 103 RBIs while hitting .332. He was in the thick of the NL East race against the Mets down the stretch, which the Phils won.

Fact! Chase Utley is a "diamond rat."

To be a "rat," an endearing term to an athlete, means you are consumed by the game. Basketball has the "gym rat," a kid who lives in the gym with his basketball. Every free moment he's working his game -- hundreds of jump shots, free throws, drills, in most cases in quiet solitude, as he enjoys being by himself.

Chase is baseball's version, generally early to the park, where the routine starts. He's quiet, but aware of his teammates and interacts as needed. He steadily works into his daily pregame schedule, studying video and moving to the batting tee and soft toss in the cages.

This routine seldom varies. He's not unique in this, as most players today have a similar physical pregame regimen, but my sense is that Chase is not only grooving a swing, but a plan of attack for that particular night, not just going through the motions of batting cage repetition, but seeing the game before it's played.

Therein is the difference.

When I went off to be alone before batting practice, with the tee and a bucket of balls, I rehearsed in my mind what I would see at 7 p.m. I would visualize myself in the box, I'd see myself reacting to pitches, establishing in my mind positive images as I hit balls off the tee.

More importantly, I was visualizing pitch sequences from that night's pitchers, so there were no surprises. This is only a "rat" approach, and over the years there have been a select few of us "rats" -- Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor and George Brett would be in the Rat Patrol.

Many would say about me that I made the game too complicated, that I could have had a longer, more enjoyable career had I not become burnt out from overanalysis. My take is that my "rat" mentality was just a byproduct of my passion for baseball -- it helped my team win more games and ultimately, got me to the Hall of Fame.

I was possessed with my responsibility and accountability, as the central figure in our offense. If I didn't make outs, we'd most likely score enough to win. That responsibility I didn't talk about much, but understood everyday.

Chase is the same.

Like me, he has great hitters around him. Rollins and Shane Victorino setting up the table. Ryan Howard, though off to a slow start this year, and Pat Burrell behind him. Legitimate No. 4 and No. 5 hitters, and there's Geoff Jenkins and Pedro Feliz following them (credit general manager Pat Gillick).

You talk about the "catbird's seat," hitting third is a big responsibility. You must be all of the above -- a tablesetter, run producer and gamebreaker, and that's what Utley has become.

And as a bonus, he's run stopper defensively. He comes to the park to beat you. He'll "take one" for the team anytime -- often does -- but refuses to wear an unmanly elbow pad, like a few names we won't mention.

In a recent game against the Mets, he was hit three times and trotted to first, satisfied knowing he had created scoring opportunities, unlike so many hitters who need to make a scene after being plunked.

Remember, he faces an unusual amount of left-handed pitchers, as opposing managers know they must neutralize him and Howard to beat the Phillies.

Defensively, it was once said Utley wouldn't have a position, that his arm was too weak and his hands were average. Ha! He and Rollins are the best, maybe ever -- for sure if you count offense.

I'll never forget last year when Randy Johnson started a game in Philly. Howard was given a rest, as is the custom for lefty hitters on that day, but who hit cleanup? Mr. Utley, of course, because Charlie Manuel knows and respects his mental toughness.

What a time to be a baseball fan in Philadelphia. It might be better than the late '70s and early '80s, only time will tell.

One thing for sure, though: No matter how it comes out, considering what baseball has been through over the last 10 years, isn't it a breath of fresh air to know that a player like Chase Utley is leading us to a new era?

Watch him and the Phils this year, you'll see what I mean. I'll be watching.

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