Chase Utley has the corner on team leadership for the Dodgers
When the doors of the Dodgers clubhouse open every morning, the first locker that reporters pass is the one that belongs to the team elder.
The camera crews scamper in the direction of Clayton Kershaw or Kenley Jansen, Matt Kemp or Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger or Corey Seager.
Chase Utley, the elder, sits almost unnoticed in his corner of the clubhouse. This is the 30th anniversary of the Dodgers’ last World Series championship, but it also is the 10th anniversary of the Philadelphia Phillies’ last championship.
Utley, one of the most valuable players of that era, is the last position player from that Phillies team remaining in the majors. Among the fans in attendance for the 2008 World Series clincher: Mike Trout, then a local high school senior, now the most valuable player of his era.
“He left it out on the field every game,” Trout said of Utley. “You always look at guys who play hard, and I try to play hard every day. It’s how you should play the game.”
Utley is so revered in the Dodgers clubhouse that he might as well be called a player-coach. He batted .236 last season and went hitless in the postseason, and yet the Dodgers brought him back.
And, in a winter when players in their prime — Mike Moustakas, Lance Lynn and Neil Walker among them — were forced to settle for one-year contracts, the Dodgers signed Utley to a two-year deal.
He might not play out the deal. Utley said he would meet with team officials after the season and then decide whether he would play next year.
“I’m 39 years old,” he said. “I have to try to keep everything in perspective. I’d like to play two more years. That’s the goal. But I have to be realistic. I understand that’s not a 100% given.”
The Dodgers guaranteed Utley $2 million over two years.
“We just used two years as a way to bridge the financial gap,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “We played around with different scenarios and different structures, and that was the one that worked well for both sides.”
By spreading Utley’s money over two years instead of one, the Dodgers get a $1-million cushion toward their quest to avoid spending the $197 million that would trigger a luxury tax this season.
“I don’t anticipate it being that fine, but you never know,” Friedman said.
In free agency, Utley said, he got other playing offers but no coaching offers. He is at the top of the “born to be a coach” shortlist, but he says he has no interest in coaching, at least in the near future. His children are 6 and 3.
“I think, when it’s all said and done, spending a little more time with my family and my kids is something that I want to do,” he said.
“Some coaches spend more time at the field than the players do. I’m not sure that would be my calling, especially right after it’s over.”
As the conversation turned to the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl championship parade, Utley allowed himself a smile. The images of fans climbing atop utility poles and jumping off hotel awnings reminded Utley of the Phillies’ parade. At the rally that followed, Utley giddily dropped an impromptu expletive into his speech.
“The fans in Philly are just great sports fans,” he said. “They live and die with it. To be able to bring a championship to those fans makes you feel good about yourself, and appreciated.”
That, he said, is why he spurned interest from other teams and waited out the winter for the Dodgers to settle the accounting matters needed to sign him. His hometown desperately could use a parade.
“It’s an ideal fit for where I’m at in my career, having a legitimate opportunity to win and playing for a team that I grew up rooting for,” Utley said.
In 1997, when the Dodgers drafted Utley out of Long Beach Poly High, he spurned them and decided to attend UCLA. The Dodgers got closer to winning the World Series last year than they had since Utley was in high school, and, hey, better late than never.
“We had a pretty amazing year last year,” he said. “People want to focus on Game 7, and I understand that, but overall it was a great year. A great atmosphere. We learned a lot about ourselves that will only help us moving forward.”
Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna in Tempe, Ariz., contributed to this report.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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