Chase Utley gets high praise from Dodgers teammates in wake of retirement announcement
Kike Hernandez chugged into second base wearing his Miami Marlins jersey and turned to Chase Utley, then the aging star second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. This was a man Hernandez watched when he was growing up, a player he sought to emulate. He greeted Utley and was met with silence.
“He just stared at me,” Hernandez said of the 2014 incident. “He mean-mugged me.”
When Hernandez smiled to lift the awkwardness, Utley remained stoic. If anything, Hernandez remembers, his smile made Utley upset.
“So I thought Chase was a total (expletive),” Hernandez said.
He said it with a laugh because of how ridiculous it sounds now, after three-plus years of playing for the Dodgers together. Because of how much Hernandez has learned from Utley over those seasons. Because of how difficult it is to imagine not playing with Utley anymore after he announced he’ll retire at the end of the 2018 season.
Back when Utley was traded to the Dodgers in 2015, Hernandez consulted then-Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who spent 12 seasons with Utley in Philadelphia. He told Rollins the story about Utley ignoring him at second base, and just like Hernandez did Saturday, Rollins laughed.
“That’s the same Chase I know,” he told Hernandez. “Just wait until he gets here. You’re gonna love him from the first day.”
It took awhile for Hernandez to get used to Utley, but his preparation and ability to remain calm under pressure endeared him to his new team.
Dodgers infielder Max Muncy said the preparation is the first thing that jumps out about Utley. There’s no one else, he explained, who puts in as many hours reviewing opposing pitchers. And his studious approach to the game can be contagious.
Muncy is 12 years younger than Utley, so like Hernandez, he grew up watching Utley’s golden years with the Phillies. Utley was a five-time All-Star from 2006-2010 and a four-time silver slugger winner during that span.
Muncy remembers how Utley’s swing almost looked like a hoax. Like there was some witchcraft behind his ability to hit home runs while appearing to half-swing. Couple his individual success with the Phillies’ 2008 World Series title, and the result is a player who, to younger Dodgers, is a childhood icon.
“Pretty much everyone on my teams growing up wanted to be Chase Utley,” Muncy said. “He was one of the best players there was.”
“He’s the greatest I’ve ever been around,” outfielder Joc Pederson said.
Hernandez tried to absorb as much as he could in the offseason as well.
“I started forcing my way under his wing toward the end of last season,” he explained.
They spent nearly every day of the offseason working out together. Hernandez said Utley changed the way he eats. The way he prepares. The way he thinks.
One of the biggest lessons he’s learned from Utley is about toughness. During his retirement announcement Friday, Utley brought up how he was raised to brush off aches and pains and bruises when you get hit by a pitch, or for any other reason.
That includes ridicule from fans, as Hernandez observed when the team traveled to Flushing to face the Mets in the 2015 National League Division Series. As the team stood on the foul line for pregame introductions, their faces were displayed on the video board at Citi Field.
Mets fans were well-acquainted with Utley following his years with the Phillies, so the camera lingered on him a little longer than his teammates.
“People were booing from the bottom of their hearts,” Hernandez said, “and he didn’t even flinch. Obviously they had a good reason for it, but that was pretty awesome, and it shows you who he is.”
Ever since Utley signed a two-year, $2-million contract in February, Hernandez said he’s given him a hard time about it. Both of them knew, though never discussed, the fact that he was unlikely to make it through the duration. Whenever Hernandez brought it up, Utley laughed.
Now it was Hernandez who was laughing about his memories of Utley.
It’s funny, he admitted, to reflect on that moment after all of Utley’s help. But it’s not the first thought that comes to mind with his retirement approaching.
No, the first thought Hernandez has is how much Utley’s impact will be felt once he’s gone.
“If I end up having a pretty successful career,” Hernandez said, “whether he likes it or not, he’s going to have something to do with it.”
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