The Real Chase Utley

After two injury-marred seasons that had even his wife wondering if his career was finished, the most admired Phillie of his era says he's back to being his old self. Which raises the question: Who is that, exactly?

Denny Mayfield could see him peeking out through his front window. Little Chase lived across Ashbrook Avenue in Long Beach—a middle-class enclave of ranchers. He was about six years old, a spritz of a kid, an intense watcher. Denny told his son Dane, a year younger than Chase, to knock on the door and see if Chase wanted to play. The game was wiffle ball.

Even then, Chase’s swing was fast. Which was good, because Denny would stand some 20 feet away and fire. “Show me what you got,” Denny would demand. Other neighborhood kids started coming; grown-ups would watch from their porches.

Chase was still shy, a little timid. But that ended fast—the game brought something else out of him. You were out if Denny hit you with the ball before you made it to a certain tree. He threw hard, too—the kids would get welts. You could yell “Mercy” so Denny wouldn’t throw at you, though that meant you were out. Chase never did.

Somebody would always cry, and Denny would make that kid sit on his porch until he calmed down. But Chase never did that, either, though he would slide into that tree-base like it was a lifeline. Even his sister Taylor, seven years younger, has never seen Chase cry. Never.

“I’ve never seen him get that emotional about anything,” she says. “He’s always been pretty calm and composed.” And wickedly impish, even as a kid. Chase and Taylor came home from school one day and Otto, their pet tortoise, had flipped over and baked to death in the sun. Taylor freaked out. “It’s going to be okay,” her big brother told her. Really? she sniffed. How? “Tonight we can have turtle soup.”

He was the kind of kid who kept moving, and he still can’t sit still. Chase never melts into a book. Even on vacation, he’s got to get a massage or work out or hit golf balls. Do something.

If he needed to work off some steam as a kid, Chase would hit the local batting cages. His parents, Dave and Terrell, would spot him 20 bucks, drop him off, tell him to call when he was done. But he wouldn’t call. Finally, Dave would go get him—and there Chase would be, behind the counter working the popcorn machine, or sweeping up balls, in order to get more hitting time.

It took a while for it to sink in—how good he was getting. Dave, a lawyer and once a decent schoolboy athlete himself, wondered if Chase would be able to play in high school. As high-school stardom kicked in, Dave wondered if maybe baseball would grease the skids to c­ollege—Chase was an indifferent student.

A “dorky-punk” guy, his sister Taylor remembers, whose first car in high school was a ’69 Volkswagen Squareback. He proceeded to get it lowered and put two 12-inch woofers in so he could blast Dr. Dre and Tupac and the Dove Shack’s “Summertime in the LBC” all over Long Beach on his way to school in the morning. The low-key silent guy who didn’t give a fuck, which is his favorite word. Maybe that explains the soul patch.

But the skinny punk was also getting bigger and stronger, blasting balls out of Long Beach’s big-league-sized Blair Field, through the heavy night air near the ocean. In the beginning of Chase’s senior season, Dave was sitting with the coaches at the kickoff sports banquet, and the coaches were talking about Chase getting drafted in the first round by some big-league team. “As if it was a fait accompli,” Dave remembers. “I’m like, what? Are you guys insane?” Chase was drafted by the Dodgers in the second round. “That was the moment the world suddenly expanded,” Dave says.

Chase had a decision to make. The Dodgers were prepared to offer him some half a million dollars. Should he take it, leap right to pro ball, or go to college first and then go pro? He agonized privately, then, in typical Chase offhand fashion, came in the back door of his home the Friday night before he had to decide and announced to his parents, “I’ve decided not to.” Not to sign. He was going to UCLA; the Phillies drafted him after his junior year.

Dave Utley thinks it all started across the street, during those wiffle-ball games: “He found something he loved to do more than anything else. And I honestly believe a big part of Chase’s toughness as a player, and the foundation of his competitiveness, began right there.” With Denny Mayfield firing wiffle balls at him.