The Real Chase Utley
Back home in Long Beach last spring, Dave and Terrell Utley were worried. Chase, who was in Clearwater with the Phillies, had clammed up; he wasn’t answering their texts. They didn’t know what was going on beyond what everyone did: that Chase wasn’t playing for the second spring in a row. Even Jen didn’t know much besides what was in the media—that his knees were bothering him. Dave called Joel Wolfe, Chase’s agent. Wolfe said Chase was more frustrated than he’d ever seen him.
“One of us has to go,” Terrell told Dave.
Dave took a red-eye to Clearwater on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day and went right to the ballpark, but the game was sold out and he couldn’t get in. So Dave had a guy take his picture with the ballpark behind him, and he texted it to Chase. The text back was quick, seeing as Chase wasn’t playing:
Shit happens when you don’t call your dad, Dave texted back. Chase had a Phillies attendant get Dave into the ballpark.
At dinner after the game, Chase and Dave had a few drinks; Chase had been doing research and had a plan: He was going to Arizona to essentially realign his lower body. Chase’s leg bones—the tibias and femurs—weren’t properly aligned, which put stress on his knees and caused a great deal of pain under the kneecaps. But this Arizona trainer could work on Chase’s hips and ankles and feet to get those leg bones in synch.
Dave and Terrell felt much better. Jen, meanwhile, was just realizing how serious this was. She was home alone with Ben, three months old, and Chase is lousy on the phone. Everything is good—that’s his go-to answer. Facing trouble, he’s a lone wolf.
In the Phils clubhouse, though, the frustration was palpable. “You could see it in his face,” Cole Hamels says. “More than anyone can measure, he wants to be out there.”
Leaving the club for rehab in Arizona wasn’t easy. For one thing, GM Ruben Amaro had to be convinced it was a good idea. The team naturally wants its own medical staff to fix medical problems; it’s risky to invest tens of millions in players and then let them go off and find their own solutions.
But Utley and Wolfe worked Amaro hard. They’d left no stone unturned, trying to figure out the problem. Surgery had a low chance of success. Option two was to stay in Florida and stay stuck in neutral—that’s how Chase looked at it, anyway. Or he could get aggressive and take the risk of reworking the lower half of his body, an approach some medical people were highly skeptical about. Even if Brett Fischer, the physical therapist in Arizona, has worked with other pros like tennis’s Roger Federer and New York Jet Darrelle Revis. Also longtime Eagle Donovan McNabb.
Amaro finally gave his blessing to Chase leaving the team for six weeks, which speaks to Chase’s standing with his GM. And just how hard it is to say no to him.
In Arizona, Fischer had a question for Chase while he was working out:
“Was your dad in the military?”
For a while there was no answer. Then: “No.”
Another long pause as Chase kept lifting weights. Then he said: “Why do you ask?”
“Because,” Fischer said, “you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.”
On pure athletic ability, Fischer ranks Chase right up there—he could have played defensive back in the NFL, or pro hockey or basketball, any sport he’d chosen. And Fischer says Chase might be more intense than anybody he’s ever worked with. “He had me videotape his lunges and squats and email them to him,” Fischer marvels, “so that he could analyze them. That’s not typical.” Dave Utley worked out one day with Chase in San Francisco this winter and watched his son grimace through a deep-tissue massage on his legs that lasted for 40 minutes, the sort of commitment that sometimes leaves him glassy-eyed in pain.
One day a few months ago, Chase came home with a videotape he wanted to show Jen of his workout, which was also unusual. To her, it looked like a kid doing hopscotch, no big deal. You don’t understand, Chase told her. I haven’t been able to do that with no pain for three years.
It’s a wrenching crossroads for all professional athletes, of course, that time when they can no longer do the thing they’ve been working their entire lives to perfect. And it hits just as other people are moving into the prime of their professions—at 40. If they’re lucky enough to last that long.
But the real kick in the teeth is what a pro doesn’t see coming. When it ends too soon. When his body breaks down early.
“It’s been hard to watch the last two years,” Jen Utley says of Chase not being able to play. “When you see him staring out of the dugout in full uniform, he looks like a lost puppy.”
At lunch in San Francisco, I broach the don’t-go-there question. I ask Chase how worried he was that it was all over.
I don’t get a death glare—he’s too careful and polite for that.
But there’s a pause, and he takes a deep breath. So I know that anything he says after that, about all the work that went into figuring out the problem and moving forward and how good he feels, merely reinforces the point. That he shoved aside the terror of losing the thing he was born to do.
Chase has a thing for animals. Especially dogs—he takes his pit bull, Jack, to the ballpark at least once a home stand. I bring up Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, because I know Chase and Jen are big into animal rights. I think Vick, who spent almost two years in prison for raising dogs to fight, has reformed, but Chase doesn’t want me to print his opinion of him. I won’t, I tell him.
“And if you do,” Chase Utley tells me, “I will find you.”
Is he serious? He gives me a hint, just a hint, of a smile.
Those who know him well say, oh yeah, that’s Chase, that’s his impish side. He loves to play the hard guy in the clubhouse, and just at the moment when he gets you quaking, he claps you on the back and wanders off with that little grin.
But mostly, Utley is up to some serious business. A few years ago, he made the last out of a game with the tying run on second base, and Ruben Amaro went down to the dugout afterward to see him sitting alone, so upset with himself that he seemed to be quite literally pulling his hair out. Amaro let him be, let him stew in his own trouble, but thought, Jesus Christ, he’s not going to make it through the year. Amaro knows, though, that Utley won’t change.
A guy this intense—what can he possibly do to fill the void once he’s done playing? Even if those knees have come around, the end isn’t far off.
Chase himself freely admits he assumes he’ll be bored when he’s done playing.
But it turns out he’s already found both an escape and a new obsession. The doubts about whether Chase could flourish as a father, given his monomania for baseball, have been squelched. In fact, Jen and his parents are amused at how Chase is the protective parent, concerned about every aspect of Ben’s well-being. And when I have lunch with Chase, he tells me a story of bringing Ben to bed with him and Jen early that morning—and how when Chase got up, his 16-month-old started searching for him under their sheet, as if Dada must be playing hide-and-seek.
Chase ends his story slightly embarrassed, as if he suddenly realizes he’s talking to a writer. “Anyway, I thought it was cute,” he says.
I laugh—it’s so clearly a new dimension of the same guy. Old teammate Aaron Rowand will later tell me, “Everything that guy does, it’s in the right fashion,” and “He takes every single detail seriously.” Rowand is talking baseball, of course, but now Utley is taken with the details of another endeavor.
That’s the way he’s built, to drill deep, to zero in only on what really matters to him. This winter, he’d come home in the evenings exhausted after working out all morning and playing baseball in the afternoon, and it was all he could do to get in time with Ben and Jack and take in an episode of Homeland with Jen. His life can seem simple. Jen bugs him to read more. Sorry, no time. He’s too busy.
And don’t expect fatherhood to mellow Chase. With the window on this aging team—and Utley’s own career—closing, Joel Wolfe says that a healthy Utley is ready to ride the team hard: “Papa’s back in town.” Indeed, Amaro says one of the problems in letting Chase leave the Phillies to rehab in Arizona last spring was losing his presence in the locker room. This year, the Whip will be back for the duration.
Utley, of course, can’t wait. Amaro remarks on how downright sunny he seems this spring. Smiling Chase. It’s maybe the last summer we have to watch him drive the team.
Though regardless of what happens—whether Chase regains his form, whether the team gets back into contention—Dave and Terrell will still have their African gray parrot, the one they have taught to say something profound: world fucking champions.