All of his colors are sharp on a crystalline January weekday at noon: dark blue Adidas jacket, black shades folded into the zipper, even the grays of his running shorts and wool ski cap crisp. His skin is very white, the soul patch below his lower lip is gray-blond, and his eyes—the eyes that I’ve been warned can turn on me—are translucent blue. Chase Utley smiles.
He has just worked out at a gym in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, and at the Grove’s counter, he orders the same thing he always orders: chicken avocado chili. They know. The man of routine comes here every day for lunch.
We sit and talk about his knees as we wait for our food—he tells me they’re feeling very good. His morning workouts, about five days a week, involve a whole range of stuff, he says. “What I’ve been doing has evolved over the past year and a half, trying to find something that works for me. … ” With that, Chase is off, into the physiological obsession that the lives of athletes—especially injured athletes—become.
There’s an immediate surprise, though: Chase is easy and pleasant. Many opposing players and some sportswriters characterize him as sullen and difficult, which Jen—that death glare notwithstanding—finds amusing. “He’s the least moody person I’ve ever met,” she says. “He’s always in a good mood.”
These days, there’s a reason to be. Chase says he feels better than he has in years, thanks to that new workout plan. Off-season, it entailed not only morning routines for strength and flexibility, but afternoons doing baseball drills at the University of San Francisco—hitting, running, ground balls. The idea was to keep those knees working like they’ve got to work all summer, keep them acclimated to the jerky movements of the game.
Chase and Jen spend off-seasons just across the Golden Gate Bridge, where she grew up. They own a place in Baja, too. Chase has gotten into golf—he plays right-handed; he does everything right-handed except hit baseballs. They like to travel in the off-season, though not this year—rehab was front and center.
All this is quite low-key. Chase’s reputed fire, however, lurks, and it doesn’t take much to stoke it. I ask him about a Sports Illustrated poll of fellow big leaguers taken two years ago; he was voted the second meanest player in the game. (First was A.J. Pierzynski, then with the White Sox.) Does that bother him?
“No,” he says. “No. No. Nor should it. Nor should it at all. … I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘If you’re having fun, smile.’ I’m having a blast. As long as I’m on the field, I’m having a great time. … Jimmy [Rollins] does a good job of smiling and laughing. I don’t know how he can laugh out on the field.” There’s too much to do out there. And there’s too much at stake.
Winning: It’s the goal every athlete invokes, but with Chase it feels different. His agent, Joel Wolfe, says that Chase goes into “lockdown mode” during the season. Wolfe doesn’t talk to him much once the games begin. Wolfe says the Phillies become Utley’s family. Which is the same level of devotion he expects from his teammates.
Aaron Rowand—the ex-Phillie who once proudly smashed his face into the fence at Citizens Bank Park catching a fly ball—says that Chase is the most intense guy he’s ever seen on a baseball field.
“The Whip”—that’s what pitcher Cole Hamels calls him, and it’s something they all agree on. Rowand would watch Chase give the stare-down to, say, Shane Victorino when he wasn’t hustling. Sometimes Chase doesn’t say a word. Other times it’s a simple, “If you don’t want to play, get out of the game.” To which Shane Victorino, hurt and groping, would say, “I better never see you slacking.” Which was pretty funny. Chase, slacking? It’s why the stare is almost always enough. The Whip.
After Rowand signed with the Giants a few years ago, he hit a double against the Phils that prompted a pitching change and an easy opportunity for him to chat with Chase for a minute at second base. “But it was crickets instead,” Rowand says.
“Like being in the woods and you go to say something and nobody is there,” Rowand explains. Because Utley, one of his closest friends, wouldn’t acknowledge his presence. Rowand was a Giant now.
I ask Chase about something unrelated: his reputation for getting on sportswriters for asking the wrong questions. Even if a reporter is talking to another player, Utley might weigh in—That’s a motherfucking stupid question—according to a writer who covered the team for several years.
When he first got to the Phillies, Utley explains, the relationship between the team and the media wasn’t good. “There were stories being created that shouldn’t be, that created turmoil in the clubhouse,” Utley says, “which translated to the field.”
So even that is about winning. “I don’t mind being the asshole,” he says. He doesn’t mind telling a reporter, that is, to shut up, to get lost. If it helps the team.
He is a man in a hurry. Right after the Phillies won the World Series in ’08, Utley called Wolfe and left a message: “My hip is fucked up. I’m going to Africa for two weeks”—on a safari with Jen, their honeymoon that had been delayed by his signing a seven-year deal with the team in early 2007—“and I want you to find the best fucking surgeon to fix my fucking hip. I’ll go anywhere.” Indeed, Wolfe had recently watched Utley barely able to walk up and down stairs, holding the railing like an old man, and when he’d asked him about it, Utley gave his agent that look: There are still games to be played.