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?

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There is much we don’t know about him.

Take, for instance, an incident from the fall of 2009. Chase Utley came off the field after a workout in Philly between games of the ’09 World Series—the Series in which he hit five home runs—and came upon a spread of food for players in the clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. Over the years, Chase has gotten seriously into nutrition; he stocks up at Whole Foods when the team goes on the road. So when he saw the unhealthy junk the team was offering post-workout—a table full of hot dogs and chili—he wasn’t having it. This is not a fucking big-league spread!

Suddenly, the greatest second baseman in franchise history was slopping the chili all over the place, dumping it on the floor, even hitting the walls. His teammates quickly pitched in. The hot dogs became footballs—it was a regular animal house, with Chase leading the way. Because that’s not how things should be done in the big leagues, especially not during the World Series.

In his decade in Philadelphia, we’ve certainly never seen that side of Chase Utley. As a matter of fact, what he’s really like off the field is a bit of a mystery, because he doesn’t want us to see it. We know how he plays—in baseball parlance, like a guy with his hair on fire. And for a long time, that was all we needed. That was him. All the way to declaring the Phillies world fucking champions.

You remember. After the parade down Broad Street on that beautiful October day five years ago, the team gathered on a podium at the ballpark. Chase went to the microphone in his ski cap and—can you believe this? It rolled right out of his mouth: “World fucking champions.”

The crowd roared. What more did we need?

But something has shifted. Utley was hurt the past two springs; he didn’t play at all the first half of last year or early the previous season because of knee trouble. He didn’t say much about it—just boilerplate stuff, when he was forced to talk, about trying to get healthy. The team was largely silent about him, too, as if mere medical updates on Utley were none of our business.

Such guardedness was fine when Chase Utley was blazing his way to becoming one of the finest second basemen ever. But here he is in the last year of his contract, 34 years old, with his future and the aging team’s in doubt. And now there’s a question that, after all this time, is so simple it’s strange:

Who is this guy?

His teammates think the mystery is funny. Chase, they say, is actually pretty amusing. He’s the guy who occasionally gives shortstop Jimmy Rollins the finger from behind his glove at second base. Though he’s also the guy who, if a teammate doesn’t hustle out a ground ball, will be waiting at his usual position along the dugout railing to lash the offender with a devastating look. Serious business, baseball, and his teammates say he’s their unquestioned leader—although they shake their heads and laugh about that, too, over just how intensely dialed-in Chase is.

When he told his parents and teammates and friends a couple years ago that he was going to be a father, there was a collective … Chase? So hard-boiled and so … ruled by the routines of baseball. A guy who hung with Aaron Rowand and Jayson Werth and man-about-town Pat Burrell, big-time dudes. As Rollins thought, “How will he balance that with tenderness? We don’t see a tender side.”

He’s a guy so consumed by playing that when his wife, Jen, asked him if he was worried that his troubled knees were putting his career in jeopardy, he just looked at her silently. “I got a death glare—a murderous glare,” she says. “I don’t want to see that again.”

Maybe opening the window—getting a peek at who Chase Utley really is—isn’t such a good idea. But he agrees to have lunch with me in San Francisco, where he and Jen and 16-month-old Ben live in the off-season. So I head west.

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.

Crickets?

“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.

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.

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:

WTF

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.

  • ooohh kill emm

    im gonna be able to go to his real house because my moms boss is working with chase utley and ryan howard !!

  • katy

    I’m New