AS FIRST DATES GO, it wasn’t the stuff of storybook romance. Jen Cooper, an artsy dance major at UCLA, was just back from a year studying in Italy. One day after class, a friend of Jen’s — someone who would go on to achieve Philly sports infamy — approached her: “Hey, Jen,” said campus football star Freddie Mitchell, soon to be a much-derided Eagle. “Can you give me and my friend a lift back to the dorms?”
The friend was another Philly sports star in waiting, Chase Utley. After the ride, Freddie called Jen. “What did you think of my friend?” he asked.
“It was so fourth-grade,” Jen remembers today, sitting in a secluded back booth at Oceanaire with her husband, 29-year-old Phillies slugger Chase Utley, cringing as they reminisce on the beginnings of the long, strange journey that has made them the city’s most atypical reigning sports star and first lady in recent memory. When Chase called, an arrangement was made: They’d hang out. At the library.
“She had to go there, and I said I’d come along,” Chase recalls, taking a pull of his beer and turning to his wife. “I can’t remember why you had to go to the library.”
“Um, maybe because I was, like, in college?” Jen says.
“Yeah, I can’t lie,” Chase says, smiling sheepishly. “That was my first time in the UCLA library.”
“Yeah — as a junior,” she says, breaking them both up.
By her own admission, Jen Utley, 30, never saw herself dating, let alone marrying, a jock. But then she met Chase, who was as quiet and self-effacing — in a deadpan, ironic way — as she is outgoing, and smart. Most of all, he shared her love for animals. His mom worked for a veterinarian. He’d grown up in Long Beach, California, with dogs, cats, birds, an iguana, a turtle and a rabbit. A romance sparked, surviving four years of bicoastal dating while Chase slogged away in the minor leagues; it even survived trips to Batavia, New York, when Chase was in the New York-Penn League.
“The big attraction there was the Jell-O museum, and there was one restaurant besides Wendy’s open past 10,” Jen recalls. “They had a bay shrimp cocktail on the menu for 99 cents. He ordered it.”
“You did. I said, ‘Don’t get that — it’s 99 cents.’”
“I don’t remember that,” Chase says, shrugging. “It must have been good.”
Now it’s three All-Star games and one seven-year, $85 million contract later, and Jen and Chase Utley are — unlike so many sports icons — still resolute about, as Jen puts it, “having a life where you are.” The 99-cent shrimp cocktails have been replaced by meals at Osteria and Amada, and they’ve bought a luxury condo in Center City. Most importantly, struck by the fact that Philadelphia is one of the worst cities in America when it comes to animal cruelty, they’ve launched a crusade to raise money and awareness to save Philly animals from torture and abuse. Unlike so many athletes, Chase Utley is no hired-gun mercenary, here to hit baseballs and live his real life elsewhere. “You can’t shut down your life for six months a year,” Jen says.
JERRY SEINFELD HAS A great routine about the absurdity of professional sports. The athletes, he says, aren’t from, and don’t really live in, the cities they represent. “So you’re rooting for a shirt,” he says. “We’re cheering for laundry.” There’s ample proof of Seinfeld’s proposition locally. Allen Iverson, for instance, instead of engaging Philadelphia, brought his world with him, hunkering down with his friends and relatives in a succession of Main Line compounds. Many of the Flyers rent, predominantly in Voorhees, and are long gone once their season ends. Ditto for the Eagles, with the exception of Jon Runyan, who can often be seen at local charity events or hanging at Vesuvio in Bella Vista.