I Think Chase Utley Is Done

Why the second baseman might never be the same

Last year, following the Phillies’ elimination from the National League Championship Series, after I had watched, for the third straight year, Chase Utley looking like the blood had been drained from him, I pondered whether it might be a good idea to explore a trade for the second baseman.

The reasoning: It’s better to move a guy one year before he totally expires as a player rather than one year later.

The reaction to my thoughts were that I was committing sacrilege.

And here we find ourselves today in this quandary. Utley can’t play anytime soon and the worst-case scenario is that he misses the entire season. On Wednesday, the Phillies medical staff upgraded their diagnosis of Utley’s wounded knee. It went from mere “patellar tendonitis” to “chondromalacia” and “bone inflammation.” My medical people (did I really just write “my medical people”?) tell me that bone inflammation is the biggest concern. What that means is there isn’t enough cartilage to cushion the bone and that stresses it out and causes a painful condition on which a human being can’t play major league baseball.

The worst part about it is that doctors don’t really know what surgery might do to alleviate the problem. Maybe they go in there and find some loose bodies that are causing the problem and they can extract those loose bodies and Utley will be ready to play again in a month. Maybe they go in there and perform what’s called “micro fracture” surgery, where they drill small holes in the bone to spur the growth of new cartilage. Micro fracture surgery, however, is likely to make Utley miss the entire season.

Here’s my opinion: We’ve seen the best of Chase Utley.

It happens. Some athletes hit a physical wall in their careers sooner than others. Utley, in many ways, is like an NFL running back. One year, they are still productive players. The next year, they’ve got nothing left. Think Shaun Alexander. Think Brian Westbrook. Utley and his fervent style of playing baseball, has ground himself up into 80-20 ground beef. And that’s not good enough to play a professional sport.

Can the Phillies still win the pennant without Chase Utley? I think they can. Pitching is the name of the game. And even without Utley in the three hole (that place will probably be taken up by Raul Ibanez, who seemed to be comfortable there last year), the Phillies starting pitching is good enough to carry a team who’s lineup may be a bit anemic. But it does create an interesting scenario for general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his gaggle of assistants. Would the Phils try to make a major trade now to get a second baseman? Or will they piecemeal the position with the likes of Wilson Valdez, Delwyn Young, or Josh Barfield, or Pete Orr, or Michael Martinez, or any other strapper who gets released by a major league team? God, can anyone remember who the Phils second baseman was before Utley?

I just got back from a few days broadcasting at spring training and here are some random thoughts:

1. A spring training clubhouse is a fascinating thing. The locker room hierarchy is not unlike having an adults’ and kids’ table at Thanksgiving. Minor league players, or fringe players who wear the big numbers, are set down one end of the room, farthest from the doors that lead to the track, weight room, laundry room, etc. It’s almost as if there is a laser beam that divides the clubhouse. The major leagues sit with each other at a table at their end, chowing down on the daily food spread and watching the big screen television that is closest to them. The minor leaguers walk gingerly past, making no eye contact, nor conversation, with the big leagues. This is a sport in which you have to earn your stripes before being accepted. It’s a caste system very much alive.

2. Like almost every office in America, the Phils have an NCAA tournament pool where they pick teams out of a hat and ride that team through the tournament. Brad Lidge is obsessed with this pool and his modus operandi is to purchase from his teammates all the good teams they select. Lidge is a Notre Dame graduate. I explained to him that there is only one team he should purchase this year, if he doesn’t select it himself, and that’s ND. Your college is your heart. The Irish, believe it or not, have a chance to get to the Final Four this year. If Lidge goes around looking to buy Duke, or Ohio State, or Pitt, that would be a violation. At least I had him thinking. We’ll see what he does.

3. The great Dick Allen wandered through the clubhouse the other day while I was there. I played on Allen’s team many years ago in a fantasy camp in Cape May, NJ involving ex-Phillies and ex-Yankees players. I hit a double to left-center and later scored. In the dugout, Allen said, “You look like you’ve played before. That’s a good swing.“ That’s a pretty good life highlight. Some minor leaguers in the clubhouse looked at Allen like he was a guy who had just wandered in from the streets. When I explained to them that he guy was a borderline Hall of Famers, their eyes popped. “And he swung a man’s bat,” I said. “Not those twigs you guys swing now.”