Missanelli: Chase Utley Fifth Best Player in Modern Phillies History
Chase Utley left town the other day as the fifth-best player in modern Phillies history.
Yep. Here’s what I’ve got, in this order: Mike Schmidt, Richie Ashburn, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Utley. (I apologize to Dick Allen and Del Ennis, and the older Phillies who may have been candidates, Chuck Klein and Nap Lajoie. I have no frame of reference for Chuckie and Nap.)
I’m a baseball dude. I played the game for much of my life (and still play in an adult league, which explains my recent torn meniscus and micro-fracture surgery) and was an avid student of the art of hitting. For a period of five years, I thought Chase Utley was the best hitter I had ever seen. Yes, the best hitter I had ever seen. Utley had an amazing way of staying relaxed, then violently firing that short swing. He kept his bat path in the hitting zone for a loooong time — right on the plane of the incoming pitched ball — and hit every ball on sweet spot of his maple bat.
Utley was also the strangest player I have ever covered or seen in a locker room.
I never hung with the dude, never saw how he acted in public situations, or at home with his wife Jennifer and their two small kids. But Chase was weird.
Here is my favorite Chase Utley story: As a fan of his hitting, I was watching a game on television one night when Utley flared a broken-bat single to left center field. That happens. Sometimes a hitter will get jammed on the trademark, or hit a baseball off the end of his bat, and the bat will break. The important thing is being strong enough to sling a base hit with a bat that’s not quite at its strongest.
I watched Utley take his place on first with a sour look on his face, a grimace of epic proportions. Knowing what a hitting perfectionist he was, I assumed that he was extremely disappointed that his swing was a bit late, he got jammed, and that prevented the baseball from perhaps being hit as a line drive in the gap for a double.
The next day, I wandered through the Phils clubhouse before the game to seek out Utley for a conversation on hitting. I was intrigued. I saw him at his locker and moved into action.
“Chase, that at-bat in the fifth inning last night where you broke your bat,” I began. “You got the base hit. But were you disappointed that you were a little late, and got jammed? Or was it that you broke a favorite bat?”
Utley looked at me and pondered the question. He looked away into space. And about 15 seconds later, he spoke.
“Uhh … I think it was because I broke the bat … because now I have to order some new ones,” he said.
I looked at him and there was nothing more coming. Dumbfounded, I sheepishly said, “OK. Well, good luck tonight.” And I walked away feeling I had just talked to a guy not built with flesh and blood, but wires and circuits.
In the overall scope of things, does that story matter at all? Of course not. Utley was who he was: an ultra-competitor, a fan favorite and a great player for a long period of years. He’s a top-five Phillie for me.
But where does Utley rank in the all-time pantheon of second basemen? Is he a top-10 ever of modern day second basemen? It’s close. Go through the parameters. Is Utley better than Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, or Rod Carew? No. How about Jeff Kent, Robinson Cano, Lou Whitaker or even Dustin Pedroia or Ray Durham? That’s 10 right there.
So maybe Chase Utley wasn’t a top 10 of all time.
At the end of the day, that’s not going to matter a whit to Phillies fans. For them, he may be the most popular player in team history, and that’s saying a lot.