It is the top of the seventh inning on a hot August afternoon in Atlanta. The Phillies’ second baseman is standing on second base after giving the away team a 5-3 lead on a bases loaded, bases clearing one out double…clutch. He leans over, puts his hands on his knees and attempts to catch his breath in the humid summer air when, just a moment later, he hears a faint *crack* off the bat of Ryan Howard as the ball chops high in the air down the first base line. Braves’ pitcher Macay McBride nonchalantly jogs off the mound to field the ball and lazily flips it to first base to record the out. But the second baseman is still running. And he’s running hard. “HE’S GOING!” the Atlanta dugout yells as they try to warn Braves’ first baseman Scott Thorman in time before the runner reaches home. “He’s going?!” color announcer Chris Wheeler says in disbelief as the Phillies’ second baseman rounds third and takes off for home, running like his hair is on fire. Thorman looks up and delivers a perfect throw to the catcher just as the runner slides into home. “SAFE,” the umpire emphatically signals as the runner pops up and calmly, coolly walks over to the away dugout where his teammates greet him with high-fives and “thatta boys”. Harry Kalas cannot believe what he has just witnessed and, for a moment, lets his fandom get the better of his unwavering professionalism: “Chase Utley, you are the man!”
That was it. On that day in August of 2006, that was the moment Chase Utley became a fixture in the culture of Philadelphia sports. The game itself wasn’t all that special. The Mets had a stranglehold on the NL East “race” that they would never relinquish and a chance at a Wildcard spot seemed like a long shot for the Phillies, who held a .500 record coming into the Atlanta series. But Utley played this game just as he had in all the games leading up to that point and he played it with the type of intensity that would come to define his legacy as a professional baseball player.
What makes an athlete beloved in a city like Philadelphia? Guys like Brian Dawkins, Reggie White, Allen Iverson, Julius Irving, Bobby Clarke, Bernie Parent, Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt; what makes them stand above the rest? Today, Utley takes his place in this list of legends and one day, the number 26 will be retired next to 20 and 32. But what puts Utley on The List? It’s too obvious to point to the fact that all of these players are, or will eventually be, in the Hall of Fame. Eric Lindros will be in the Hall of Fame one day. Is he as loved as Clarke? Donovan McNabb is unquestionably the greatest quarterback in Eagles’ history (stop it, yes he is). Why isn’t he as appreciated as Dawkins? We can’t say that a championship gets a player into the Philadelphia Beloved Hall of Fame either, as there are several revered Philly athletes that never won a ring here. All of the players I mentioned had one thing in common: an unrelenting, impassioned, obsessive desire to win. I’m not saying McNabb and Lindros didn’t want to win at all costs but when we all watched Utley bust it down the first base line on two bad knees every single night, that resonates with us more than playing air guitar in the Dallas tunnel or publicly feuding with the general manager and turning a season into a soap opera.
As Utley said in his going-away press conference Wednesday night, we could sit here for hours reminiscing about all of the unforgettable moments he has given us over the past decade. The fake throw to first, put out at home in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series. The five-home run effort in the 2009 World Series, tying Reggie Jackson’s legendary record. The 35-game hit streak that still ranks tenth in MLB history. The inside-the-park home run against the Giants and that look on his face as he rounded the bases, a look that said “I’m making this even if I have to run through the catcher.” “Boo? Fuck you” and “World Fucking Champions”. Personally, one of the memories that will last with me involved the benches-clearing “brawl” (zero punches thrown) against the Giants in the 2010 NLCS. As Utley runs down the first baseline after getting plunked by a Jonathan Sanchez fastball, he tosses the ball back to the mound. Sanchez did not like this. As a stare-down commenced, the camera focused on Utley who’s standing on first, hands on his hips and giving that infamous glare and he mouths, “What’s bullshit?”. Utley takes a few steps towards the mound and, after two seconds, thinks better of it and gives Sanchez a dismissive wave of the hand and walks back to first as if to say, “I don’t have time for this shit. Just play baseball.” That small gesture defines Utley’s mentality as a player and it’s what makes him so incredibly adored in this city. He just wants to play a sport that he loves and he wants to play it to the very best of his ability. There will be an infinite number of words that will be written and said about Utley in the coming days, but he himself is a man of few words. I think we can all agree on one simple message that we’d like to send to The Man: Thanks, Chase.