(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Monday's news about Chase Utley's chronic knee problems, the apparent emergence of pain in the left (previously "good" knee), and the ominous rumblings about a career cut short by injuries and pain, caused hearts and stomachs to sink throughout the Delaware Valley. Utley, the best position player on the team during the best run in franchise history, probably is not finished, but his days as an elite, 145+ games per season second baseman, almost certainly are.
I've often said that the amount of love Chase Utley received in Philadelphia was appropriate, but that he was mostly loved for all the wrong reasons. A southern California native and UCLA standout who somehow became a gritty, clutch, "blue-collar" player, endless praise has been heaped upon Utley for his hustle while comparatively little attention has been paid to his overall production which, during his peak seasons of 2007 through 2009, placed him among the likes of Albert Pujols for value to the ballclub.
Some things are unavoidable, and Utley's apparently permanent knee issues may be. We can speculate all we want about how Utley's hard-nosed style of play, insistence on being in the lineup every day, and possible down-playing of his injuries kept him from getting the rest and healing time he needed, but in the end, do we really know? Was it just genetics? We can second guess what should have or could have been done, but in the end, everything breaks down. Some bodies are just more resilient. It's possible, or probable, that this would have happened regardless.
Would this current run of Phillies team have been as great without Utley's edge and, until recently, constant presence in the lineup? Does the psychological wear and tear of playing on two bad knees become too much to handle?
It is really difficult not to get maudlin and treacly about Chase Utley, the Phillies best player since Mike Schmidt and, along with Jimmy Rollins, the core of a championship ballclub. Great players are supposed to gracefully fade away, not fall off a cliff before their accomplishments can be fully appreciated. Hopefully Utley's body will eventually allow him to return to some level of productive performance, with or without surgery, and we can catch the occasional glimpse of what once was.