Chase Utley has walked a rocky path since departing the Phillies via trade last August, transforming before our very eyes from the cheery fellow in red pinstripes always good for a smile into... something else.
Gone is the jubilant lad who for so long manned second base at Citizens Bank Park, giving daily emotional speeches, tearing up when describing his love for teammates in interviews, and entering the stands to give hugs to fans during the seventh inning stretch. Since then, somehow, he’s gained the reputation of a gruff, expressionless baseball demon who plays the game hard and doesn’t care if he’s forgiven for it.
Who is this man? The Utley I remember would run out onto the field dancing, with sparklers in both hands, Ryan Howard behind him, carrying the glove he forgot - again.
This new Chase Utley culminated in the playoffs last October, when he made himself into a human missile during a bang-bang play at second, toppling Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada with the most obvious take-out slide in baseball history, breaking Tejada’s leg and earning the ire of a lot of fans.
We Utley advocates could only agree that the slide was egregious and harmful, but point out that at the time there was no rule against it. Off the record, however, we returned to our bunks confused and afraid. Chase was clearly out of control. What if he slid right through the bedroom door while we slept, delivered a high velocity cleat to our faces, and then effortlessly vaulted out the window? Anything was possible now.
Tonight, Chase will return to Philadelphia for the first time since donning Dodger blue. Who knows if seeing his old home will bring out the charismatic ragamuffin he used to be? Because he just as likely could be the bloodthirsty base runner he is now, the crimes of whom are well documented, in front of his biggest fans. We have a lot of fun, new players we like in Philadelphia now, but what would stop Chase from “going all out” on one of them, too?
The tumultuous question was presented this morning while people were just trying to eat their bagels in peace.
let's say utley takes out franco and he's out a month. do we spontaneously combust— loctastic (@loctastic) August 16, 2016
We may have stumbled upon the thing that could make Philadelphia upset with Chase Utley.
The maddest we ever got at Chase when he was on the Phillies was when he wouldn’t tell us everything would be okay while he battled patellar tendonitis. His demeanor was respected - the real one, not the sparkly falsehoods I presented above as fact - as the baseline Philadelphia-area sports personality, the way all players were supposed to be. Fun? Exciting? Just hit the ball, people would say. Then they would get mad at Jimmy Rollins for not hustling. These are probably the same people excited to hear that soon they will be able to get Wawa delivered to the house, or shame-hole, in which they live.
When a fan base has such blind allegiance to a player, as Phillies fans do to Utley but not Rollins or Ryan Howard for some reason, it’s easy for them to perform mental gymnastics to excuse any behavior. In a way, we’re lucky Utley’s big issue was actually part of a baseball game and not an off-the-field atrocity that the team just wanted everyone to forget about. But if he were to turn his powers on the Phillies themselves, especially a player like Maikel Franco who is consistently linked to terms like “future” and “cornerstone” during a rebuild, this city may actually get... mad... at Chase Utley.
It’s difficult to imagine. There would probably be a contingent of truthers who would blame Franco for being out of position, or something. The majority, at least around here, would likely examine the hypothetical play in question objectively, then prefer not to think about it as part of Utley’s legacy. “Shove it down there,” they’d suggest, “in the same boarded up emotional subbasement in which we hide our 2011 NLDS anger at Cliff Lee.” But what if this took a serious turn? What if Franco’s leg or knee or face never fully recovered from what Utley did to him? What if we’re sitting here in ten years, sealed in our underground bunkers while the toxic gases that have consumed the earth swirl above us, arms full of babies who will never see the sun, and the debate is over how good of a player Maikel Franco would have been if only Chase Utley had pulled back a little on that slide?
Perhaps the universe would do us a favor and simply end in that moment, preventing us from having to think about this for very long. But the very real possibility is that the gritty, cleats-up baseball Chase Utley has played his whole career is coming to Philadelphia tonight, and for the first time, it will be aimed at the Phillies.