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On Chase Utley, Kashmir, and the Phillies

East is meeting West, old is meeting new, and Chase Utley is returning to play in the old ballpark tonight, where while we might wish to believe that things are different in Philadelphia, there is the ever-present worry that the song remains the same.

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And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land Trying to find, trying to find where I've been.
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land Trying to find, trying to find where I've been.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The whole inspiration came from the fact that the road went on and on and on. It was a single-track road which neatly cut through the desert. Two miles to the East and West were ridges of sandrock. It basically looked like you were driving down a channel, this dilapidated road, and there was seemingly no end to it."

-Robert Plant, interview with journalist Cameron Crowe

Phillies fans knew the riff well, and only the most casual didn't thrill to it ever-so-slightly, and, particularly late in close games, feel the small hairs on the scruffs of their neck and forearms - and Lord knows where else, depending on your flavor of admiration for the man -  tingle a bit when the first notes thudded through the loudspeakers at Citizens Bank Park, and Phillies announcer Dan Baker said, "Now batting for the Phillies...number 26, second baseman. Chase! Utley!"

But now, with Chase Utley lost to another coast, that's all changed, as we all saw too-closely last week:

And, of course, it only got worse:

Even past his prime, Utley is a joy to watch, progressing as he must from team stalwart to bronze plaque and/or statue sometime in the future. Even former presidents have weighed in on What He Means to baseball:

With his return to Philadelphia tonight, what sense can we make of Utley? A man of few words, with an implacable Sphinx-like quality to him, why not do as the poets do, and cast about for the song he he was adamant about forcing us to listen to, with every home at bat (over 3,000 times), to the strains of a 40-year-old song:

Late last season I imagined Utley to be the loneliest man in the Phillies clubhouse before the trade deadline, a keen veteran observer of all that once was going hideously and painfully awry, baseball's version of the grizzled veteran Kat in All Quiet on the Western Front. That he demurred on explaining or changing his musical selection may have been just because well, he's an athlete and just thinks it's a rocking good song from the late 1970s. But maybe those still waters run deep. Consider:

Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been
To sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen
They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed
Talk and song from tongues of lilting grace, whose sounds caress my ear
But not a word I heard could I relate, the story was quite clear

This man, born at the zenith of the Phillies' late-20th century ascendance into perennial playoff contenders, hearkened us back into that crazy first era of major sports team ascendancy and championships and personality DJs battling it out for morning show ratings on WMMR and WYSP's classic rock formats in the Philadelphia air, air also filled with the mad scrambles to the suburbs, leaving a kind of desperate low-grade fever of a recession by the early 1980s that the city never really has broken.


It is now late 2016, and despite the remarkable roster turnover that Phillies fans have witnessed over the last 12 months, it's also remarkable how much has remained implacably the same in the background of the lives of Philadelphians beyond Ashburn Alley, sports or otherwise. Consider not just wins and losses, or new stadiums, or the Center City skyline, but behind that, like the soundtrack and the DJs who play it, the songs really remain the same.

It takes an Alumni Weekend to make it all so palpable, but after all that Jim Thome fun was done, let's keep in mind: Bill Giles is still around. Dallas Green: still around. Schmidt, Luzinski: still around. Hell, Ed Wade is still around. Larry Bowa: still around in a way that he will not die, but instead meld himself atomically to the Phillies bench over the next 30 years until we notice he's not there. This is an organization that prides itself on loyalty to the point where its culture reeks of insularity, whether you like it or not.


Had science somehow been able to intervene, as God is my witness Paul Owens would still be the G.M. of this club, and but for a small minority of circle-jerking baseball math freaks and poets on the Internet, we would all be just fine with that, because that same science would have kept Harry Kalas and Whitey in the booth too, and that's a pretty damn good trade, all things considered.

And Utley saw all that, alone in his video-analytic lair that few of his teammates seemed to ever really have had much need for. He saw his own era crumbling, and watched it all, as former doormats employed their own newfangled methods to grind these not-yet-ready-for-prime-time Phillies into mush.

Oh, I been flying... mama, there ain't no denyin'
I've been flying, ain't no denyin', no denyin'
All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground
And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land
Trying to find, trying to find where I've been.
Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream
Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin' through Kashmir.
Oh, father of the four winds, fill my sails, across the sea of years
With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear

We won't hear that song anymore at Phillies games, though they might give us all a little thrill these next few nights, a kiss on the cheek from your old beau who moved to L.A., lost weight, and looks fabulous. Maybe it is past time, it has always been time, to reveal this catchy zeitgeist tune as the fraud it is. No, not of the felonious sort that brays on Twitter in a freakish sideshow, but at its base level: intellectually, for what should be of worth in its design and execution is not at all what it seems. "Kashmir" itself, paints a picture that was inspired in this southern Moroccan landscape:


Though the title of the song points us to a land that looks more like this:


And so it is with the Phillies. As the classic rock stations gradually tip in songs recorded after, say, 1990, so too do the Phillies dabble in sabremetrics. The straits of fear, indeed, hold them back, of that I am convinced, so we can anticipate tacks into headwinds as these progress, because mostly, well, Philadelphia.

And though the Phillies' pockets appear to be stuffed with the cable-televised cash of a generation, two disquieting thoughts emerge: 1) it takes a lot of money to journey to either one of the places pictured above, and they're both dangerous: and 2) cable television is probably in a lot of long-term trouble.

When I'm on, when I'm on my way, yeah
When I see, when I see the way, you stay-yeah
Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, when I'm down...
Ooh, yeah-yeah, ooh, yeah-yeah, well I'm down, so down
Ooh, my baby, oooh, my baby, let me take you there
Let me take you there. Let me take you there

If you follow the minors, the challenge in these past few years has been how to make sense of watching the remarkable restocking of the Phillies' system. Read the daily discussions in the comment threads of our wonderful minor league updates, there's this undercurrent of worry. The Phillies have a tremendous team in Reading this year, and Lehigh Valley doesn't suck, and really the latter of those two statements, if you've followed the Phillies' minors for any amount of time, is remarkable in and of itself. It's clear there are a lot of guys who can likely play in the majors, but will they be any good? Will they take us there?


Tonight at Citizens Bank Park, East is meeting West, old is meeting new, and Chase Utley is returning to play in the old ballpark tonight, where while we might wish to believe that things are different in Philadelphia, there is the ever-present worry that the song remains the same.