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Chase Utley: The myth, the legend, The Man

How good do you have to be to get that basic of a nickname?

San Francisco Giants v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

There have been a lot of men in professional baseball since its inception. In fact, there’s been almost exclusively men, and as is always the case when a lot of men gather in a single place, very few of them were special or distinct in any way.

And yet, the extremely basic descriptor—”man”—has found its way into the nicknames of dozens of them throughout history. There was Wade Boggs, the “Chicken Man,” because he scarfed it down before every game. Dizzy Dean was “The Great Man,” a complex, layered reference to his overall greatness. Charlie Gehringer was “The Mechanical Man,” after his teammate on the Tigers, Lefty Gomez, said “You wind him up in the spring, set him for .330 and he goes the rest of the season that way.” Both Joe McGinnity and Cal Ripken were called “Iron Man,” McGinnity because of his affinity to pitch both games of a doubleheader; Ripken because he couldn’t be killed.

Without an adjective or characterization, “The Man” is really the most generic—and complimentary—nickname possible. In a field of men stretching back centuries, only one of them has been formally titled as such. And on Friday, the Phillies will honor Chase Utley for being “The Man.”

Harry Kalas watched a lot of baseball. A lot of it was very, very bad. He and broadcast partner Richie Ashburn were famous for letting the game tell its own story on particularly slow-moving afternoons, but it’s hard to believe that this was always a choice they were making; that they weren’t both battling their own eye lids for dominance as baseball at its most unwatchable occurred before them.

But Harry also loved baseball, and had an instinct that allowed him to recognize and narrate its special moments with unique aplomb and excitement. When he called Chase Utley “The Man” for the first time, gifting the young second baseman a nickname that will stand forever, you could hear in his voice, he (a broadcasting veteran of several decades) had been caught off guard, his words blurring together —”...Chase is gonna keep going and he’s safe at home plate!!!”—and that he knew he, and all of us, were witnessing something unique. From hitting baseballs, to fielding baseballs, to getting hit by baseballs, Chase just did everything well. And one afternoon in Atlanta, Chase scored a run on a back-stabbing, heads-up play that ended in a cloud of dust—the kind of play that Chase always seemed to be in the middle of, and in which he always seemed to come out on top.

By now, there doesn’t feel like there’s much more to say about Chase. We all know the stories. We all remember the moments. We all know the plays that construct his legacy— though, despite moving across the country to play for a different team and entering a new phase of his career, somehow he keeps adding to it.

Of course other people had a problem with Chase. That was the whole point. But he had the best possible response each time he was targeted by vengeance he’d earned or pettiness he’d also probably earned: “Okay; but I’m still better than you.” And he was.

He taught that lesson repeatedly, and chiefly while in Flushing, New York. But my personal favorite Chase moment—with the obvious caveat of “Boo? F*** you” being the default top choice—was the inside-the-park home run he hit off the Giants in 2011. I had been called over to my grandmother’s house to fix her computer, something I did not know how to do, nor did I understand why anyone believed I did. Fortunately, you can always count on grandma to have the ball game on, and that night was no exception. We listened to the Phillies take a 5-1 lead from the living room while we navigated the error screens of an obsolete machine, and then Chase came up to bat.

At this point in history, we had no idea that the Giants were going to win two more World Series championships with a combined total of three or four good players, so this moment served as a bit of catharsis for me. Having watched the Phillies lose the 2010 NLCS in the heart of the Bay Area among fans who, as I tried to explain to them, were cheering for the wrong team, I was particularly shaken to watch any subsequent Phillies-Giants match-up. This regular season game, which the Phillies won handedly, was one of the most satisfying victories I’ve ever witnessed, made even more fist-pumpingly wonderful by Chase’s superman dive into home plate.

I’ve always said Shane Victorino was my favorite Phillies player from the 2007-11 era. But I can say that because Chase, along with Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, formed such a reliable core. You could depend on Chase to hit an inside-the-park home run or try to win a World Series all by himself; you could depend on it so much that you could wind up looking right past it. Of those three players, Chase stayed productive for the longest amount of time, and in doing so, allowed people like me to root for Victorino, a less likely success story, because I knew that Chase would always be there, laying down a foundation of offense in the lineup.

It’s a lesson taught time and time again to every generation of fans: Every “Iron Man” in this sport was eventually defeated. In baseball, it’s naive to think anything will last forever.

But Chase knew how to make you feel like it could, so that we, a city of grumbling sourpusses, could believe for a second that happiness was more than a fleeting thing we felt at grandma’s house.