The night before he officially proclaimed this current season to be his last, Chase Utley did another one of those things that have kept him hanging around. With two on and one out in a tight game, he saw an inside pitch coming but did not move. Or, rather, he did not move away. He took the pitch off a knee, jogged to first base, and then watched his team tack on a couple of crucial extra runs in a one-run win.
After the game, the man who delivered the pitch declared to a local reporter that Utley alone was responsible for the outcome. He definitely stuck his knee out, Padres righthander Craig Stammen said. But then he struck a more conciliatory tone.
“He’s an old-school player,” the pitcher told the Union-Tribune. “I respect how he plays the game.”
That Utley chose the following afternoon to announce his retirement from the game seems fitting. Lurking beneath his dirt-stained pinstripes and give-no-damns demeanor was a subtle poetry, an appreciation for the magnitude of moments and a subtle feel for the actions that would most heighten the drama. From his stare-down with Jonathan Sanchez in Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS to the takeout slide of Ruben Tejada in Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS to his profane three-word pronouncement of the Phillies as world bleepin’ champions, Utley always seemed to have a knack for maximizing drama.
Also fitting is the fact that two of the three instances mentioned above came in losing efforts. As much as anything, Utley’s career is a testament to circumstance, both in terms of his significance and its blind variability. By the time he logged his first full season in the majors, he was 26 years old: six years later than Roberto Alomar, five years later than Joe Morgan, four years later than Ryne Sandberg. Assuming at least three of those years would have been among his most productive, we’d be talking about a player who was indisputably one of the two greatest second basemen since integration (while pushing Jeff Kent as the all-time home run leader at the position).
Maybe his most impressive performance at the plate came in that World Series loss to the Yankees in 2009, when he hit five home runs and posted a 1.448 OPS. Had it propelled the Phillies to victory, who knows how it would be remembered? Perhaps as one of those signature moments that Hall of Fame voters seem to covet.
Now, one of the biggest question marks about Utley’s candidacy concerns the length of time over which he was truly great. From 2005-10, he hit .298 with a .388 on-base percentage and .528 slugging percentage while averaging 27 home runs per season. Only three second basemen in history have ever posted a single season of those numbers, and Utley averaged them over six (Joe Morgan did it in 1976, Kent did it in 2000, and Hornsby did it three times in the 1920s). But those were also the only six seasons in which he truly counted among the top 1 percent of hitters in the game, and he will finish his career without any of the accomplishments that traditionally attract Hall of Fame voters’ attention: no top-five MVP finishes, six All-Star Game appearances, batting stats that currently stand at 276 average, .358 on-base percentage, .825 OPS, 259 home runs.
Utley will, however, finish with something that few in any profession ever manage to achieve. It was there in the back of the room on Friday, the entire population of the Dodgers clubhouse showing up to watch as he announced his decision. The things that we see as intangibles are sometimes little more than the results of confirmation bias. Projecting things like leadership and toughness and grit are an easy way to make up the void that exists between our idealization and what the quantifiable evidence suggest. With Utley, though, they are impossible to dispute. There is a reason why the Dodgers, despite being one of baseball’s most analytically inclined organizations, have spent the last three years giving guaranteed money to a player with a sub-.700 OPS. As Utley said on Friday, he has been a part-time coach, part-time strength-trainer, full-time leader.
How those things factor into his Hall of Fame candidacy are a matter for the next five years. For now, he’ll have two-plus months in which he’ll both chase a final World Series ring and enjoy a victory lap. In explaining his decision to announce his plans in the middle of the season, the notoriously attention-averse Utley said he thought it was only fair to give forewarning to the people who have meant the most in his career. One suspects he may have been referring, at least in part, a three-game series that is on the Dodgers’ schedule in less than two weeks. It will take place from July 23 through 25, in a city called Philadelphia, at a place called Citizens Bank Park.