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Chase Utley always gets a free pass in Philadelphia, but why?

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He loves animals, has rugged good looks, and Led Zeppelin’s "Kashmir" is his theme song. He plays with reckless abandon and has done it in the same city for nine seasons.  

Yes, Chase Utley personifies Philadelphia on several levels and has connected with this town like few athletes have. 

But does his production equal the adulation?  

Utley will be 33 years of age before pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater. Since he hit .332 in 2007, his batting average has decreased at an alarming rate. In fact, Utley finished this past season at .259, which was the second lowest output of his career. One has to go all the way back to his debut in 2003 to find a more paltry effort. 
           
Full disclosure: I am a huge believer in trading a player a year early instead of a year late. Therefore, I don’t mind saying I would have traded Utley shortly after the Yankees defeated the Phillies in Game 6 of the 2009 World Series. Of course this method would have made the front office seem heartless and left fans in mourning.  But if it were done smartly and swiftly, the Phillies might have had enough new pieces to advance in this year’s playoffs.    
           
I have no personal axe to grind with Utley. But the hypocrisy of the fans and media in this town has me vexed.  Granted, he played very well in the National League Division Series, which the Phillies lost  to the eventual World Champion Cardinals. Not only did he hit .438, but he played terrific defense. He actually made plays in the field during that series I didn’t think he should have even attempted. 
           
However, I am taking a broader look at Utley and his relationship with Philly’s fans and media. And the truth is, his time as a great player in the major leagues is over. He isn’t capable of being an everyday middle infielder, either. He has become just another player trying to finish off a decent career with dignity, and I bet Charlie Manuel and Ruben Amaro know this as well. 
           
Still, Philly is full of Utley loyalists and apologists. 

Why? 

That isn’t the stance normally taken here. Few athletes in this town ever get to retire gracefully. Players do move on to other teams before their careers end, but the main cause is Philadelphians are notoriously result oriented.  Does anyone really think Utley will rebound and become a .300 hitting, 150+ game-playing second baseman again? Of course not, but it doesn’t seem to matter.   
            
Ironically, Utley has played here for nine years and has never seemed jovial or even approachable.  He actually comes off as eccentric and aloof. He rarely smiles and if it weren’t for the verve with which he plays, you’d never know he enjoys his team or the game. 

But Philly doesn’t care.
           
Utley isn’t particularly media savvy either. He doesn’t participate in a weekly television or radio show and is rarely interviewed. Though he did let us have a little peek into his makeup when he uttered the now famous World Fu#$%&g Champions! line after the Phillies’ first World Championship in 28 years. He got a pass then too, as most considered it a blooper, a product of exuberance. 
           
Jimmy Rollins has never had a season statistically comparable to Utley’s 2007 campaign, but unlike Rollins, Utley has never won an MVP award. Rollins has been the soul of the Phillies since they became championship contenders, but doesn’t get Utley’s unconditional love. Sure, he doesn’t always sprint to first base after hitting a routine ground ball, but is Utley’s hustle the reason he could run for Mayor of Philadelphia and win? 
           
Ryan Howard is receiving a huge amount of criticism (as he should). He played poorly against the Cardinals in the NLDS, but he has been every bit as important as Utley during the Phillies renaissance. Howard, like Rollins, has a National League Most Valuable Player award (from 2006). He also hit 33 home runs and drove in 116 runs this past season, but his recent 2 for 19 in the playoffs helped break the city's collective heart.   
   
Fans will always take a more narrow view of a players’ production, and that’s every fans’ right. A player could get 4 hits in a game, but if he goes 0 for his next 20 he is going to hear it from the locals. Utley however, is playing through his obvious deterioration amid respect and adoration. If the fans as well as and members of the Philadelphia media are being completely honest, they would admit Chase Utley’s play does not justify the worship he receives. The reasons why are rather murky, but it is clear Utley gets nothing but love on Broad Street.    

So ask yourselves, why do I blindly cheer and easily absolve one of the most rapidly declining players in the major leagues?  I suspect your answers will have very little to do with baseball.

 

Earl Myers is a freelance writer from the Philadelphia area.  He closely follows North America's four major sports leagues but just about any sporting event gets his attention.  His goal is to provoke a little thought in his readers.

Contact Earl at emyersiii@gmail.com

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