PHILADELPHIA — Clayton Kershaw understands it now, the enduring passion of this sports-mad city for the stoic, silver-haired infielder who became his teammate three years ago with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kershaw made his first playoff appearance here a decade ago, at age 20, against a Philadelphia Phillies team he remembers mostly for its preparation and focus. Its engine, he knows, was Chase Utley.
“Philly’s known for being blue-collar — like, work hard and people appreciate that,” Kershaw said on Monday. “With a baseball team, you do it every single day. L.A.’s not necessarily known for that; L.A.’s like Hollywood, flashy, but you can’t be that way on a baseball field if you want to succeed. I think he’s brought that to us, that blue-collar mentality in the clubhouse.”
Utley was born in Pasadena, Calif., went to high school in Long Beach and attended college at U.C.L.A. Before Monday, when he returned to Citizens Bank Park for the first time since announcing his plan to retire this fall, Utley’s last Instagram post was a surfing video. He played 13 seasons in Philadelphia, but lived here only one winter.
Yet Utley, 39, just might be the most popular athlete in the history of this city. He was the winning response, anyway, when new manager Gabe Kapler asked a table of sportswriters at the winter meetings to text five friends from Philadelphia and ask them that question.
“Fans sense that his commitment to the team, to the thing that’s bigger than he is, was absolutely 100 percent, and people respected that and loved him for it, and still do,” said John Middleton, the Phillies’ principal owner, who is 63 years old and has watched sports in this town all his life. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live and how many more baseball players I’m going to see, but he’s one of my absolute favorite people I’ve ever met in my life, and certainly one of my favorite baseball players.”
Middleton sought out Utley after a news conference on Monday, when Utley — known for polite reticence around cameras — answered questions cheerfully for about 20 minutes. In time, Middleton may face an intriguing question about Utley’s legacy here: Would the team retire Utley’s No. 26, even if he does not reach the Hall of Fame?
The Phillies’ franchise dates to 1883 — Utley, incidentally, had 1,883 career hits coming into Monday’s game — yet only five Phillies players have their numbers retired: Richie Ashburn (1), Jim Bunning (14), Mike Schmidt (20), Steve Carlton (32) and Robin Roberts (36). The team’s current policy is to honor only Hall of Famers with a retired number, but would Middleton bend for Utley’s No. 26?
“I’d have to think about that, but I actually think he is,” Middleton said. “If you really look at his stats, his career WAR is 65 or 66, and he’s higher than a bunch of second basemen. I mean, 70 is more of a magic threshold — like maybe 500 home runs or 3,000 hits — and when you look at his five peak years, they’re stunningly good. I know he deserves it. He’s clearly better than a lot — a lot — of players in there.”
Wins Above Replacement — baseball-reference.com’s metric that attempts to gauge a player’s value over a typical replacement — credits Utley with 65.7 WAR, placing him among the top 100 position players ever. Seven of the eight players just below Utley are Hall of Famers, including two with 3,000 hits (Craig Biggio and Dave Winfield) and one with 500 home runs (Willie McCovey).
Then again, several players with more WAR than Utley are not enshrined, including fellow second basemen Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich and Willie Randolph. Utley, who got a standing ovation before his first at-bat Monday, did not offer an opinion.
“I never played this game for awards, to be honest with you,” he said. “I feel like if you do that, you’re not really doing what’s most important, and that’s to try to help your team win. I’ve played a while; I’ve had some good years, some not-so-good years. That’s not really for me to determine.”
Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers’ closer, said Utley was “easily a Hall of Famer,” pointing to his impact in subtle ways, like helping pitchers know when the other team is stealing signs.
Those little things add up, Jansen said, and they define Utley here — even though his first career hit was a grand slam and he once hit five home runs in a World Series. The plays that resonate most to fans were on defense and on the bases.
In the clincher of the 2008 World Series, against Tampa Bay, Utley faked a throw to first and fired home to cut down the potential go-ahead run in the seventh inning. Two years earlier, in Atlanta, he scored from second on a grounder to the pitcher.
That play inspired a call by the beloved broadcaster Harry Kalas — “Chase Utley, you are the man,” the first half of an audio soundtrack that also endeared fans to Utley. The other was Utley’s three-word proclamation in a ceremony after the World Series parade: “World champions,” he declared, on live TV, with a choice adjective in the middle.
“I don’t regret it,” Utley said. “I know some people didn’t like it that much, but that’s how I was feeling.”
Utley said he was disappointed that he would have to miss that team’s coming 10-year reunion, but still keeps up with former teammates like Jimmy Rollins, and takes pride in the example they set for fans, especially amateur players. One of them — Mike Trout of Millville, N.J. — grew up to become the best player in baseball, a star for the Los Angeles Angels who carries himself the same way: intense on the field, indifferent to exposure off it.
Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed frustration last week that Trout was not more interested in building his personal brand, underscoring baseball’s persistent problem in creating crossover superstars for a sport that skews more and more local.
Through that lens, perhaps, Utley’s legacy will always be more powerful here than anything a Hall of Fame induction could represent. He may belong more to a group of players like Dale Murphy in Atlanta, Paul Konerko in Chicago, Fernando Valenzuela in Los Angeles and Don Mattingly in New York — excellent company, with or without a plaque.
In any case, Utley said, this is how he wants fans to remember him: “Playing the game the right way. That’s all that really matters to me, that every single day I played the game the right way — to win.”