PHILADELPHIA — Each time the 37-year-old, Dodger Blue version of Chase Utley stepped into the batter’s box Tuesday night, his former employers rolled out a new flourish to remind him of the gold-plated, Philadelphia red segment of his major-league career.
As Utley strode toward home plate to face Vince Velasquez in the top of the first inning, the Phillies played his Led Zeppelin walkup song, “Kashmir,” in honor of his return to Citizens Bank Park. The crowd responded on cue, standing and cheering for almost 90 seconds as Utley doffed his helmet, patted his heart and showed some genuine emotion beneath that typically stoic exterior.
During Utley’s subsequent plate appearances, the scoreboard showed photos of him in his evolution from earnest first-round draft pick to franchise favorite. One minute he appeared on the Jumbotron as winner of the Paul Owens Award as the Phillies’ top minor-league position player in 2002. Two innings later, he reappeared beneath a ballcap and some facial stubble, exuding a Matthew McConaughey-like brand of cool in a pose from the team’s 2006 Charity Calendar.
All this reminiscing eventually got the juices flowing and prompted Utley to commander the driver’s seat in the way-back machine. He launched a 96 mph fastball from Velasquez into the right-field seats in the fifth inning, and capped off his night with a grand slam two innings later to lead the Dodgers to a 15-5 rout of the Phillies.
The win moved the Dodgers into a first-place tie with San Francisco in the National League West pending the result of the Giants’ late game with Pittsburgh. That’s quite an achievement given the Dodgers’ season-long run of injuries and the early hole they dug for themselves. But on this night, pennant races and practical concerns took a backseat to a heartfelt reunion.
Before the night was through, the Philadelphia crowd gave Utley three standing ovations and summoned him for two curtain calls. Philly fans have a reputation as cynical and hard-bitten. But when they fall for an athlete, they fall hard.
“It’s completely overwhelming,” Utley said in a post-game news conference. “The standing ovation my first at-bat is something I’ll never forget. It was truly special. It really shows how passionate and how great the Philadelphia fan base is. It was probably one of the most nervous at-bats I’ll ever have at any level. I was glad to get it over with, to be honest with you.”
It’s hard to articulate the full extent Phillies fans love Utley, and would never dream of letting him buy a beer in the confines of the 215 area code. Part of it is the consistent performance that places Utley near the top of so many offensive categories in franchise history. He ranks among the Phillies’ top 10 in games, hits, runs, doubles, homers, RBIs and walks. And with six All-Star Game appearances, Utley ranks fourth among Phillies behind Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt (12), Steve Carlton (seven) and Robin Roberts (seven).
Beyond the numbers, Utley played the game with a Derek Jeter-like field awareness and a sense of his surroundings that Philadelphia fans hold near and dear. They paid attention when he ran out every groundball, advanced from first to third on a single, and found a way to win games by anticipating situations. Utley enjoyed his signature, Jeter-like postseason moment in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, when he threw out Tampa Bay’s Jason Bartlett after an artful deke at second base.
“I never really made it look easy out there,” Utley said. “There are so many times I’d meet a father with his son or even a mother who would praise the way I played, and would tell me they want their son to play that way. To me, that’s a true compliment.”
It was a painful yet necessary and inevitable part of the Phillies’ rebuild when former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded Utley to Los Angeles for minor-league pitcher John Richy and infielder Darnell Sweeney on Aug. 19 of last season. But Utley’s first trip back to Philadelphia was worth the wait, not to mention chock-full of statistical oddities.
During his tenure with the Phillies, Utley played 779 games at Veterans Stadium and Citizens Bank Park and never hit two home runs and drove in five home runs in the same game. It took him five plate appearances as a Dodger to achieve the feat.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Utley became only the second player to hit at least two homers in his first road game against a team that he played at least 1,500 games for. The other hitter to achieve the feat was Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, who went deep twice for the Oakland Athletics against the Chicago White Sox in 2006.
Nights like this have been less common as Utley tries to find a way to navigate the rigors of a long season at an advanced baseball age. Before Tuesday’s barrage, he was hitting only .231 with four homers in 208 at-bats since the start of June. But Dodgers manager Dave Roberts keeps running him out there in the leadoff spot because of what Roberts calls his consistently good “at-bat quality.”
Roberts is also a sucker for leadership skills. Every day, he sees Utley’s work ethic and example rub off on Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and the other young Dodgers in a way that can only benefit their development.
“If there’s any player that you have to dig deeper than the numbers to find his value, Chase is head and shoulders above everyone else,” Roberts said. “When you want to play a certain style of baseball, to have Chase exude that every single day and not take a pitch off, it’s been invaluable for me as a first-year manager.”
Utley is all about style and substance. He sprinted around the bases after his first home run and picked it up a notch after the grand slam.
When asked if the second trot was the fastest of his career, Utley shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe you can check Statcast.”
Some numbers simply can’t calculate a player’s impact on a roster, or a city. The outpouring of affection for Utley was a fitting tribute for his 13 years of hard, professional play and his contribution to the Phillies’ extended run of success from 2007-2011. But unbeknownst to them, the 28,118 fans in attendance were on the receiving end of some equally fervent gratitude.
“I should be thanking them,” Utley said. “They motivated us and pushed us in the right direction. I’m a true believer that the fans made us better players individually and gave us a chance to win on a daily basis. The true thank-you should be to them.”
Chase Utley, an athlete who has always taken pains not to reveal too much of himself for public consumption, rode adrenaline and love to a memorable homecoming Tuesday night. Now, to his everlasting relief, he can just go back to playing baseball.