Chase Utley has been the subject of many discussions lately, including two posts here and a Marcus Hayes tangent in an online live chat for the Philadelphia Daily News. Among Hayes’ many criticisms of Utley, he called the second baseman “seldom accountable” and then “condescending and rarely accountable”, adding that he “hides from criticism”.
It wasn’t something that I felt worthy of even a snarky remark, as I felt it was simply an irate journalist trying to sully the good name of an athlete who wasn’t making his job easy. And that was probably the case and it is the case a lot of the time.
However, David Hale wrote a fair assessment of Utley’s accountability to the media and to the fans. I urge you to read it.
What stood out to me:
During my 14 weeks on the beat, I covered about 60 games. I would estimate that Utley made himself available to the media after about five of those games. When he does talk, he says nothing. He is vague and unresponsive to even direct, legitimate questions. He doesn’t necessarily lie, but he certainly glosses over significant parts of the truth at times.
We asked Charlie throughout the postseason about Utley’s health, and Manuel’s only response was, “He tells me he’s healthy.” Not that Utley would ever say anything different.
And this is where Utley’s lack of accountability with the fans hurts him. He came back from a serious injury to his hand, one that directly impacted his swing, two weeks early. He never quite looked right at the plate after that. But he also would never let on that his hand was still hurting or that he was having trouble recovering and getting his timing and strength back.
While none of the above should surprise you, it should help you understand the writers more when they bring this stuff up.
Still, is it relevant or newsworthy? It was Utley’s quiet demeanor and play-through-everything mindset that endeared him to fans and the writers in the first place. It seems awfully convenient that, following a disappointing showing in the post-season (and a disappointing regular season), that these qualities are now detriments. Why, when the Phillies won it all in 2008, did the writers never complain about Utley not talking? When Utley hit five home runs in last year’s World Series against the New York Yankees, how come no one questioned his accountability then? Even during his injury-riddled 2010 regular season, no one spoke ill of Utley.
But once the Phillies were out of the playoffs, Utley became a huge problem.
People need a scapegoat for losing. The writers went to Ryan Howard first, for having no post-season RBI and for taking that called strike three to end the NLCS, but stopped upon realizing he was one of the better performers in the post-season. Placido Polanco? The expectations aren’t high enough. Shane Victorino? Same thing. Carlos Ruiz? Fan favorite and he was never supposed to be relied on for offense anyway. And he called Roy Halladay‘s no-hitter. Raul Ibanez is old and overpaid and everybody realizes it. Jayson Werth was awesome. Bench guys were irrelevant.
By process of elimination, Utley was made the scapegoat. His lackluster post-season wasn’t enough to send him to the gallows, though, so that’s where all of these extraneous details come into play. Utley becomes the tragic hero so the Phillies’ 2010 eulogy has an interesting hook, and so that writers have intriguing stories to help sell newspapers, increase listener- and viewership, and attract page views. The flaying of Chase Utley has little to do with his individual performance and personality traits, and a lot to do with his team’s overall finish. Had the Phillies won it all, Utley’s muted personality would instead have been described as “quiet leadership” or that he was “leading by example”.
In science, it is considered bad form to make a conclusion, then go back and do research and run tests to bolster that conclusion. It should be considered — and I would argue is — considered bad form in writing to have two different storylines mapped out for the same result.