Somewhere around December of last year, the Phillies changed the name of the franchise for the first time in nearly 130 years of existence. Since the New Year, they’ve been officially known in the future tense as “The Phillies, Once Utley and Howard are Healthy.”
Literature is littered with stories whose action is driven by a character who either never shows up or is only introduced at the very end. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for instance, or Gogol’s The Inspector General. I was beginning to have that feeling about the 2012 Phillies, that their story would be written in large part about the absence of Chase Utley. In the shroud of secrecy that characterizes the Phillies’ media department, it was beginning to look like Utley was not the character we’d wait all year to have introduced, but rather the one who, while absent from the storytelling itself, would drive many of the events of the story, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984. Every action, it seemed, was driven to compensate for Utley’s absence.
We’ve lived in a virtual purgatory all season, watching a revolving door of second basemen. Mike Fontenot, who can hit but can’t field. Freddy Galvis, who could field but couldn’t hit. Pete Orr, who couldn’t do either. And most recently, Michael Martinez, who not only can neither hit nor field, but fails to do so with a lack of self-awareness matched only by the douchebag who brings his acoustic guitar to a party, then plays Oasis’s “Wonderwall” until the only people left in the room are waiting for him to stop bogarting the guitar so they can play something not included in the “Teenager’s first open mic night” book of sheet music.
Billy Graham once said: “Have you ever seen God? I’ve never seen God… I’ve never seen the wind. I’ve seen the effects of the wind… but I’ve never seen the wind.” We could say the same about Utley. He wasn’t up to his usual standards last season, but he was still worth 3.9 fWAR in only 2/3 of a season. And with Utley back in the lineup, Hunter Pence moves back down to fourth or fifth, and maybe there’ll finally be someone on base for Carlos Ruiz to drive in. Suddenly, the pieces start to fit back together as bench players are taken out of the starting lineup and returned to their original and appropriate uses.
A friend of mine once explained how he eats at Five Guys every six months or so. Every time he eats there, he marvels at how tasty their burgers and fries are, and then spends the rest of the evening on the toilet as a pound and change of greasy, beefy glory result in crippling gastrointestinal distress. But a few months later, you forget about the aftereffects and begin to crave Five Guys again. Six months is just enough time to forget about the full Five Guys experience and go back again, more out of curiosity than anything else.
So too with Utley. It’s been so long since we’ve seen a truly great position player in a Phillies uniform that I’m starting to forget what one looks like. Utley says he’s in better physical condition now than he’s been in a while, but even so, we shouldn’t expect too much from him too quickly. If Utley comes back and is even a shadow of his 2007 self, I’ll be thrilled. If he’s anything more, I’ll be so happy you won’t hear from me again until the state troopers are chasing a man playing an accordion and riding a unicycle the wrong way down I-295. Because that’ll be me.
But with Utley back in the lineup, it feels like we’re at least a little closer to being whole, that things are at least a little closer to being okay again. And, most importantly, it means that Charlie Manuel can nail Michael Martinez’s ass to the bench and never think about him again.
We’ve missed you, Chase. It’s good to have you back.