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In late July 2007, I decided Chase Utley was my favorite baseball player.
It wasn’t necessarily a difficult decision, but in the wake of Bobby Abreu being traded to the Yankees in 2006, I felt something of a void. Sure, Jimmy Rollins was around and Ryan Howard was at his peak, coming off a tremendous, MVP year in 2006. I had always been a fan of Pat Burrell, but there wasn’t that one, overarching thing that made him favorite material, to me. In fact, I don’t even think it was necessarily what Utley did that made me elevate him to “favorite” status; it was what John Lannan did.
Make no mistake, Utley was in the midst of a special year in 2007. He was following up a great 2006 with what could have been an MVP-caliber campaign, until his third at-bat on July 26, when Lannan hit him in the right hand with a pitch, breaking the fourth metacarpal bone and forcing Chase to miss the next 28 games (though not his final two plate appearances of that fateful game).
And indeed it was that final point that sat indelibly in my mind. Utley, broken hand and all, played the game through to the end. It wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to do with a broken hand, to be sure (it never is), but something about the tenacity of Utley in that moment stuck with forever. It’s funny, given him loath I am now to praise players who play through injury, but that’s truly what sealed it. Utley would return August 27 against the Mets and go 3-for-5 with a home run.
Fast forward nearly five years, and a different ailment has plagued Utley: faulty knees. “Chondromalacia” is the name, a frightening sequence of words that, at one point this winter, seemed to threaten Utley’s very career. In fact in still may, but that tenacity is not so easily overcome. Utley would miss 76 games before returning to the lineup, at home, against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Was it really that simple? Could the return of the best second baseman in franchise history really lift this struggling team out of hole it had dig itself into with one easy swing of the bat, a fluid conjoining of bat and hung breaking ball?
At season’s end, our answer was no, but for one fleeting moment, it felt like anything was possible. His fragile knees forgotten, our beloved team’s 36-40 record a nose itch, our hopes of a return to pride and power restored.
Utley himself, never one to allow his soul’s shades to ever be anything but perpetually drawn, even allowed some emotion to seep out. It wasn’t worn on his face – he didn’t smile as he traversed the bases in a brisk 18.5 seconds – but as he returned to the dugout, his hand met the fist of Carlos Ruiz and the splayed palm of Hunter Pence with a force as loud as the bat crack of the dinger he’d just hit. It was one of relief and of a reclamation of his territory.
Nevermind a couple of hours into the future, when the Phils would eventually find themselves on the losing end of an 11-7 game. Chase Utley was back and, in the heart of a season both started and ended coolly, there was a warmth that coated the Delaware Valley. For a moment – if only for that long – the season was fun again.