Utley Retrospective: The Return
In a lot of ways, the 2012 season was the beginning of the end for the Phillies’ short-lived “dynasty.” In the aftermath of a 102-win season, the Phillies limped into 2012 – so to speak – without Ryan Howard, Roy Oswalt, Raul Ibanez or Ryan Madson, and the downturns of players like Roy Halladay were only a breath away. What’s more, they were christening the start of another season without Chase Utley, whose knees were once more betraying him.
The start was an inauspicious as could be predicted: the Phils found themselves at 36-40 and in fourth in the NL East, dangling over the precipice of last place by a thread just half-a-game thick. It wasn’t pretty, and the outlook wasn’t exactly gleaming. And yet, on June 27, Utley made his return, and it felt like the hope of contention was nearly back within the Phils’ grasp. How could it not? Utley, who had battled patellar tendonitis and Chondromalacia patella at least as far back as 2010, stood to deliver more than the ragtag quadruped of Freddy Galvis, Michael Martinez, Pete Orr and Mike Fontenot had provided to that point.
And so it was that on June 27, Utley’s name was reinserted into the lineup, batting third, playing second base, like an early trade acquisition with the added bonus of coming prepackaged as a beloved team icon. A throng of more than 44,000 packed Citizens Bank Park, their ears ready to take in the intro guitar lick to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for the first time all over again. The TV broadcast opened with a welcoming highlight package, heralding the return of the player we had all so sorely missed. Nothing could go wrong on this day.
As Utley came to the plate with none on and two out in the bottom of the first, he was met with the sort of ovation reserved for sports heroes; the kind you can feel through your television, the kind that is powered by claps with the added ferocity of being fueled by memory. “Nostalgia” is becoming a trite word anymore, but in its purest sense, that’s kind of what we all felt as we saw Utley walk to the plate, whether live that night or in a highlight down the road. Sure, the team was still technically in a competitive window, but the malaise and the humbling nature of the losing that had occurred so soon after a fifth straight playoff run made the feeling of remembering what it was like to win – just four short seasons ago – feel that much more powerful.
Utley could have struck out. That would have been fine. A ball in play would have been cool and, maybe, if we wanted to be greedy, we could hope for it to fall for a base hit. As it turns out, we were afforded a luxury. Utley took a 2-2 curveball from James McDonald out to far right-center, many rows deep into section 102. It was an authoritative home run, and in true Utley fashion, the most emotion in the whole process was arguably shown in the force with which he slapped the hands of his teammates upon his arrival in the dugout. Everything about it was Utley, from that high-fiving all the back to his slamming a mistake pitch to a power alley. It was Chase, and he was back.