In the fairly mediocre baseball movie filmed in Philadelphia, Stealing Home, Mark Harmon played a high school baseball star. Thirteen years after high school he was playing in a semi-pro league and his girlfriend was asked what position he played. She replied, "He's a baseball player."
On July 13, probably the best "baseball player" in the MLB, Chase Utley, announced his retirement. By "baseball player," I don't mean the most talented or the biggest star or the most productive. I mean someone who played the game of baseball as it was played for decades and decades – up until fairly recently. A "baseball player" is someone who plays hurt with a level of pain that would put most modern-day players on the disabled list. A "baseball player" gets to the park early, thinks about what he has to do in today's game, and is the last one to leave the locker room at the end of the game. A "baseball player" runs out every at-bat no matter how futile. A "baseball player" puts his body in front of smash liners hit to him in the field and pitches that are close enough to avoid, when taking one in the back would help start a rally. A "baseball player" is never in the wrong position and backs up every play he can. A "baseball player" leads by example, not by fiery words. Utley may have been the best "baseball player" ever to don Phillies pinstripes. He never dogged it, he always ran out every at bat, he took one for the team and got hit by a pitch 201 times in his career and led the league in that stat from 2007-2009. He always played hurt with an incredible array of injuries, and he was the heart and soul of the Phillies for over a decade, leading not by words, but by the way he played the game. If you were a Phillies player during that time, you just couldn't dog it with Utley as your teammate.
What made this "baseball player" so exceptional was that in addition to all those qualities, he had exceptional talent as well — talent that should land him in Cooperstown. He had 259 home runs and 409 doubles and 58 triples, exceptional totals for anyone, but particularly a second baseman. He scored 1,101 runs, drove in another 1,025 and stole 153 bases. Over a five-year period, from 2005-2009, he averaged almost 30 home runs and over 100 RBI each year. He had some incredibly productive years. In 2006 he batted .309, scored 131 runs, had 203 hits, 32 homers, and 102 RBI. In 2007, he hit an incredible .332 with 22 home runs, 48 doubles, 103 RBI, and scored 104 runs. And of course, this great "baseball player" was at his best in the most important games. He shares the MLB record for home runs in a World Series (five in 2009) with Reggie Jackson and George Springer, and his seven overall World Series home runs are the most ever for a second baseman.
All of these accomplishments and great characteristics were more than enough for Utley to be beloved by Phillies fans, but the icing on the cake was that he also happens to be a great person. Without fanfare or publicity, he and his wonderful wife, Jennifer, did so much for our community. I myself have a special place in my heart for the Utleys, as they, like me, are huge dog lovers and much of their community work has involved preventing animal cruelty. Throughout Utley's career in Philadelphia, the couple were active volunteers with the Pennsylvania SPCA and started Utley All-Star Animals, an annual event to help raise money and awareness for animals in desperate need.