I was there, in the beginning.
I watched Chase Utley’s uniquely unorthodox, seemingly three-quarters swing blast extra-base hits in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s cavernous copy of Veterans Stadium, the former Lackawanna County Stadium, for the Red Barons.
I wondered why he was still in Triple-A.
I may be an Orioles fan through and through, but I’m also a baseball fan, and to my eyes, back then, I was watching a future star wasting major league talent on minor league pitching. I can still remember warm summer nights with “We like to Party! (The Vengabus)” blasting through the air (as it was the then-Red Barons’ house song for doubles hit by the home team). Much of the song’s familiarity was due to Utley prowess at the plate as he often picked up an RBI, too!
But he could field with golden glove-caliber efficiency, too, roaming the middle infield at second base like he was born to snag line drives or stop seeing-eye-singles from ever reaching centerfield, turning either into fantastically routine outs.
I know Utley made it to the show with a couple short stints in the early aughts. As a local favorite in SWB, I was both happy and sad when the Phillies finally traded Placido Polanco away to clear the way for Chase’s permanent move to the Big Time.
I was genuinely happy to see him where he belonged in the Majors but sad to see him leave my current locale because baseball is a different game live. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him live anymore, at least not locally, and it seemed like “The Vengabus” was stopping by the Red Barons’ home stadium far less frequently.
Utley wasn’t the only star that I saw go through Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in a Red Barons uniform – Rollins, Hamels, and Howard all came and went as well, but they were being systematically moved up. Only Shane Victorino, The Flyin’ Hawaiian, was similarly delayed in Triple-A on his way to the Phillies.
But as far as those seasons in a Red Barons uniform are concerned, it seemed like Utley got an unfair shake of it. He deserved his shot in an everyday MLB lineup after his first Triple-A season. But he was a blue-collar player in every sense of the word. He showed up and he did his job exceedingly well, game in and game out.
He was also fan-friendly and signed a foul ball for both my friend and I that we had snagged while stretching over the first baseline fence during batting practice. As then-college students more occupied with fair weather endeavors than our studies, we regularly arrived early and waited to get our spoils signed after the game. And while he didn’t have the Iron Man streak of one of my favorite heroes growing up, that being Cal Ripken Jr., he had that mentality every day.
So of course, I followed his career when he became a permanent MLB fixture. The milestones, the awards, the unfortunate injuries, the championship, and, of course, the accompanying “expletive”, in which I was really only rooting for the Phillies because of him.
About that expletive. It was pure, it was emotional, and it was simply Chase Utley being in the moment, which is how he played. He was always in the moment, he always knew the situation, and he used his emotion – which he played with on his sleeve – to make him the player he became. Hell, one could even argue that Utley, in that ever-so-Philly moment, set the stage for Jason Kelce’s now-well-known swear-riddled Super Bowl parade speech in 2018.
The trade to LA put him in a Dodger uniform, and while I expected Utley to be one of the last throwback players to start and finish his career in one place, I understand that he grew up on the West Coast and that this was a homecoming of sorts.
Over here on the East Coast, it’s a little harder to follow those cross-continental teams, but I still followed him and continued to root for him, which was made all the easier because the Dodgers are my NL team.
He still had flashes of his younger self in the field, and he could still rake, though his power and average had declined with age. He’s getting out of the game while he can still contribute. In an era where many hang on too long, his retirement announcement seems about right.
Was it fair that the Dodgers left him on the 2018 postseason rosters as they made their way through the playoffs before losing to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but he didn’t go out kicking and screaming. He faded out gracefully because that is what team players do, and Chase Utley is a team player through and through.
Is he a Hall of Famer? Utley boasts 259 home runs, 1,885 hits, 1,103 runs, and 154 stolen bases. He was a six-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, and author of one of the best defensive dekes in World Series history. He may not have the career numbers for the Hall of Fame, but in the hearts and minds of those who watched him play, he certainly does. He did his job exceptionally well for his entire career, and I count myself lucky to have seen him as a star before he actually became one.
Take a bow, Chase. You’ll be missed in LA as you’ve been missed in Philly.
But to me, I’ll always treasure watching you back in Scranton on those warm summer nights in the early 2000s when you were the one, with that unique swing of yours, that signaled for “The Vengabus” to drive in a run or two.