Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is one of the game’s more insightful players, but he rarely allows the media to see his thoughtful side.
The five-time All-Star made an exception Tuesday, sitting down with me for an interview that would appear on MLB Network.
The highlights from our discussion:
ROSENTHAL: Chase, we’re sitting here in the middle of the Phillies clubhouse, but during the offseason you live in the San Francisco area. What is your normal offseason day like?
UTLEY: It’s changed a little bit over the past few years. Ever since I’ve had some knee issues, I’ve decided not to take any time off during the offseason. It’s a little bit different than what I’ve done in the past, but I was taking ground balls the second week of October. We ended, obviously, very beginning of October. I was taking ground balls again the second week, doing all baseball activities. Therefore, I feel pretty good right now.
ROSENTHAL: Last year you played in more games (131) than you have since 2009. What did you do differently? Was it just that – starting earlier?
UTLEY: Yeah, basically that. Taking no time off. I felt like taking the time off right after the season – I would take two or three weeks off, relax a little bit, go on vacation, and once I would ramp it up again, that’s when I felt discomfort. So I decided not to even get to that point. I just continue my baseball activities all the way through. And it’s worked.
ROSENTHAL: Your knees obviously have been an issue for quite some time. How would you describe how you feel physically compared to recent years, compared to even when you were younger?
UTLEY: I don’t feel like I’m 24, but I definitely feel, I mean, I just turned 35, I feel like I’m more in the 30-range. That’s kind of how good I feel at this point. I’m optimistic moving forward.
UTLEY: No. When I wake up in the morning, occasionally I’ll be a little stiff, but once I get moving, I’m good to go.
ROSENTHAL: How about during the season?
UTLEY: During the season is great. I have a routine that I follow. Last year showed me and a lot of people that they (the knees) feel really good.
ROSENTHAL: Let’s go back to last year, back to last July. There were teams interested in trading for you. Oakland was one, the Dodgers were another. I know during that time you talked with Ruben Amaro Jr., the team’s general manager, about the possibility of getting traded. What were those conversations like?
UTLEY: Ruben wanted to know where I was at, as far as what I wanted to do with the rest of my career. I told him ideally I want to stay in Philadelphia. It’s a wonderful city to be in, great place to play a sport, beautiful stadium, good team around you. So those are things that all kind of went in the decision of saying, “You know what, I want to stay here and be a Phillie.”
TRADE TALK AND A NEW CONTRACT
ROSENTHAL: How tempted were you by the possibility of a trade, especially because it looked like the team might be heading in a direction you didn’t want it to head?
UTLEY: Yeah, obviously we’ve made some adjustments over the last couple years. We had a really, really good run. I think we kind of spoiled ourselves with the great run that we had three or four years ago. But, it really wasn’t that tempting. I really didn’t let my mind get that far. I just decided that, you know what, I want to stay here in Philadelphia.
ROSENTHAL: You’re a California guy though. You went to UCLA, you live in the Bay Area now. There were teams out there interested. The thought of playing home – a lot of guys want to play at home. What about you?
UTLEY: Honestly, it didn’t really cross my mind. I grew up in Los Angeles. I grew up a Dodgers fan. But now, playing on the East Coast – East Coast baseball is pretty special. (I’m) playing in a great division, and again, playing in a great city that loves their baseball team.
ROSENTHAL: Same thing with free agency – no temptation?
UTLEY: Same thing. It was an easy decision for me. Obviously, there are guys making a ton of money nowadays. It wasn’t necessarily all about the money, it was also about feeling comfortable and knowing you have a place that people enjoy what you do and respect what you do – those are things I took into consideration.
It wasn’t necessarily all about the money, it was also about feeling comfortable
ROSENTHAL: How much would it mean to you to finish your career as a lifetime member of the Phillies?
UTLEY: You don’t see it very often. You see it occasionally, guys that play a decent, lengthy career staying with one team. There’s so much money, there’s so much movement nowadays in baseball. You just don’t see it happen very often. So, it would be an honor to do that.
ROSENTHAL: When you saw Chipper (Jones) do it recently, right in front of you, what did you think?
UTLEY: He was a special player and I had an opportunity to play against him near the end of his career, and he gave us a tough time. He was a tough at-bat, obviously a Hall of Fame player in my opinion. It was cool to see the fans really embrace him.
THE 2014 PHILLIES
ROSENTHAL: This year’s Phillies team – a lot of people are saying, if you just stay healthy, you’re going to be fine. Is it that simple?
UTLEY: I know every team has to deal with health issues, but I do believe that.
We missed Ryan Howard, really, for the last year and a half or so, with his leg issues. Right now he’s healthy and strong, so I’m excited to kind of get down to spring training and see how he’s doing. Ben Revere, who we acquired last year, really started to heat up when he broke his ankle – kind of a freak thing. He’s a tremendous athlete, so he’s kind of a spark plug that you can put in the lineup and he can create a lot of havoc. As far as our pitching, you know Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, not a bad one-two punch right there. So, I’m excited.
We have some younger guys that had an opportunity to play last year – got their feet wet, showed that they can play at this level, and they’ll have an opportunity to play this year. So, obviously health is important. As you age, it’s harder to stay healthy, but we have guys in our clubhouse that realize how to take care of their bodies and want to be successful.
ROSENTHAL: Ryan being healthy alone, how much of a difference would that make, one, to you in the lineup, and also to the team?
UTLEY: I think just to the team in general he’s a big power threat in our lineup. As we all know, he can hit any pitch pretty much anywhere around the strike zone, over the fence, in any direction. He’s kind of a freak like that. So, just having him in your lineup, having him able to drive in runs, he has a knack for driving in runs even when he’s not swinging the bat that well – he has guys on base and he tends to get them in a majority of the time.
ROSENTHAL: You won the World Series in ’08 – it’s a long time ago now. You guys basically have the same core in many ways, and yet here you are all these years later. What would it mean to you to win a World Series with that same core of players and to do it now at an advanced stage in your career?
UTLEY: It would be obviously really special. I don’t want to get too far ahead of it. We have a lot of work to do to try to get to that point. But yeah, it would obviously be special. Playing alongside Jimmy (Rollins) for over 1,000 games. Playing next to Ryan. Watching Chooch (Carlos Ruiz) call a game. It’s pretty exciting watching Cole (Hamels) pitch and mature as a pitcher. Those are all things you can look back on, but yeah it would be amazing to do that again.
A CASE OF COMPLACENCY?
ROSENTHAL: Cole, about a month ago, was quoted as saying, “The energy in our clubhouse last year changed. It used to be all high-fives. This season there weren’t as many high-fives. There was a lot of bitterness, pointing fingers.” What was your reaction to that?
UTLEY: Well, there weren’t as many high-fives because we didn’t win nearly as many games. Last year was just, I think, an uncomfortable year, looking back on it, on a lot of people.
We lost Ryan, we lost Ben Revere, we lost Roy Halladay for an extended amount of time. Charlie (Manuel) was fired, a new manager, everyone was trying to get a feel. We had some young guys getting up here having an opportunity to play, which is great for them, but it’s still a learning experience for them.
So there were a lot of things that made the high-fives come a little less. But I think moving forward, you can’t change what happened last year, but you can try to improve on that come 2014.
ROSENTHAL: Now some people thought that maybe the team had gotten a little bit complacent last season, which actually would be kind of understandable, it had been the same group for a long time. What did you think?
UTLEY: I don’t think complacent is the right word. Every year there’s kind of an interchanging of personnel, and you always want to do well. When you’re playing five years straight in the postseason and going to a couple World Series, winning a World Series, that adrenaline in the postseason is like no other. So for a midweek game in May, you have to figure out a way to fake that adrenaline and make it come to you. And I think this past year, I think we’ve started to figure out that we can try to fake it a little bit.
ROSENTHAL: So this year, season starts … you’re back in it because everybody’s in it at the start of the season, I wouldn’t anticipate that being a problem. Would you?
UTLEY: No, no. I wouldn’t anticipate it being a problem at all. But when you play in so many postseason games you get lifted up for them. So for a regular-season game, it’s not quite the same. But as an overall group, we need to figure out a way to make that intensity happen on a daily basis, no matter who we’re playing, no matter what day of the week it is. And those are things that we’re going to continue to work on.
ROSENTHAL: Do you guys have something to prove?
UTLEY: I mean, I think we should just go out and try to be a good baseball team. I don’t think we need to prove anything to anybody. We just need to work hard and try to be a good baseball team. That’s the bottom line.
I don’t think we need to prove anything to anybody.
NOT THE FRATERNIZING KIND
ROSENTHAL: You’re kind of an old-school guy. A lot of times now, before a game, you’ll see teams mixing on the field, guys talking to each other, sometimes hugging each other, what do you think of all that?
UTLEY: It seems, like you’re saying, it’s starting to happen more and more. I’ve always had the mindset of, hey, there’s plenty of friends I have on other teams, and I might say hi to them, I might talk to them on the phone prior to coming to the park, but once you come to the park you’re here to win a baseball game, you’re here to prepare. And no disrespect to the other team or the other players, but that’s kind of what we should all be about. So I’m not a big fraternizing guy prior to the games, but it tends to happen.
ROSENTHAL: What happens when an opponent comes up to you before a game, say at the cage when teams are changing over for batting practice, do you say hello? Or do you shy away?
UTLEY: I’m usually polite, and I’ll say hi and try not to get into a lengthy conversation. I have respect for all of the opposing teams and players, but that’s the time for me to bear down and kind of get ready for the game.
MANAGERS, THEN AND NOW
ROSENTHAL: You mentioned Charlie, you played for him for a long time. He was a special manager in a lot of ways. How difficult was it for you to see him get dismissed?
UTLEY: It was difficult. I was not ready for it. I don’t think he was ready for it. It was something that happened fairly quickly. He’s been my manager ever since I’ve been an everyday player. He’s stuck with me, he’s penciled my name in that lineup when I was 0-for-24. He always instilled that confidence in me. And that’s something that I’ll never forget, and I’ll always be grateful to him.
ROSENTHAL: Do you keep in touch with him?
UTLEY: I do. I text with him – believe it or not, he texts. And it’s great. I talk to him once a month or so just to check in and see how he’s doing. He seems to be doing pretty good.
ROSENTHAL: Ryne Sandberg. What have you thought of him so far?
UTLEY: Ryne’s cool. He’s, I think, a pretty fortunate Hall of Fame second baseman. We kind of play the same position, so I pick his brain a little bit as far as defensive situations, just try to figure that stuff out.
Overall, as a manager, he came in and changed a few rules. He wanted the guys here a little bit earlier to the park. We had some early work, different types of drills to do. So he’s trying to instill some good work ethic in the overall team chemistry. I like it. I’m excited. I’m excited to kind of see how he’s going to run spring training, see if it’ll be a little bit different than it has been in the past. So time will tell, but he’s a good baseball man.
AND WRAPPING IT UP …
ROSENTHAL: You’ve got a two-year deal. You’ve got some vesting options on top of that. Have you thought about how much longer you would want to play?
UTLEY: I have not. I have not thought about it. I feel like the sooner I think about it, the sooner it’s going to happen. So I’m just going to try and kind of play it out as it is. Try to live in the moment. I’d like to play this game as long as possible. I don’t know how long that’ll be, but I’m going to work hard and try to maintain my health as long as I can.