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May 28, 2016

The Q&A ... with Dodgers leadoff hitter (and former Phillies icon) Chase Utley

NEW YORK – Dodgers rookie Corey Seager, the top prospect in baseball a year ago, grew up in North Carolina, not in North Philly. But he was well aware of who Chase Utley was and how much Philadelphia sports fans bowed down to him because he had a baseball friend who moved nearby after growing up in the Philly area.

“I watched him all through my childhood growing up,” Seager, who turned 22 last month, said of the 37-year-old former Phillies second baseman. “So I’ve known a lot about him. And then to get to know the person behind the player, it’s been great. He’s hard-nosed just like he plays… calm off the field. Just a great person.”

Utley, traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers last August and then re-signed by the team over the winter, is back on the east coast for Memorial Day weekend. He had a memorable return to Citi Field on Friday night, playing his first game in New York since The Break-Up Slide Heard ‘Round the World last fall sent the city into hysterics. 

But sending a scare into the Mets faithful on Friday wasn't enough for Utley, because the Dodgers lost the game. So, on Saturday, he quieted Citi Field with a game that bordered on the absurd. Utley avoided a beanball from Noah Syndergaard and went on to collect nearly as many home runs (two) as the Mets had hits (three) in a 9-1 L.A. rout.

Needless to say, the Dodgers love Utley just as much as Mets fan detest him. 

“He’s been great, from every aspect of my career, just how to handle the clubhouse, how to act, how to play in the field, all of the (in-game) scenarios, where to stand, what to think in different situations,” Seager said. “It’s been tremendous. He’s off-the-charts professional. It’s amazing.”

But Utley is also contributing on the field, too, and not just against the Mets. 

Baseball’s oldest leadoff hitter in 2016, Utley is hitting .296. His .386 on-base percentage ranked 14th in the National League. And his .839 OPS, fittingly, ranks 26th in the NL. 

Utley is one of just three players in the National League who is 37 or older but still sporting an .OPS above .800 nearly two months into the season, and the other two (Cubs catcher David Ross and Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki) haven’t even accumulated half as many at-bats as Utley has this year.

On Memorial Day a year ago, when he was still in a Phillies uniform, Utley was hitting .180 with a .557 OPS.

Healthy once again (he battled an ankle injury during the first half of 2015) and playing on a team that’s expected to make a World Series run, Utley sat down with PhillyVoice this weekend, in between a pair of games when he drove in nine runs against the Mets, for The Q&A

Do you feel like you’ve tapped into the Fountain of Youth? I mean you’re having a lot of success and we’re now two months into the season…

     Chase Utley: I don’t necessarily think Fountain of Youth, but my body feels good. I had a good offseason’s worth of training. I’m just trying to get back on track.

But you can’t deny the fact that every year is more grueling just because body parts get older. Has that been a bit unexpected, how much the second half of your career has been a challenge on a daily basis?

     When I was younger I heard a bunch of the older guys talk about how difficult it was to maintain a healthy body as you got older. I thought at the time, "Nah, that doesn’t apply to me.” But obviously it does, to everyone. So I think it’s up to each individual to find out what they need to do to keep everything in one piece. It’s been a learning process for me. You’ve been around me for a long time, you’ve seen the different things that I’ve done and gone through. I’ve tried to take different pieces from the stuff I’ve done over the course of my career (for a foundation).

What led you to decide it was time to go? It wasn’t that long ago you re-signed with the Phillies and it didn’t seem like it was ever even a thought in your mind that you wouldn’t be there. Then things changed last year. What changed for you?

     That’s a good question. At the time, the organization was slowly going in a different direction than we had in the past, as far as bringing up younger guys and developing those guys at the major league level ... the goal was to develop young guys rather than to try to win a World Series. And I completely understand it. And I felt like I wanted to get back to that stage again. And it was pretty clear that it was time to move on.

They traded Jimmy. They trade Cole. So, what’s the point in sticking around if everyone else is being shipped out?

     I don’t know if there wasn’t any point. I loved my time in Philadelphia. It’s something that I’ll have with me for the rest of my life. The experiences, the teammates, the fan support over the years. At this stage in my career, I want to get back to the ultimate accomplishment and that’s to win a World Series. So, I didn’t feel like it was going to happen last year in Philadelphia. It was pretty clear the ultimate goal this year wasn’t to get back to that spot, it was to develop young guys.

You obviously didn’t think that was going to be it, though, either, not going to L.A. for two months and calling it quits?

     No, that never crossed my mind. Obviously, with age, you get that question all the time. I still feel like I have something to offer on the field on a daily basis.

I asked Jimmy (Rollins) this a few weeks ago in Baltimore: of all the guys still playing from the ’08 team, Chooch (Carlos Ruiz), Ryan (Howard), Jimmy, yourself, Jayson (Werth), (Shane) Victorino [released by Cubs this week], and the pitchers, (Cole) Hamels, (Joe) Blanton, (Ryan) Madson. Get rid of Hamels because he’s young. Who is going to be the last one standing?

     That’s a good question. There are a few guys that are trying to play as long as they can. And that’s the way I look at it. I’m going to play as long as my body holds up and I feel like I can be productive on the field. This is a pretty good job to have.

Some guys – Tim Raines comes to mind because he’s a Hall of Fame caliber player – stuck around for a little longer by playing in a utility role in their last 4-5 years. Do you think you could ever do that, or if you weren’t playing every day would it be tough?

     Well, I’m not necessarily playing every day here, I’m playing against most of the right-handed starters and not playing against lefties [Editor's note: Utley started for the 37th time in the Dodgers 50 games on Saturday night]. But I don’t know. I’ll have to cross (that bridge) if need be. But like I said, as long as I feel like I can contribute in a positive way, I’m going to keep on playing.

You think you’ll stick around the game when you’re not playing anymore? Any idea? Or just spend your time golfing, stay away from baseball?

     I don’t know, that’s another good question. Obviously, I’d have a lot more free time to spend with my two boys, that’s the No.1 priority when it’s said and done. But hopefully, that’s no time soon.

How old are your sons now, 5 and 2?

     (They’re) 4 1/2 and 1 1/2.

Everyone in Southern California now?


How is that different, being back home after all the time in Philly, being back to where your parents can come to games, playing for team you grew up watching? Especially when baseball players are such creatures of habit and you were in one spot for a long time.

     Habits are still pretty much the same. Obviously, it’s different venue but, like you said, I grew up a Dodgers fan, my parents are still there, my friends and family are in Southern California. I went to college at UCLA. So it’s been a really cool experience, actually, to get back to playing in front of your friends and family.

Do your parents go to the games?

     They do.

All of them?

     [Laughs] Not all of them. L.A. traffic is brutal.

I talked to a couple of your teammates in the clubhouse yesterday about this, how the game has seemed to change in recent years. Look at the two plays in last year's playoffs that everyone couldn’t stop talking about: your play (second base collision) and the Jose Bautista bat flip. And you have all of these people talk about "making the game fun again," the self-promotion. And then there's the old-school baseball people. It feels like there’s a style vs. substance battle.

     I think you brought up a good point. It has changed a little bit. When I came up it was, ‘Be seen and not heard’ if you’re young or a you’re a rookie or you haven’t established yourself. You sit back, you watch, you try to learn. But now it is a little bit different. I think the social media aspect has changed things a little bit. It’s just something as far as promoting myself, when I came into the big leagues, it wasn’t a part of what you did. Nowadays it seems like it is.

 Has the game changed for the better? Every year there’s a new rule, first the home plate collisions, then the slides at second base, using a clock between innings…

     Baseball is ever-evolving. Obviously, you want to put a good product on the field. You want the fans to have a good time watching the game. There are a lot of different things they’ve added to help both sides. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, it’s just different.

Was last fall for you difficult? You’re taught to play the game one way, there’s an unfortunate accident, and then all of a sudden you’re the bad guy. How tough was that to deal with, someone gets hurt and it obviously wasn’t on purpose.

     It wasn’t an ideal situation. I’ve said it before, I had no intent in hurting their shortstop. It was completely unfortunate. Was I looked at a little bit differently after that? Yeah, I believe so. and the fact that it happened in the playoffs against a New York team. That probably enhanced everything a bit. It wasn’t ideal.

Did you have a lot of people reach out to you the other way (in support)?

     Yeah, I had a ton of people that reached out in support of me and what happened. Anyone who knows me or has played with me understands that I definitely didn’t do anything purposeful. It was just an unfortunate accident.

You mentioned earlier some of the things about playing in Philadelphia. Is there anything in particular you miss the most? You were there for so long.

     Playing in a beautiful park. Playing in front of the most passionate fans in baseball. How can you beat that? Obviously, we had a very good team for a number of years...

That helps.

     … which definitely helps everything as far as the playing experience, fan experience. So I think as players we were a bit spoiled for those 5-6 years when we were pretty good. I think it made us all better players for that experience.

Do you find yourself looking at the standings or scores to see how (the Phillies) are doing?

     Once in a while. I’m not a huge standings follower, but I keep track of Jimmy, and all of the guys, really.

Surprised the Phillies are doing as well as they are?

     No, I’m not surprised. They have some very good, young talented players. And it seems like they’re playing with a lot of energy and it looks like they’re having fun. I’m happy for them.

Chase Utley will return to Citizens Bank Park with the Dodgers on Aug. 16.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21