Phil sheridan has
been taking care of the Philadelphia Phillies' laundry since 1992, which makes
him privy to all the dirt on the team. When he comes to uniform number 26,
Sheridan, the team's assistant clubhouse manager, no longer bothers to check
for nasty stains, he just dumps it into a bucket with an industrial
protein-release solution for a 30-minute soak. He knows that in a typical game,
number 26 can hit for the rinse cycle: dirt, grass stains, pine tar and,
occasionally, blood. "He's behind [ex--Phillies outfielder Lenny] Dykstra
because he doesn't chew--Lenny was a self-made mess--but this is more natural,
especially the grass stains," Sheridan says. "Even if this guy doesn't
get a hit, he still gets his uniform dirty. I mean, it's filthy." During
the soak Sheridan periodically stirs the grubby uniform around the bucket with
the barrel of a broken bat, then sprays any remaining splotches with a stain
remover before washing it in even more protein release, mixed with
Introducing Chase Utley, number 26 in your programs, the prince of Tide.
"Chase is a dirt ball," Sheridan says. "In the best possible way.
He's a good dirt ball."
The game has been
deconstructed relentlessly by seamhead scientists, but no one has been able to
place a value on a dirty uniform, to formulate a grass-stain coefficient. If
Utley had played during the black-and-white-TV generation, he would have been
known simply as a guy who hustles. But as the appeal of this virtue has
diminished in baseball's current culture of cool, baseball's lexicon has
overcompensated by growing more colorful in descriptions of it. Players who
dirty their uniforms every game are referred to as dirt balls or dirt dogs.
Maybe playing hard and playing right in the bigs deserves no more than a
grudging nod, but as the schedule slouches into the dirt-dog days of August,
note the sloth: New York Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman lollygagging to first base
on a dribbler in a July 23 game against the Houston Astros; Boston Red Sox
slugger Manny Ramirez waving at a ball off the wall that turns into an
inside-the-park home run for the Seattle Mariners' Adrian Beltre that same
afternoon; innumerable outfielders who apparently think a cutoff man is that
SUV cowboy on the interstate. And in an exchange that will live in Philadelphia
lore as Bloody Sundae, pitcher Cory Lidle publicly questioned the Phillies'
commitment to winning after being traded to the New York Yankees on July 30.
That drew a riposte from reliever Arthur Rhodes, who assailed Lidle for
devouring ice cream in the clubhouse after starts rather than running or
If some Phillies
do lack big league industriousness--former closer Billy Wagner leveled the same
charge after signing with the Mets in the off-season-- Utley is beyond reproach,
conspicuous in his effort. The 27-year-old second baseman dives for all
grounders in his zip code. He grinds out at bats and bursts out of the box as
if someone had fired a starter's pistol, even when he's not trying to extend a
hitting streak. (His 35-game hitting streak, the longest in the majors this
season, was snapped by the Mets last Friday.) Yankees third base coach and
former Phillies manager Larry Bowa says, "He plays every game like it's the
seventh game of the World Series." The old-school player with a name out of
an old school ( Chase Utley? Wasn't half the Yale class of '73 named something
like that?) is an antidote for indolence, an All-Star who goes home every night
with a dirty uniform but a clean conscience. He has a host of dirt ball
confederates (see box, page 46), but Utley is SI's choice as the game's
dirtiest player. In the best possible way.
want to take anything for granted," Utley says. "As soon as you start
taking the game for granted, that's when it bites you in the ass."
His approach is
more feral than it is Will Ferrell. Phillies beat writers were doing their
dogged best to interrogate the guarded Utley about the streak after he had
launched his third home run in two days against Arizona in late July and neared
the midway point to Joe DiMaggio's record of 56, but Utley was not about to
grace them with a quip, or even a decent quote about the streak. Boastfulness
isn't his way, and his reticence is understandable, given that the one
butt-bite of Utley's young career has not sufficiently healed.
In the eighth
inning of a round-robin game against Canada at the World Baseball Classic in
March, Utley cracked a deep fly to center, flipped his bat aside and raised his
arms in celebration of an apparent go-ahead, three-run homer. Instead, the
presumptive homer nestled in the glove of Adam Stern on the warning track for
the third out. "I thought for sure it was a homer," says the chastened
Utley. "I got text messages from my buddies about it. I'd have given myself
crap too. You definitely won't see that again from me."
That loud out in
the WBC has been the only fly in Utley's ointment. Since becoming a regular in
June 2005, he has impressed most baseball people. "Having talked to guys on
other teams and other managers, [it's clear that Utley] gets everybody's
attention," Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. No one more than Dodgers
catcher Russell Martin. After doubling in the tiebreaking run at Dodger Stadium
on June 4, Utley broke hard to the plate from third on a chopper to first
baseman Olmedo Saenz and barreled into Martin with a forearms-leading, headlong
dive, wallpapering the catcher as the ball squirted free. The throw was far
enough up the first base line that he could have slid and avoided a collision,
but in Utley's uncompromising world, if he's in for a penny, you're in for a
That collision was
seismic; his hustle on another decisive play a week earlier had a more subtle
impact. Leading off the fifth inning of a 2-2 game against the Brewers, Utley
beat out a grounder to second by an eyelash. Two outs later Ryan Howard hit a
two-run homer. "The harder you play this game, the more you get out of
it," said Utley, who had a .391 on-base percentage (including .442 against
lefties) and was leading all second basemen with 21 home runs. "I never
want to look in a mirror and say, What if? What if I had run harder? What if I
had dived for that ground ball?"
assistant G.M. Mike Arbuckle, who scouted Utley in high school in Long Beach,
Calif., contends that aggressiveness like Utley's must be innate or developed
at a young age. Utley's drive to be first-team all--grass stains is probably in
his DNA, but it was nurtured in the Wiffle ball games on the lawn of neighbor
Denny Mayfield's house on Ashbrook Avenue. Mayfield, who also served as Utley's
first T-ball and Little League coach, was the neighborhood game's commissioner,
pitcher and arbiter of its unique rules, which included retiring base runners
by hitting them with the ball. "The boys," recalls Dave Utley, Chase's
father, "enjoyed exchanging welts." Mayfield, a longshoreman, was one
of those lionized youth-league coaches: intense without being insane, positive
without being pushy. He would pepper the kids with phrases like "Be a
star!" Utley soon was showing what he had five times a week in the Lakewood
Batting Cages, five miles from his home. His parents would give him $20 and
drop him off at the machines. He would hit until his hands hurt or his money
ran out. He was such a cage rat that the owners, who gave him odd jobs, often
would turn on the machines and let him hit for free.
Emerging from the
School of Base Knocks at the batting cages, and later from UCLA, was a
lefthanded swing as sweet as a Mother's Day card. With a hands-high open stance
adapted from watching future teammate Jim Thome on television, Utley can flick
his hips and yank a pitch to right or stay back and drill it to left center.
"His swing has been very consistent," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel
says. "What he's hitting, he's crushing."