That over-the-top madness some rookies play with, that is beaten out of them by insecure veterans and relentless summers and guaranteed contracts, remains the province of Chase Utley.
There was not, ever, a veteran secure enough, a summer long enough, a paycheck big enough to convince him otherwise, that a ballgame did not exist to be played to its very last inch. Its very last breath.
At 39 years and 208 days, coming up on 2,000 major league games, thoroughly grayed by time and miles, Utley on Friday afternoon said he would retire at the conclusion of this season, his 16th.
The rest of his life – wife Jennifer, sons Ben and Max – awaits. First, however, another two and a half months of the game, three and a half months if the Los Angeles Dodgers sort themselves out between now and then, are out there. So, a few more of the at-bats he will not waste, more of the slides that will make him hero or villain, more of the desperate dashes to first base, more of the elbow or knee sacrificed for another 90 feet, more of the dad talks with teammates hardly anyone will know about.
While first and forever a Philadelphia Phillie, for whom he won a World Series a decade ago and was an All-Star six times, Utley finishes as a Dodger, a few miles from where he grew up in Long Beach, fewer still from where he went to college at UCLA. In retirement, he will forgo the final season of a two-year, $2-million contract he signed this winter, which may or may not have been the plan all along. He will finish playing the occasional second base, pulling the occasional pinch-hit assignment (he is batting .409 in that role), and quietly demanding that teammates of his conduct themselves in ways that serve the final score. It won’t always work. But sometimes it will.
Thoughtful and clear-eyed, and in the midst of several teammates who crashed his mid-afternoon Friday press conference, Utley said he’d come to his decision about a month ago. He’d considered “[riding] off into the sunset,” he said, but with people to thank and a series in Philadelphia coming in 10 days, he chose to reveal his intentions.
After praising Philadelphia and his time there, Utley continued, “Came over here and transitioned into a part-time player, something that was new for me but I took it in stride and I really enjoyed that time. I’m also a part-time strength coach, part-time pitching coach, occasionally a part-time catching coach, as well as a part-time general manager.”
He smiled thinly.
“But the thing I’m having the most difficult time with is being a part-time dad,” he said. “So that’s really the reason I’m shutting it down, because I’m ready to be a full-time dad. It is a difficult decision, but it’s one I’m comfortable with and I’m confident that I’m doing at the right time.”
His boys are 6 and 3. They perhaps have an inkling of what their father does for a living, if perhaps not entirely how he does it, or why. They need only see the final moments of his press conference, when he abruptly pushed back his chair and announced he had to attend a hitters meeting.
“In 15 years I haven’t been late for a meeting,” he said. “Today is not going to be the first day.”
They of course will learn more of those years.
“You never know when it’s your last one,” he’d said. “For me, I’ve always played the game, I feel like, the right way. Played it hard. Played it like it was your last game. It’s a little cliché to say, but that’s the way I’ve approached it over the course of my career and I feel like that’s brought the most out of me.”
Nobody would ever tell him otherwise.
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