Utley deals with celebrity status

Posted: June 10, 2008

THE CONUNDRUM for a private person in a public profession is obvious: The more success he has, the more difficult it is to draw the line between the relentlessly encroaching demands that will inevitably crowd his personal space.

Chase Utley, for example. The Phillies' second baseman is off to the best start of what already has been an excellent career. The alluring notion that he could be the team's third MVP in as many seasons has been in play almost since Jimmy Rollins won the award last fall. His headfirst style of play appeals to hardcore hardball fans, his matinee-idol looks make women of all ages swoon.

The world is his smorgasbord, an existence in that rare air where his bold-faced name could be as ubiquitous in the gossip columns as in the daily box scores.

Except that it isn't.

He seems to instinctively understand that celebrity can be a voracious beast and has so far managed to tame it, to deal with it on his own terms. And if you think that's easy, just remember Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears or any number of entertainers who were burned by the white heat of the spotlight they once craved.

Utley grew up in celebrity-drenched Southern California. He attended UCLA, in Westwood, just off Sunset Boulevard. That may or may not have influenced his outlook - he says it didn't - but the fact remains that he had a curiosity about How Things Work almost from the moment he arrived in the big leagues.

Phillies media relations manager Greg Casterioto has had several in-depth discussions with him on the topic.

"He does want to know, absolutely," Casterioto said. "First of all, he's an LA guy. And I always say the LA guys, because of where they grow up, they know the whole celebrity thing. They know it.

"There was a time a few years ago when we did talk about how the whole thing, certainly not because he's looking to raise his profile. Just because he's an all-encompassing guy. He wants to know what's going on. He wants to be as prepared as possible.

"This is no different than when he goes on the field. You'll have guys in our clubhouse tell you that there's nobody more prepared for a game. This is the same thing. He wants to be prepared. He doesn't want to be caught off-guard. And he's the same on the field as off the field."

That seems to get to the heart of the matter. Utley was a baseball rat growing up and success on the field remains his priority. All that comes with it is secondary.

"I'm a fairly private person. But I've always been that way. And I like it like that," he said during the Phillies' last homestand, standing in the hallway between the clubhouse and dugout at Citizens Bank Park.

"I'm still learning how to deal with everything. But it's true. The more success you have, the more people tug at you from different directions. For me, you've got to keep it in perspective and remember what got you here and what's keeping you here and you have to stay focused as much as possible. You can't take this game for granted."

Utley likes to follow a strict regimen, everything from adhering to the same schedule to using the same bat and wearing the same knit giveaway cap.

"I have a routine every day that I stick to, which keeps me out of the way of the media. Which I think is helpful for me. But I'm definitely there after the game if they need me," he said. "I'm perfectly comfortable with the way things are going now. Again, it's a learning experience and trying to figure out what works for you and what doesn't work. Maybe some people get frustrated with me, but I'm OK with it."

Instead of letting celebrity use him, he has found a way to use celebrity on his own terms. He and his wife, Jen, are advocates for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He endorses Tastykake and EAS, but everything is on his terms.

"You control what you want to control," he explained. "My wife and I feel strongly about helping the SPCA. So I can control how I deal with that. As far as endorsements, there's a lot of stuff I do and a lot that I turn down. Stuff that I feel comfortable with and that's in my best interest, I'll definitely go with that. I don't do everything they ask me to do."

Rollins, for one, would like to see Utley do a little more and has mentioned it to him, only half-joking.

"But I haven't needed to lately," Rollins said. "He knows his marketability. And that's all I've ever told him. 'Be marketable, man. You're already a person they love. And you're good. You're nice looking. You've got all the ladies.' That's a marketer's dream. I mean, my gosh! And, oh, by the way, $85 million helps, too. My gosh."

Rollins, more outgoing, tends to embrace the attention he receives. But he also makes a serious point. He doesn't want Utley to look back when it's all over and wish he had done things differently.

"I talked to Mike Schmidt. And one of the things he said he regrets is not having as much fun as he could have had. When I asked him down in spring training how was retirement, he always said that," the shortstop said.

"That's part of the way he played that helped him get ready and why he was so successful. But there's no need to take the game to a point where it stops you from enjoying it. Because the reason you played the game in the beginning was enjoyment. And then you're like, 'I'm pretty good. I want to be a professional.' Then you become a professional and you work so hard to be great that you forget to smile and forget to be thankful and forget there are people in the stands watching you the same way you used to come to the ballpark and watch your favorites.

"Take that in. Because in 15 years you're going to be right back in the stands, watching those guys doing what we did and seeing how much fun they're having. And wishing that you did that."

Rollins grinned and admitted that Utley's way works for him. "It works very well," he conceded. "But you know the funny thing? Chase smiles now. I guess a smile for Chase. You're not going to see any teeth, you know. But you see that little smirk on his face and that's a smile for Chase.

"He even talks. Not that he's mum or anything. But he talks and says what he has to say. But it's all done in Chase-way. And we all understand it. And you learn how to see those things which were probably there in the beginning. They just weren't as noticeable because we were still trying to figure out who Chase was and what made him tick. But now we know."

And Utley knows that the better he plays, the more he will have to deal with. The New York Times was in town last week. More and more he's recognized when he goes out.

"You can't get upset with it. It's just how it goes," Utley said with a shrug. "I don't dread it at all. It brings a lot of exposure to this team and this city. So I think it's beneficial for everybody. It comes with the territory." *

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