Sandberg sees some of himself in Phillies' Utley

Chase Utley on Ryne Sandberg: 'I'd be dumb not to pick his brain.'
Chase Utley on Ryne Sandberg: 'I'd be dumb not to pick his brain.'
Posted: February 18, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Even from a half a continent away, where Ryne Sandberg's exposure to Phillies baseball was limited to the television he watched, he recognized the traits. The determination. The work ethic. The discipline. What he saw in Chase Utley wasn't just an All-Star second baseman, but a reflection of himself.

"Really," the Hall of Fame second baseman said, "he is cut out of the same mold."

So it should come as no surprise that when Sandberg reported for duty with the Phillies after 5 years managing in the Chicago Cubs system, one of the first things he did was strike up a conversation with Utley.

Mentoring a perennial All-Star who has already established himself as one of the game's elite second baseman is rather low on Sandberg's list of responsibilities as the new manager at Triple A Lehigh Valley. But talk to both men, and talk to the people who have seen them both play, and they will tell you that the partnership can result in nothing but positives.

In fact, as Utley attempts to avoid the injuries that plagued him in 2008 and '10, Sandberg might be able to offer some valuable guidance.

"Chase does a lot of diving," said Phillies senior adviser Dallas Green, who was the Cubs' general manager when he acquired Sandberg from Philadelphia in 1982. "Diving for balls that even if he caught the thing, he's going to have a hell of a time throwing a guy out. I think that part of the game, Ryne had a feel that it wasn't worth the dive. He dove, obviously, particularly with a man on second that might score a run, he's going to dive and knock it down.

"Chase dives at a lot of balls that really, when you break it down and you look at it, you say, 'Chase, why'd you do that, because you aren't going to throw the guy out anyway?' All you do is take a chance on getting hurt, banged up, and I would say that would be part of something that Ryne could help him with. It's kind of a small thing, but your body takes a hell of a beating."

According to Sandberg, he and Utley have already discussed philosophies on staying fresh for the duration of a 162-game season. In the first 11 years of Sandberg's career, which included an MVP award and nine Gold Gloves, only once did the second baseman play fewer than 153 games.

Utley was limited to 115 games last season due to a torn thumb ligament that he sustained while sliding head-first into second base. In 2007, he was hit with a pitch and broke a thumb. And in 2008, he played 159 games and hit .292 with 33 home runs despite battling a hip injury that required offseason surgery.

"I shared some information about playing a full season, and this being a marathon out here once the season does start," Sandberg said. "Just kind of compared notes on how I approached that and how he approaches that. Just had a good conversation."

Not that Sandberg would change much about Utley's approach to the game.

"I think the secret is finding what works for the individual player," he said. "He seems to have a really good pregame ritual that allows him to really cover everything that he feels he has to cover in pregame. When he does it the right way, and pretty close to game situation, and you do that before the game even starts, then you just go out and enjoy the game, and just play the game. Have fun with it."

Few people are as familiar with Sandberg as Green, who was the Phillies' director of minor leagues when the club drafted the infielder in 1978. At the time, most people in baseball thought he was headed to the University of Washington to play quarterback. But scouts Moose Johnson and Bill Harper developed a relationship with the Sandberg family and ended up signing him after the Phillies drafted him in the 20th round. Four years later, Green swung the infamous trade that sent Sandberg and Larry Bowa to Chicago in exchange for Ivan DeJesus.

"I didn't know he was going to be a Hall of Famer," Green said, "but I knew damn well he was going to play for me in Chicago because we didn't have anybody."

Green also underestimated Utley when, years later, he watched the budding prospect play in the Phillies' minor league system. Because of his concerns with Utley's throwing ability, Green initially projected him as a centerfielder.

"I give him nothing but credit," Green said, "because he's made himself a damn good second baseman."

In that, he sees a similarity to Sandberg, a natural shortstop who played third base in his first season in Chicago before moving to second.

"The work ethic is very close," Green said. "Chase made himself a good second baseman by working, by learning and by really working with people. And Ryne did the same thing."

Now, both players are members of the same organization.

"He's one of the best second basemen of all time," Utley said. "I'd be dumb not to pick his brain."

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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