And so it went. In a town better known for a different type of feedback, Utley stepped into the on-deck circle and, though it was warm and muggy that night, was immediately wrapped in an applause blanket collectively knitted for him by the fawning crowd. People were so happy to have him back, no one seemed to care that he went 0 for 5 in that first game. You get the sense that he could almost go 0 for the rest of the season and still get a pass from a faction of the fan base.
It's good to be Utley. Always has been. The second baseman was long ago admitted into Philly's Untouchables Club, an exclusive society with a handful of members from various sports.
While all inductees are given what amounts to a lifetime pass from the fans and press, entrance qualifications vary greatly. Some players - such as Utley, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee - are wildly talented. Others - such as Mike Sweeney and pretty much everyone on the 2001 Sixers except for Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo - were fan favorites even though they were essentially bit parts while in town. Some guys were talkers and/or characters with oversize personalities to complement their skills - the '93 Phils and Bernie Parent, for example - while others were beloved even though they were far more reserved. (Brian Westbrook, Brian Dawkins, Jamie Moyer, and Mo Cheeks come to mind.) Some were Hall of Famers - Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Reggie White, Richie Ashburn - while others became local icons despite their inability to win anything significant. That last category should have its own wing in the Untouchables Club, and it should be named after Buddy Ryan and every backup quarterback to play here.
Still, few athletes past or present are as untouchable as Utley. He could very well be Untouchables Club chairman. The "world [expletive] champions" gaffe hurt him for a while, but it seems long forgotten now. That infamous video interview he did with a local gossip columnist - the one where he stood silent for a long while when asked to compliment his wife, who was standing next to him - made him look like a bit of an insensitive clod, but few held it against him. He isn't particularly gregarious or candid with the media, but unlike Andy Reid, no one gets worked up about it. Even after the NLCS last year, during which he had just four lonely hits in 27 plate appearances, he wasn't held nearly as accountable by the press or fans as, say, Ryan Howard, who might never live down that final, frustrating, bat-on-the-shoulder moment. And, in each of the last three years, Utley's batting average and slugging percentage have declined.
But even when Utley goofs, the mistakes soon slide off him. It's as though he gets up each morning and covers himself with nonstick cooking spray. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be popular. It's a commentary on the flexible criteria Philadelphia uses to exempt certain people from the usual brand of criticism or negativity. There doesn't seem to be any unifying logic to the selection process. And yet, in the end, there are a handful of guys who have been chosen to wear the equivalent of those red practice jerseys that quarterbacks don to remind everyone not to hit them.
The hard-to-define selection process for the Untouchables Club reminds me a little of a scene from The Departed. Leonardo DiCaprio's character is at a bar and orders a cranberry juice. When the guy sitting next to him gives him heat about his drink, DiCaprio decides to mash his face into lumpy pulp. Almost immediately, an Irish mob figure materializes and tells DiCaprio to knock it off because "there are guys you can hit and guys you can't." He doesn't explain why, he just tells DiCaprio that's the way it is. It comes off as a random judgment, but no one questions it.
That's sort of how it goes in Philly. There are guys you can hit and guys you can't, even if we're not always sure why.
Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813, firstname.lastname@example.org or @gonzophilly on Twitter.
Read his past columns at philly.com/philly/columnists/john_gonzalez