David Murphy: Fans deserve truth about Utley's health

Ryan Howard continues his rehab from Achilles' surgery with light workout before Sunday's exhibition game against Baltimore.
Ryan Howard continues his rehab from Achilles' surgery with light workout before Sunday's exhibition game against Baltimore. (DAVID M WARREN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: March 26, 2012

ONE OF THE unfortunate developments in our decibel-driven age has been the replacement of legitimate public discourse with a supersized batch of Stupid. So when Chase Utley chose Sunday's much-anticipated question-and-answer session with reporters as a platform to express displeasure with the mass hysteria that has accompanied his monthlong absence from the lineup, it was difficult for any of the assembled media to take justifiable offense.

Utley's mentality is simple: I am going to do everything within my power to ensure that I am able to step onto a baseball field and perform at the highest possible level, and I would appreciate it if you would just trust me to do that. Most fans understand that. Most probably even appreciate it.

That being said, understanding and appreciation need to be mutual for any relationship to flourish, and the latest chapter in the saga of Utley's ailing knees suggests that the Phillies and their star second baseman do not have a realistic grasp on the depth of their fan base's investment in the team. While a superstar professional athlete has the same right to medical privacy as you or I, it is disingenuous for him or his team to think that the paying customer does not have the right to wonder when, or even if, it will have the next opportunity to see him perform. The downside of visibility is one of the reasons a player is so well compensated for it: He can not handpick the moments when he wants to be seen.

It is absurd to think that fans and their conduits in the media would not take a critical look at the unknowns after weeks of assurances from Ruben Amaro Jr. about Utley's health came to an abrupt end with a mysterious trip to a specialist and a refusal to answer any direct questions about why, exactly, he was suddenly ruled out for Opening Day.

That does not excuse erroneous reports like the one from an SI.com writer who said that the second baseman was visiting a doctor renowned for medical procedures that would require a lengthy recovery. But it also does not acknowledge the likelihood that Utley would be spotted in Arizona, and that a simple explanation of the opinion he was seeking (a revamped conditioning routine from specialist Brett Fischer) would have diminished the inevitable hullabaloo.

"When I went out to Arizona, I asked Ruben not to say where I was going," Utley said, "because I didn't think it was necessary for people to know."

He has every right to hold such a belief. Having a heart-to-heart with fans was not going to get him back on the field any earlier. Which, in the end, is the only thing most fans care about.

But Utley and the Phillies can not ignore the fundamental reason for the presence of such curiosity: People care. They care deeply about the Phillies, and they care deeply about the superstars they have watched develop over the last 5 to 10 years. Philadelphia is one of those towns where fans look at themselves more as shareholders than as paying customers. The intensity of that emotional investment has made a lot of people a lot of money, from the players who have signed eight-figure contracts to the executives who have watched profits soar. And let's not forget about the financial investment from taxpayers that helped build Citizens Bank Park, thus making the current money machine possible.

One half of the organization appears to have a healthy understanding of the economics of it all. The Phillies' marketing department puts on a game-day show like few others in the major leagues. The team's involvement in the community is obvious. The business side of the organization is stocked with homegrown personnel who understand the city's affection for the team, starting with Roxborough-bred David Montgomery in the president's office.

On the other hand, the baseball operations side of the organization often leaves the impression that it would rather you just play with your bobblehead and let the grownups worry about the important issues. This does not make it unique among personnel departments. In fact, in the current media age, silence often is the smartest policy.

But silence also means that, even after Sunday, the only possibility that has been ruled out is surgery, which was not the case the first time Utley spoke publicly about his knees this spring.

On one hand, his assertion that he feels better now than he did last year provides some hope that he will miss less than the 2 months he was sidelined at the start of last season. On the other hand, he was able to take batting practice throughout last spring, something he is not currently doing. On either hand, the fact that neither he nor the team will offer a hint of when they hope he can return means Phillies fans still have no idea what kind of team they will be plunking down money to watch this season.

The fact is, Utley has played competitive baseball for just 5 of the last 17 months. His batting average and slugging percentage have dropped in each of the last four seasons. He missed the first 2 months of 2011 and returned to post numbers that were well below his career averages.

Even now, his exact diagnosis is unclear: Utley said Sunday that his chief issue is chondromalacia, which is a cartilage problem, on the undersurface of his left kneecap. He said he does not have tendinitis, which was part of the official explanation of the right knee pain that plagued him last year. He also said he thinks that the problem is something he can fix permanently, which was different from the summation he gave about his right knee earlier this spring.

Nobody should be surprised if Utley ends up beating this injury the same way he has beaten several others. But to suggest that fans should not be concerned is to underestimate their level of attachment to both him and his team.

Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com,

or on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese. Read his blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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