Injuries to Utley and Bynum take a toll on fans, too

Chase Utley throws the baseball to first base after a force out at second base in the first-inning during a spring training intrasquad game in Clearwater, FL on Friday, February 22, 2013. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Chase Utley throws the baseball to first base after a force out at second base in the first-inning during a spring training intrasquad game in Clearwater, FL on Friday, February 22, 2013. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 01, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - For a few minutes every day, a Major League Baseball team is a dance troupe. On Wednesday morning, a group of Phillies gathered in left field for the slow ballet of warm-ups and stretches that precedes batting practice.

There, among the regulars who didn't make the long bus trip to Fort Myers, was Chase Utley.

A nation, or at least that portion clad in "ill" T-shirts, exhaled.

It is one of the profound changes wrought by social media. A day earlier, Utley was scratched from a game against the Yankees after hours of drenching rain turned shallow right field into a knee-wrecking bog. Almost instantly, Twitter lit up with concern that there must be Something Up with the injury-plagued second baseman.

"Knee jerk," manager Charlie Manuel said - the pun all the more marvelous for being unintentional. "Chicken Little."

But the reaction is completely understandable. History shows that if something did go wrong with Utley, that's how we'd find out. The Phillies haven't always been up front about injuries. Until he was seen in uniform again, nothing was certain.

Later Tuesday, 76ers coach Doug Collins launched an epic tirade against his underachieving team. The rant was like an earthquake, created when pressure builds up and builds up until something snaps.

For Collins and the Sixers, the pressure has been generated by the Andrew Bynum situation. Here's a player the team counted on, unable to perform because of chronic knee trouble. Worse, in many ways, the uncertainty around Bynum's condition has cast a pall over the entire franchise.

Sound familiar?

For two consecutive springs, Utley was unable to take the field in a single exhibition game. His status remained murky for days, then weeks, then months. After a while, even asking about him meant risking a rebuke from Manuel or general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

Considering that intense fan interest is what makes them profitable, sports franchises are annoyed awfully easily by intense fan interest.

And the truth is, under the public shrug, the teams are every bit as anxious and unsettled by situations like Utley's and Bynum's. It is only now, when Utley is seemingly back to normal, that everyone can acknowledge the strain of wondering if and when he (and last year, Ryan Howard as well) would be able to play.

"Having Chase and Howard healthy from the start, that's huge," Cliff Lee said the other day. "That's the biggest thing to me. Any time you take the three and four hitters out of a lineup, that's going to weigh heavy."

Shortstop and club oracle Jimmy Rollins compared their absences to a band missing its lead guitar player and drummer.

"We're back together now," Rollins told reporters last week.

There's no way to understate the impact of Utley's presence on this team's psyche. So it stands to reason there would be just as big an impact on the collective psyche of Phillies fans. If the band is truly back together, then maybe the sweet music of winning will follow.

That was the underlying frustration for fans, the possibility that the Phillies' run as perennial contenders was prematurely ended by bad luck.

The Sixers, of course, have no such run at stake. Bynum was supposed to be their ticket to the NBA's elite level. His inability to get on the court, and the uncertainty that creates for his teammates, the coaches and the front office, has exhausted everybody. Unfortunately, there is no way to fast-forward through this lost season. Like the 2012 Phillies, the Sixers just have to play it out and regroup.

It would be nice to cite Utley's normal spring as a sign that Bynum could regain full health. There are too many variables, though: different knee issues, different body types, different demands placed on the body by the different sports.

There is a different perception for fans, too. Utley has been a vital part of a championship team and the greatest era in Phillies history. There was no doubt he would do whatever it took to get back out there.

With Bynum, this is all we've seen. There is no trust built up.

As the Sixers crumble into irrelevance, the Phillies are preparing for a brand new season. There is legitimate hope here, and one of the main reasons for that was dancing in left field on a cool Florida morning.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.

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