Eventually, Asche should be a leader for Phillies

Posted: February 06, 2014

EVERY GOOD team has a Cody Asche.

The Phillies have been a pretty good team for a pretty long time. No team in history has more losses, but the current Phillies epoch has only two losing seasons in its last 13. That was last season, and it was the result of $40 million of the payroll - Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard - idling on the disabled list.

Why the long run of relevance? Talent, to be sure, along with two fine managers and some brilliant front-office decisions.

Perhaps just as important, since 2001 the Phillies have had a homegrown sheriff in the clubhouse, a template of professionalism and performance; a Derek Jeter, or a Chipper Jones.

The Phillies figure Cody Asche will become their next sheriff.

In 2001 and 2002, it was Scott Rolen.

Rolen groomed Pat Burrell. Granted, Burrell's legacy in Philadelphia might feature nightlife notoriety, injury, surliness and strikeouts, but Burrell constantly was at the ballpark 6 hours before game time, repairing his body and preparing his mind.

Burrell groomed Chase Utley, perhaps the most popular athlete in the city's history. Utley is no stranger to the night, and he is no friendly franchise ambassador. But Utley earned unmatched respect the past decade with displays of effort that, given his recent injury issues, border on heroic; Utley is 35, but his hips and knees might be closer to 50.

Which brings the Phillies to Asche. Drafted in the fourth round out of Nebraska in 2011, Asche had just 302 minor league games when the Phillies promoted him to the majors in late July. He has not spent a full season at any level. An excellent athlete and a defensive stud, Asche, like every hitter, needed more seasoning at the plate.

But Utley and his Clint Eastwood demeanor might have been moving on. He could have become a free agent. It was important to let Asche witness what Utley was all about.

Utley signed a 2-year extension with vesting options that, if he remains healthy, could make him a Phillie through 2018, so the sheriff isn't going anywhere.

That doesn't mean he can't use a deputy.

"Comparisons are comparisons," Asche said. "If you want to be compared to someone, he's probably a good guy to be compared to, because he's a great player, great person, hard worker. The guy means business. He's the definition of a professional."

Their similarities are eerie.

Both seem more hewn than grown; wiry muscle blending into angular bone; 6-1 frames carrying about 200 pounds, topped by brownish, thick hair. Both have short, violent, lefthanded swings, which are designed to make balls scream into the alleys but can make balls travel 400 feet.

Like Utley, Asche accepted a position switch in the minor leagues for the good of the franchise. Utley moved from second to third base in case he needed to replace Rolen; Asche, from third to second, in case he needed to replace Utley. Neither managed the switch.

Asche's locker sits next to Utley's, but, just as significantly, it's next to Ryan Howard's, too. Howard is the sort of superstar, with the Subway commercials and the perennial MVP consideration, who can show Asche how to do what Utley has failed to do: to be The Man every day, not just when the whim suits him. Utley never would have agreed to the 10 days of glad-handing that Asche just experienced as the centerpiece of the team's annual minor league winter caravan.

Of course, Utley has never come into camp fat, or out of shape, or distracted by contract issues.

Neither did Rolen (he had issues, but was not distracted).

Neither did Ryne Sandberg, nor Larry Bowa.

In fact, Sandberg and Bowa might shape Asche as much as Utley.

Asche should flourish under a manager such as Sandberg, who, as a player, complemented breathtaking talent with a paranoic work ethic. So did Rolen, and Burrell, then Utley; all, at some point, under Bowa, as manager.

Sandberg bravely has hired Bowa as bench coach. Bowa was an All-Star and Gold Glove shortstop, then a coach, then the manager of the Phillies, and that managerial stint re-established a culture of winning. If his interpersonal skills matched his baseball genius, Bowa would have more than that single manager of the year award he won in 2001 with the Phils; he probably would have a pennant or two, and he would probably have a manager's job.

But this, too, is to Asche's benefit. Bowa played with Mike Schmidt to his right. When Bowa finishes with Asche, there won't be a third baseman with better fundamentals than Asche, who will be an eager pupil.

For 2 months last season, Asche absorbed every morsel of knowledge that shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Utley offered.

"There's a lot of little things that happen in-game that they're so smart about. It blows you away," Asche said. "You have to be on the field to know what's going on. Positioning; when to pick off; when the pitcher needs to use the slide step; stuff like that. In-game knowledge they have so much of, you can't equate it to anything else."

The depth of his own ignorance shocked Asche.

"It worried me," Asche said. "I thought I was pretty smart, and then I see these guys. It blew me away."

Rest assured, Asche will study. Like Utley, he is not one for diversification.

Rolen turned down Division I basketball scholarships to play baseball. Burrell and Sandberg could have been college quarterbacks.

Asche dabbled in football until he hit high school, but he quit after his freshman season. He might be the world's biggest Cornhuskers football supporter. He drove 6 hours to Lincoln to see Nebraska football games this offseason, and he's the one Philadelphia resident still enamored of Eagles kicker (and former Husker) Alex Henery.

Asche does not even watch basketball.

Asche, who is from Missouri, appreciates the speed and violence of hockey. His favorite player with the Blues was beefy enforcer Tony Twist.

You get the feeling that Asche, like Utley, might be a good guy in a bar fight.

Whatever captures Asche's fancy, he gives his full attention.

Sometimes, he gives it too much attention.

Asche found himself exhausted after 6 weeks in the big leagues. He had never played into September; never played this hard; never faced pitchers who had seen him on tape, analyzed his weaknesses and attacked him with a pitch-by-pitch plan.

Asche hit .271 with five homers, seven doubles and a triple and drove in 20 runs in his first 38 games. Then, in the last 2 weeks of September, he hit .091 - 3-for-33 - with only one extra-base hit; a double.

Usually a batting-cage rat who spent more time at the ballpark than the security guards, Asche could not pry himself out of bed before the last possible minute.

"The main thing I learned last season is, when the going is tough you stick to your roots," Asche said. "No matter how hard it is to get up at the same time and get to the field at the same time, you've got to do it, and you've got to love it."

To that end, Asche picked up a trainer and followed the prescribed Phillies program at Sports Enhancement Group in St. Louis. He became somewhat fanatical about his diet. He now is fitter and stronger and more flexible, but he won't let himself push past 208 pounds.

Not 215, or 210, or even 209; but 208.

"Between 200 and 208 pounds," Asche said. "That's when I can still be agile, and quick, and run, and beat out some ground balls."

Already, Asche's solution to failure is to ignore fatigue; to work harder; to improve at all costs. His objective is not necessarily to hit home runs, or to hit a big payday, but, rather, to make sure he can beat out a ground ball in late September.

Sound familiar?


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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