Utley's loyalty defies logic

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley is a California guy but wants to stay with a rebuilding Phillies team.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chase Utley is a California guy but wants to stay with a rebuilding Phillies team.
Posted: July 22, 2014

NOT EVERYONE can be Derek Jeter.

Chipper Jones won his only world championship as a rookie. Cal Ripken Jr. was in his second season when the Orioles beat the Phillies to win his only World Series in 1983.

Tony Gwynn reached the World Series twice, in 1984 and 1998, when his San Diego Padres were beaten in five games by Detroit and swept by the Yankees, respectively. Now in his 11th season with the Mets, his career batting average an even .300, David Wright has played in the postseason just once, when the Mets lost to the Cardinals in a seven-game National League Championship Series, in 2006.

These are a few guys who, off the top of my head, chose to remain with their original teams as those teams went into decline, or a "rebuild." Gwynn played through a few of them, Ripken too, and both managed to be first-ballot Hall of Famers despite it. Jones will undoubtedly follow them there and Wright, depending on how well he maintains his day-to-day excellence as he advances into his 30s, might get enough votes someday as well.

Which brings me to Chase Utley and the health-based contract he signed last August at age 34 and his oft-stated desire to finish his career here, regardless of the circumstances.

"The grass isn't always greener on the other side," he said during the All-Star Game media session last Monday. "I've picked some brains over the course of the last few years. I really enjoy Philadelphia. I love playing baseball in Citizens Bank Park. I love playing in front of Philly fans. There's no better place to play in my opinion. Obviously, winning is important and you want to do that, and I would like to do that in Philadelphia."

Here's the problem with that last part: There is no Jorge Posada or Andy Pettitte or Mariano Rivera to try to do that with. And the well of money that fueled all those big contracts under which the Phillies now buckle appears to be currently capped. So while the Yankees would likely be willing to take on the contracts of both Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels (and pay the luxury tax it would entail), the Phillies will swap you any number of their stars and starters not named Utley and pay much of their salary as well if you can help them bolster even a little bit a minor league system that was rated among the five worst by several outlets when this past season began.

The Phillies' owners showed a willingness to spend when their park was filled and their team was filled with players in their prime. But the deals that sent Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino elsewhere, and this past winter's bargain-hunting free-agent mentality, suggest strongly that Utley is in store for the same kind of rebuild under which Wright has possibly played the best years of his career, the kind of rebuild under which Ripken and Gwynn spent most of their careers.

Even Jones, who experienced only two losing seasons over his 18-year career, can speak to the perils of staying with the same team as it revamps and replenishes. After reaching the postseason in each of his first 11 seasons, Chipper played in the postseason just once over his final seven.

So why then, would Utley want to stay? It's the question Jonathan Papelbon asked a few weeks ago, the one that fueled his recent surge in local unpopularity, if that's even possible. Pap's smears have moved the dial so low at this point that he could could rip Mike Schmidt and Roy Halladay in the same sentence and it wouldn't even move.

And yet it's a valid point. Utley faced the very real possibility just a couple of years ago of being out of baseball for good by now. At 35, unsure of how long this second life will last, why choose to play your last few years in rebuilding mode?

I get Gwynn, who grew up just up the road from San Diego and had both his extended and immediate families nearby. I get Ripken, who grew up outside Baltimore and whose father was a career Oriole, for the same reason.

Even Wright, raised in Norfolk, Va., where the Mets had their Triple A affiliate for decades, makes more sense than Utley's loyalty to a town a continent away from where he and his California-raised wife have built the home in which they plan to spend their post-baseball lives together.

Why not get an early start and play some postseason ball for those first-place Giants?

Who wouldn't want to do that?

Utley, if he can be believed. And since the guy has spent his career avoiding hyperbole and talking straight (when he has spoken at all), he can be. He may rethink his stance, he said last week, "if someone at some point comes up to me and says, 'You're not wanted in Philadelphia anymore.' " And while it's not likely to be phrased like that, the plain truth is that Utley likely will be forced, over the next 9 days, to choose between the two things he loves the most: playing for us, or playing to win.

Either way, we lose.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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