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Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Can Chase Utley ever take it easy?

By Jayson Stark

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The question I asked Chase Utley on Wednesday morning was one he never saw coming.

Here's how it went:

"You've had a lot of stuff that has happened to you physically over the last couple of years. Do you ever think it might be time to take a more cautious approach to the way you play? Can you do that?"

He looked me straight in the eye. He never blinked. He never flinched. He never changed expression. But when he began to speak, it became clear this was a subject he felt very passionately about.

"I broke my hand a few years ago, which is, in my opinion, a freak thing," he said. "I've torn a ligament in my thumb, which again is a fairly freakish type of injury. I had a hip issue a few years ago, which was treated and it's fine as well. So in that aspect, it's tough, you know. I've played this game for a little while, and I feel like I play it the right way."

And then here it came -- the money ball, the nine words that define what has made Chase Utley the player he's become:

Chase Utley
Is it possible for Chase Utley to go a little slower?
"And," he said, "I don't know any other way to play."

You knew that line was coming. Didn't you? You knew he meant it. You knew he felt it, from the place inside his chest where his heart thumps to the brain cells in his noggin that drive him to prepare for every game as if it's Game 7.

But here's a message for him that I've heard quite a bit this week:

It's time for Chase Utley to ease himself out of the kamikaze stage of his career.

Reckless abandon is a beautiful quality in any player -- when he's 25. But Utley is now 32, with three years left on his contract (at 15 million bucks a year) and the mileage mounting on his tires.

The knee issues he's battling now are not some "freak thing." In the words of ESPN injury guru Stephania Bell, they're a "wear-and-tear" thing.

The statement by the Phillies' team doctor, Michael Ciccotti, on Wednesday talked about "bone inflammation." That's not something that a guy just wakes up with one day. It's a product of 1,000 games of grinding, full-bore. It's a product of knee cartilage that is beginning to get worn out.

And it's a product of a player who has only one gear on his transmission.

On Tuesday, I spent some time hanging out with a bunch of scouts at a Phillies-Orioles game. They were curious about Utley, and about where this might be leading. When I asked them if they thought it was time for this guy to learn the art of self-preservation, they were unanimous in the answer they gave:

Absolutely.

"Ever watch the way he runs out a ground ball?" one of them asked. "It's max effort, full speed, every time up the line. I love it. But you don't need to run EVERY ball out that hard."

"How about how he goes into second to break up a double play?" asked another. "He goes in hard, every time he slides. A lot of times, there's no need for that."

"It's time for him to get out of the way of a few more pitches at home plate," said a third scout Wednesday, well aware that Utley has had more seasons (four) in which he's been drilled by at least 18 pitches than any other active National League player.

And then there's that Flying Wallendas act in the field. How many times a night does he spin, dive, flop, bury himself in the outfield grass, throw his body after every ball that passes between second base and King of Prussia?

Again, these are all qualities that have made him the special player he is, and a big part of the flame that helps him breathe fire into everyone he plays with.

But they're not qualities that will serve him well as he approaches his mid-30s and beyond.

It IS possible to play hard and still play smart. It IS possible to give max effort without going out of your way to beat up your body. It IS possible to be a leader and a winner, and to play "the right way," without risking another bump, another bruise, another fracture, another visit to the disabled list whether you need to or not.

In truth, however, this is an issue that doesn't apply to him right now, as he tries to determine his medical options. For now, Utley needs to figure out whether he needs surgery -- which certainly seems likely -- and, if so, what type of surgery. That decision will dictate how long he'll be spending time with his favorite physical therapists and when he'll return.

You know he'll work feverishly to recover, to beat the clock, to defy the timetable. You know he'll look at all that as his latest, greatest challenge. He knows no other way to approach it.

"When things aren't going your way," he said Wednesday, "I think that shows someone's true character. It can be difficult at times when things aren't going your way. But at this point I can't do anything, I can't change anything from what I did in the past. I want to move forward with a positive attitude."

The fact is, though, that once he returns, he CAN change what he did in the past. He can let those ground balls he can't possibly reach go through without chewing on those blades of outfield grass. It's OK.

He can spin out of the way of a few more fastballs heading for his rib cage. It's all right.

And he can ease on into second base once in a while on the bases, when there's no prayer of preventing those 6-4-3s or 4-6-3s, no matter how much his gut tells him to plow in there like Jerome Bettis. It's fine.

Many, many players through the years have figured out they CAN play that way. Self-preservation is still legal in all 50 states. And in the case of a pivotal player, heading into his 30s, it's not just allowable. It's vital -- for him and a team that needs him.

But that brings us to the follow-up question I asked Chase Utley on Wednesday morning, after listening to him explain that he didn't know any other way to play.

"The way your DNA works," I asked him, "can you even play another way?"

After listening to that question, he actually smiled.

"That's a good question," he said. "I guess time will tell."

Yep. I guess it will. It always does. Doesn't it?