PHILADELPHIA – The two men can't be any more different. In 1977, Reggie Jackson waltzed around New York wearing coats made of otter and nutria skin. Today, Chase Utley(notes) publicly decries animal abuse. Jackson alienated teammates by opening his mouth. It takes a vise to pry Utley's jaw apart and exude a word. On the evening he became a World Series hero, Jackson told the world: "Love me or hate me, but you can't ignore me."
Given a choice of the three on his night of brilliance, Utley would prefer the final option. Though it took 32 years, Jackson's bombast as he led the New York Yankees to a World Series title found its Newtonian opposite in Utley. The Philadelphia Phillies' second baseman treated his two home runs more like ho-hums, even as they helped send the World Series back to New York for a Game 6 following the Phillies' 8-6 victory Monday over the Yankees.
Such behavior from Utley comes as no surprise. The only thing about him that isn't dry is the L.A. Looks gel with which he slicks his hair into a coif better suited for "Grease," which premiered a year after the World Series that witnessed Jackson hit five home runs. That number stood alone until Utley's second in Game 5 tied the record and reminded the Yankees not to start their ring-fitting appointments quite yet.
Both home runs were vintage Utley: the swing of a machete wielder, short and slicing, followed by a home run gallop – he wouldn't trot, and he dare not jog – and an expression that would boil water faster than an induction countertop. Zero pretense exists in Utley's world. He arrives to play baseball. Everything outside of that tunnel is clatter from which he blocks his cochleae.
"Anything that doesn't involve getting better is like background noise to him," Phillies reliever Chad Durbin(notes) said. "It's like, 'Oh, I have to eat. Crap. I'm not going to get that extra five minutes of video because I'm going to have to throw this peanut butter and jelly down.' "
Rarely does Utley concern himself with the antics of his teammates, like Monday's decision to switch up the clubhouse music or spend batting practice goofing around. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, sensing the Phillies understood the win-or-go-home imperative, didn't bother with a pregame speech. Utley and Co. needed no motivation.
The first pitch he saw, a 94-mph fastball from A.J. Burnett(notes) that tailed over the heart of the plate, landed a few seconds later in the right-field bleachers. Jimmy Rollins(notes) and Shane Victorino(notes) scored ahead of him, and it started a trend that continued through his last at-bat. The Yankees pitched Utley like he was what he looks like – a run-of-the-mill guy, 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds – and not what he is: the game's most fearsome second baseman, and the most valuable player, lowercase, on a team that has two with the uppercase award.
In Utley's four plate appearances, he saw 16 pitches. Not one crossed the inner half of the plate. It's one thing to pitch Utley carefully. It's another not to back him off the plate, especially knowing his tendency to lean in and his major league-leading hit-by-pitch total for three straight years. And it's problematic for the Yankees to watch Phillies pitchers hit Alex Rodriguez(notes) three times in the Series and not have a single pitch come within a foot of Utley.
On the final pitch he saw, Utley took a fastball Phil Coke(notes) grooved across the plate and launched it again into right field, a no-doubt shot reminiscent of his second in Game 1 against CC Sabathia(notes). Utley's solo homer off Sabathia in Game 4 makes the total five, more than Babe Ruth hit in any World Series, more than Barry Bonds(notes) bombed when he was juiced out of his mind, more than anyone except Reggie, whose record he can break in Game 6 on Wednesday.
"He's just Superman," Rollins said. "He really is. Flying high right now."
The departure from early October is stark. Utley looked hurt, lost, desperate. He sloughed off a hip injury last year to help the Phillies win the World Series. His foot bothered him this year, and his struggles at the plate and in the field – remember Utley's sudden case of Saxitis, followed by his affliction with the Knoblauchs? – demanded some sort of a reason.
Because it was unnatural to see Utley play so poorly. Since the Phillies gave him full-time at-bats as a 26-year-old in 2005, no second baseman has approached his success. He's best among them in games played (754), on-base percentage (.388), slugging percentage (.535), home runs (146), RBIs (507) and runs scored (553). He hasn't won a Gold Glove. He should've. He does everything – watch video, take batting practice, field ground balls – with a purpose that manifests itself now, when the Phillies need him most.
"My favorite part is playing the game," Utley said. "But [attention] obviously comes with the territory. You kind of learn how to deal with it as you grow. I'm getting a little bit more used to it. But I'd rather just go out and play, yeah."
Sorry. Not an option. Greatness demands notice. As much as Utley tries to avoid it, it will chase him twice as hard. Blasé declarations beg for more information. Who is he? What motivates him? How did he evolve from overshadowed at every level into peerless at the highest? For now, it's a secret, though even Utley must admit there is intrigue to someone who ties a postseason record of the most ballyhooed postseason hitter baseball knows.
"It would mean a lot to me," said Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth(notes), whose stepfather, Dennis, played for the Yankees from 1979-81. Around Werth's house were pictures of Jackson. He was a demigod – and if you asked Jackson in those days, he'd likely chop off the demi and leave the rest to suffice.
Never will Utley affect such a persona. When he grins, it's news – "I've actually seen him smile a little bit more than usual," Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ(notes) said – and beyond that, the Phillies expect little emotion. Just for Utley to perform and pick them up when, say, Ryan Howard(notes) strikes out for a World Series-record tying 12th time – and it barely registers.
"Sometimes I don't even like to talk about him because he don't want me to," Manuel said. "Actually he don't like for you to say a whole lot of things about him. … I don't want to embarrass him or nothing like that."
Manuel loves Utley, and it's just one more way that he differs from Jackson. Billy Martin wanted to kill Jackson. Martin benched him during the postseason. Manuel would not dare do that to Utley, not when he brings such professionalism and fire and single-mindedness.
And, of course, home runs. Five of 'em. Enough to keep the Phillies alive for one more game.
- Reggie Jackson
- World Series
- Chase Utley