After The Slide, Chase Utley returns to New York prepared to face the vitriol of Mets fans – Los Angeles Times

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Chase Utley understands what awaits him on Friday in New York. He does not welcome it, but he does not fear it. He accepts the incoming vitriol as penance for a sin he did not intend.

Months ago, he identified the broken leg of Ruben Tejada as an unintended byproduct of the spirit that has defined Utley’s career. He cannot bend time and undo the damage. He can only swallow regret.

“Looking back on it, knowing that he was going to spin, he wasn’t going to get off his feet, I would have done things differently, knowing that he was going to get hurt,” Utley said earlier this week. “But I can’t take that back. So I imagine the fans will let me have it.”

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For three nights at Citi Field, Utley will reprise his role as the most despised man in Queens. Signs in the crowd will curse his name. Spectators will hurl epithets or worse. At some point this weekend, Utley expects a member of the New York Mets to throw a baseball at his back, the final word stemming from his slide in October.

Utley conveyed his resolution toward the situation with a shrug. He appreciates his privacy and avoids introspection. He dislikes knowing the protection Major League Baseball instated for fielders at second base has become known as the Chase Utley Rule, but he refuses to speak out about it. He acknowledges vilification from opposing crowds as “part of the deal.”

Utley, 37, is the oldest Dodger and one of the most vital contributors. He bats leadoff most days, and his .379 on-base percentage is the team’s best. He anchors the defense from second base. He provides counsel to veterans and rookies. 

Now in his 14th season in the majors, Utley opens his Rolodex on pitchers to teammates, conferring before games with Yasiel Puig, Yasmani Grandal, Charlie Culberson, any teammate who asks. He studies video of opposing coaches to see if they tip signs, because “he’s a conspiracy theorist,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. He searches for patterns, his mind churning for details, for any hint of an advantage.

“Even people who give him credit don’t realize how much he brings to this team,” third-base coach Chris Woodward said.

Utley inspires hyperbole all around. Clayton Kershaw suggested if he had a son, he would instruct his child to study Utley to learn how to play baseball. Utley, he explained, “is always doing the right thing.” Bench coach Bob Geren, a member of the Mets coaching staff last October, offered Utley his version of the ultimate compliment.

“I’m trying to think, in all my years, if I know anybody I’ve ever either played with or coached or managed that’s a better baseball player,” Geren said. “I can’t think of one.”

During spring training, Geren mentioned during a meeting the idea of “taking every rule in the rule book and using it to the limits.” Utley welcomed the concept. If he is at first base when a first baseman fields a grounder, he will deliberately step onto the grass to add difficulty to the fielder’s throw. He does something similar at third base.

Utley hunts for the tiniest edge. One day last week, he struck out on a pitch that bounced away from the catcher. Utley dropped his bat in between the catcher and the baseball, so the catcher had to make a more difficult play while stepping over the lumber.

“I’m in the dugout like, ‘Did you see that?’” Geren said. “It’s the littlest thing. But that’s who he is.”

Early in Utley’s career, Philadelphia Phillies coach John Vukovich instilled in him the importance of concentration on each pitch. The concept sounded simple, but Utley learned how difficult it was to sustain across 162 games. More than a decade later, Utley said he takes the most amount of pride in this aspect of his game. “He doesn’t take any plays off,” San Diego Padres pitcher James Shields said.

As Utley entered his 30s, his style clashed with his well-being. Because of injuries, Utley averaged only 116 games per season from 2011 to 2015. His coaches asked him to tone down his risk-taking and conserve his energy. He told them he would not. 

“I understand the concept behind it,” Utley said. “It’s just something that I’ve never done. I don’t feel like for me, personally, it’s the right thing to do.”

But why? 

“I don’t know,” Utley said. “That’s a good question. Like, I’ll dive for balls I probably shouldn’t dive for, because I’m not going to catch them. Once in a while, I’ll dive for a ball I don’t think I can catch, and I will catch it. 

“There’s always in the back of your mind, ‘Maybe I can catch that ball.’ Or ‘maybe this guy will bobble a ball, and I’ll be safe.’ Ninety-five percent of the time, I’m wrong. But there is that 5% chance. Probably for that 5%, I do it.”

Utley has nuanced ways of making life miserable for opponents. He sets up late in the batter’s box, which disorients pitchers, Dodgers starter Alex Wood explained. He nabs extra bases whenever they are available. Even before he wiped out Tejada, Utley’s legacy of physicality was well-known.

After The Slide, Chase Utley returns to New York prepared to face the vitriol of Mets fans – Los Angeles Times