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Bodley: Utley reminder of days gone by

Utley reminder of days gone by

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jimmy Rollins says Chase Utley rarely smiles, "And when he does, the glove is over his face."

Watch Utley ply his trade as the Phillies' All-Star second baseman and you wonder if he truly enjoys his profession. He's quiet, all-business and fiercely competitive -- one of the premier talents in the Major Leagues.

But does he enjoy it?

"I don't know. That's a good question," says Rollins, Utley's teammate and shortstop, with a chuckle. "Really, though, you have to enjoy this game to play it at the highest level.

"I know Chase loves the game, but does he enjoy it? Sometimes you go, 'Does he?' He's such a tough cookie, and yet, to have his type of success, it doesn't come without loving the game."

Utley puts it this way: "I enjoy the competition. People often give me a hard time and tell me I don't seem like I'm having a good time out on the field. I am. I enjoy being in that battle. I might not be smiling, but inside, that's what I like to do."

Utley, 31, is one of the core players who have propelled the Phillies to three consecutive National League East titles and to the World Series the past two years. They won it all in 2008, but lost to the Yankees last November.

Utley got the day off Thursday at sold-out Bright House Field when the Phillies opened their Grapefruit League season, quickly renewing their rivalry with the Yankees after 120 days. With left-hander CC Sabathia starting for the Yanks, it was a perfect time, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel reasoned, to rest Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez, who all hit from the left side.

The buzz on the field before the Phillies came from behind to win, 3-2, in the ninth inning was about the likelihood of these teams meeting again in the 2010 World Series -- and former American League Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, who pitched two superb innings, making his first start for the Phillies.

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"It's not easy to get to the World Series," says Utley. "There are a lot of things that can go against you. Obviously, being healthy is probably the most important. If we can stay healthy, we have the type of players, the type of talent to be successful. We need a little luck as well, but you have to stay hungry, have to remain motivated. I don't see this team backing off that."

To me, Utley is a throwback, the type of gritty, no-nonsense player from a forgotten era.

Utley -- who played at UCLA after declining to sign with the Dodgers, who drafted him out of high school -- became the Phillies' regular second baseman in 2004. Since then, he's compiled a .295 career average, hit 161 homers and driven in 585 runs. More importantly, he's been the starting second baseman for the NL in the Midsummer Classic in each of the past four years.

"It's a great feeling to come into this clubhouse every day," he says. "It's been like that for three or four years. The last two years, we've had a lot of success, but it's built up to what we have now. Obviously, we have good players, and they're good guys. We have a great coaching staff to go along with all that. It makes a good environment to be part of every day -- a large reason why we've been successful."

Manuel says he's never seen a player with the work ethic and extreme focus Utley possesses.

"He's the best I have ever been around," says Manuel. "When I first came to work for the Phillies, I traveled around the Minor Leagues. Utley was playing Triple-A at the time. I never said anything to him about his hitting or the way he played the game. I just sat there and watched him. He was so dedicated, he figured out a lot of things on his own. His preparation was off the chart."

Manuel says Utley doesn't like him to talk about it, but "his desire and passion is what our players see. I have a saying around the clubhouse, and he doesn't like it, but I always say, 'Just play with Utley.'

"Know what that means? Be on time, play the game like he does, hustle and have his kind of attitude. That's why the players respect him."

Rollins calls Utley "a firecracker. When you have a guy like that, it keeps everybody on their toes. Things he might say sometimes are going to make you laugh. You might say this dude is really crazy. But he's 100 percent every day -- sick, injured, feeling good. He's the same person and will do whatever it takes to win. He's smart and knows how to play the game."

Manuel says Utley never tells him when he's hurt.

"I've got to really know he's hurt," says Manuel. "He never says anything. If I ask him, he has a hard time telling you."

Mention that to Utley and he says, "I take pride in the way I play. I always feel like I have room to improve. I think that's a good attitude to have -- the reason we've been successful the last few years. This keeps you hungry and motivated."

Jen Utley, Chase's wife of three years, told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Andy Martino during an interview last summer she often wonders about her husband's uncanny focus and work ethic.

"I think about that all the time," she said, adding her only answer is, "It's just the way he is. He wants to be very successful for himself. He always says, 'I don't want to come home and look in the mirror and think the reason I didn't do well was because I didn't prepare.' "

Utley calls Manuel a "great manager who gets the most out of his players. I think that's the most important quality a manager can have -- if he can get all of the ability out of each and every player. At times he's the nice guy in the clubhouse, and there's times when he's the enforcer. It all depends on what he feels is best for the team."

When it comes to dealing with the ever-present media, Utley is accessible, providing there's no interference with his preparation. He is polite and provides intelligent, thoughtful answers, but does not seem comfortable in this role.

I asked if he likes being Chase Utley, vintage 2010.

"I don't like everything that goes along with it," he says with a sigh. He doesn't like the invasion of his privacy, the constant questions.

"I understand that it's part of the environment, something you have to learn to deal with," he adds. "It's not going to get any easier as long as we're successful and in the spotlight."

Pausing a moment, forcing a smile, he says, "But I don't want to change a thing. Not now."

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }