Grime Pays

Phillies second baseman Chase Utley has put up some filthy numbers in 2006, proving he's more than just another pretty face in an ugly uniform. In fact, he's SI's choice as the dirtiest player in baseball (and we mean that in the best possible way)
August 13, 2006

Phil sheridan hasbeen taking care of the Philadelphia Phillies' laundry since 1992, which makeshim privy to all the dirt on the team. When he comes to uniform number 26,Sheridan, the team's assistant clubhouse manager, no longer bothers to checkfor nasty stains, he just dumps it into a bucket with an industrialprotein-release solution for a 30-minute soak. He knows that in a typical game,number 26 can hit for the rinse cycle: dirt, grass stains, pine tar and,occasionally, blood. "He's behind [ex--Phillies outfielder Lenny] Dykstrabecause he doesn't chew--Lenny was a self-made mess--but this is more natural,especially the grass stains," Sheridan says. "Even if this guy doesn'tget a hit, he still gets his uniform dirty. I mean, it's filthy." Duringthe soak Sheridan periodically stirs the grubby uniform around the bucket withthe barrel of a broken bat, then sprays any remaining splotches with a stainremover before washing it in even more protein release, mixed withdetergent.

Introducing Chase Utley, number 26 in your programs, the prince of Tide."Chase is a dirt ball," Sheridan says. "In the best possible way.He's a good dirt ball."

The game has beendeconstructed relentlessly by seamhead scientists, but no one has been able toplace a value on a dirty uniform, to formulate a grass-stain coefficient. IfUtley had played during the black-and-white-TV generation, he would have beenknown simply as a guy who hustles. But as the appeal of this virtue hasdiminished in baseball's current culture of cool, baseball's lexicon hasovercompensated by growing more colorful in descriptions of it. Players whodirty their uniforms every game are referred to as dirt balls or dirt dogs.Maybe playing hard and playing right in the bigs deserves no more than agrudging nod, but as the schedule slouches into the dirt-dog days of August,note the sloth: New York Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman lollygagging to first baseon a dribbler in a July 23 game against the Houston Astros; Boston Red Soxslugger Manny Ramirez waving at a ball off the wall that turns into aninside-the-park home run for the Seattle Mariners' Adrian Beltre that sameafternoon; innumerable outfielders who apparently think a cutoff man is thatSUV cowboy on the interstate. And in an exchange that will live in Philadelphialore as Bloody Sundae, pitcher Cory Lidle publicly questioned the Phillies'commitment to winning after being traded to the New York Yankees on July 30.That drew a riposte from reliever Arthur Rhodes, who assailed Lidle fordevouring ice cream in the clubhouse after starts rather than running orlifting weights.

If some Philliesdo lack big league industriousness--former closer Billy Wagner leveled the samecharge after signing with the Mets in the off-season--Utley is beyond reproach,conspicuous in his effort. The 27-year-old second baseman dives for allgrounders in his zip code. He grinds out at bats and bursts out of the box asif someone had fired a starter's pistol, even when he's not trying to extend ahitting streak. (His 35-game hitting streak, the longest in the majors thisseason, was snapped by the Mets last Friday.) Yankees third base coach andformer Phillies manager Larry Bowa says, "He plays every game like it's theseventh game of the World Series." The old-school player with a name out ofan old school (Chase Utley? Wasn't half the Yale class of '73 named somethinglike that?) is an antidote for indolence, an All-Star who goes home every nightwith a dirty uniform but a clean conscience. He has a host of dirt ballconfederates (see box, page 46), but Utley is SI's choice as the game'sdirtiest player. In the best possible way.

"You neverwant to take anything for granted," Utley says. "As soon as you starttaking the game for granted, that's when it bites you in the ass."

His approach ismore feral than it is Will Ferrell. Phillies beat writers were doing theirdogged best to interrogate the guarded Utley about the streak after he hadlaunched his third home run in two days against Arizona in late July and nearedthe midway point to Joe DiMaggio's record of 56, but Utley was not about tograce them with a quip, or even a decent quote about the streak. Boastfulnessisn't his way, and his reticence is understandable, given that the onebutt-bite of Utley's young career has not sufficiently healed.

In the eighthinning of a round-robin game against Canada at the World Baseball Classic inMarch, Utley cracked a deep fly to center, flipped his bat aside and raised hisarms in celebration of an apparent go-ahead, three-run homer. Instead, thepresumptive homer nestled in the glove of Adam Stern on the warning track forthe third out. "I thought for sure it was a homer," says the chastenedUtley. "I got text messages from my buddies about it. I'd have given myselfcrap too. You definitely won't see that again from me."

That loud out inthe WBC has been the only fly in Utley's ointment. Since becoming a regular inJune 2005, he has impressed most baseball people. "Having talked to guys onother teams and other managers, [it's clear that Utley] gets everybody'sattention," Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. No one more than Dodgerscatcher Russell Martin. After doubling in the tiebreaking run at Dodger Stadiumon June 4, Utley broke hard to the plate from third on a chopper to firstbaseman Olmedo Saenz and barreled into Martin with a forearms-leading, headlongdive, wallpapering the catcher as the ball squirted free. The throw was farenough up the first base line that he could have slid and avoided a collision,but in Utley's uncompromising world, if he's in for a penny, you're in for apounding.

That collision wasseismic; his hustle on another decisive play a week earlier had a more subtleimpact. Leading off the fifth inning of a 2-2 game against the Brewers, Utleybeat out a grounder to second by an eyelash. Two outs later Ryan Howard hit atwo-run homer. "The harder you play this game, the more you get out ofit," said Utley, who had a .391 on-base percentage (including .442 againstlefties) and was leading all second basemen with 21 home runs. "I neverwant to look in a mirror and say, What if? What if I had run harder? What if Ihad dived for that ground ball?"

Phillies'assistant G.M. Mike Arbuckle, who scouted Utley in high school in Long Beach,Calif., contends that aggressiveness like Utley's must be innate or developedat a young age. Utley's drive to be first-team all--grass stains is probably inhis DNA, but it was nurtured in the Wiffle ball games on the lawn of neighborDenny Mayfield's house on Ashbrook Avenue. Mayfield, who also served as Utley'sfirst T-ball and Little League coach, was the neighborhood game's commissioner,pitcher and arbiter of its unique rules, which included retiring base runnersby hitting them with the ball. "The boys," recalls Dave Utley, Chase'sfather, "enjoyed exchanging welts." Mayfield, a longshoreman, was oneof those lionized youth-league coaches: intense without being insane, positivewithout being pushy. He would pepper the kids with phrases like "Be astar!" Utley soon was showing what he had five times a week in the LakewoodBatting Cages, five miles from his home. His parents would give him $20 anddrop him off at the machines. He would hit until his hands hurt or his moneyran out. He was such a cage rat that the owners, who gave him odd jobs, oftenwould turn on the machines and let him hit for free.

Emerging from theSchool of Base Knocks at the batting cages, and later from UCLA, was alefthanded swing as sweet as a Mother's Day card. With a hands-high open stanceadapted from watching future teammate Jim Thome on television, Utley can flickhis hips and yank a pitch to right or stay back and drill it to left center."His swing has been very consistent," Phillies manager Charlie Manuelsays. "What he's hitting, he's crushing."

His stroke isorthodox, but his fielding is idiosyncratic. Despite an alarming 12 errors, heis less an indifferent second baseman than he is a work in progress. ThePhillies, who tried their 2000 first-round draft pick at third in the minors,judiciously have allowed Utley to sort out how to play the position throughhard work. "Ryne Sandberg was a jabber," says John Vukovich, a specialassistant to general manager Pat Gillick, of the Hall of Fame second baseman'shabit of stabbing at ground balls. "One coach in Chicago wanted to changehim, but [then manager Don] Zimmer said he hadn't seen a jabber like that sinceJackie Robinson. The message was clear. Leave him alone. That's Chase. He'sshown he can be special down the road. Let's just let him do it at his ownpace, which happens to be all-out."

His hustle hasentranced Philadelphia. He is a polyestered, pinstriped Johnny Depp: Womenadore him and men envy him. (The upper deck of Citizens Bank Park is dottedwith Chase's Chicks and Utley's Ugleys fan clubs.) In a legendarily criticaltown--ex-Phillie Jay Johnstone once said that when games are rained out, fanshead to the airport to boo bad landings--Utley is bulletproof. Well, almost. Inhis first major league start, in 2003, he hit a grand slam against the ColoradoRockies. "Grand slam, I'm really pumped up; standing ovation; great,"Utley says. "Next at bat, we're up six runs, I strike out and get booed.They're yelling at me to go back to the minors. It keeps you on yourtoes."

Certainly Utleyhas kept fans on theirs, for ovations. He hit .405 during the streak andestablished himself, with Howard, as a beacon of hope for a franchise solacquered in futility that its one championship in 123 years makes thesolipsistic Cubs look like the Yankees. Relief pitcher Ryan Madson has a pairof Utley bobbleheads, a full-page newspaper picture of him, a scorecard withUtley's likeness and a chase T-shirt in his locker, which is just two candlesand an incense holder short of a shrine. "Hey," Madson says, "I'm afan too." And he's not the only Utley acolyte in the Phillies locker room.Manuel compares Utley's swing to those of Ted Williams and Wade Boggs. Redsreliever Rheal Cormier references Nomar Garciaparra because Utley never givesaway an at bat. And closer Tom Gordon sees a resemblance to George Brett."Like George, he makes the pitcher work," Gordon says. "Differentswing patterns--George was swinging more down and in, Chase sprays theball--but with Chase having such a good idea of what he wants to do every atbat, he's way ahead of himself. With George Brett, you think 3,000 hits. Ifthis kid continues to prepare and play the way he does, he could accomplishthat."

Even if seamheadscience suggests that Gordon's prediction is fanciful--Utley would have toaverage 216 hits a season until age 39 to hit 3,000--it will all come out inthe wash for this rare type of player. Among the dirt dogs, Utley is best inshow.

The List

For a photo gallery of the 10 biggest dirt dogs inbaseball, go to SI.com/baseball.

The Dirty Half Dozen

These dirt dogs have some valuable tangibles to goalong with their intangibles

ERIC BYRNES (above) DIAMONDBACKS, OF

Enjoying a career year in '06 (18 homers, 15 steals,.873 OPS) after a miserable '05 with three teams. Nobody lays out for a catchas stylishly and intrepidly as this Spicoli clone.

JORGE POSADA YANKEES, C

Has not been on the DL since becoming full-time starterin 2000, and his OPS (.875) is nearly 100 points higher than in '05, no smallfeat for a catcher who turns 35 next week.

CHONE FIGGINS

ANGELS, OF

Greatest attribute is his ultraversatility, which isvital for a roster as fragile as the Angels'. He has struggled at the platethis year (.255 through Sunday) but has 40 steals, best in the AL.

RYAN FREEL

REDS, OF

Freel blends the versatility of a utilityman (seeFiggins) and a daredevil's fearlessness (see Byrnes) with the productivity of asolid every-day player (see his .843 OPS this season).

BRIAN ROBERTS ORIOLES, 2B

May never regain the power he showed in '05 before agrisly arm injury, but remains an efficient base stealer who works counts andfinds gaps. Think Chuck Knoblauch at his mid-'90s best.

GRADY SIZEMORE INDIANS, OF

Sizemore's heartthrob status shouldn't be confused withsoftness. Needs to cut down on K's, but at 24 he's a younger, more powerful(.903 OPS) version of fellow centerfield matinee idol Johnny Damon.

"I never want to look in a mirror and say, WHAT IF?What if I had run harder? What if I had dived for that ground ball?"

Madson has a pair of Utley bobbleheads and a CHASET-shirt in his locker. "Hey," says the Phillies reliever, "I'M AFAN TOO."

PHOTOAl Tielemans HUSTLEAND FLOW
Utley drew national attention with his 35-game hitting streak, but he hadalready made a huge impact on the Dodgers' Martin (inset) in a June collisionat the plate.
PHOTOROBERT BECK [See caption above.] PHOTORUSTY KENNEDY/AP BROWN-COLLAR PLAYER
Despite his team's seasonlong slide, Utley has played so hard that his uniformregularly requires an industrial-strength soaking.
PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.] PHOTOAL TIELEMANS MEANSTREAK
His run at history is over, but Utley is still on pace for a 30-homer, 100-RBIseason.
PHOTOAL TIELEMANS NEWCRUSH
Utley and Howard (right) provide a mashing right side of the infield--and twomuch-needed fan faves.
PHOTOBOB ROSATO PHOTOMIKE EHRMANN/WIREIMAGE.COM PHOTOBRAD MANGIN PHOTOBOB LEVEY/WIREIMAGE.COM PHOTOCHRIS GARDNER/AP PHOTOJOHN IACONO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)