In every baseball writer's career, there's a point where you going from being the scared kid that's overly nice to even the rudest people, to being self-reliant, focused, and genuinely happy with who you are and what you're doing. If you don't get happy doing it, check out. Because it's a fun job, but it's not easy. You have to learn a lot, from many mistakes, sometimes with no help at all.
That brings me to Chase Utley.
While the minor leagues are where I've built my career, I also had a long freelance stint with Junior Baseball Magazine. Each baseball season, I'd make a few trips to Citizen's Bank Park to interview major league players for 'When I Was A Kid' pieces. I covered stories for them during Spring Training as well. But when I began, the Phillies clubhouse was the first major league clubhouse I'd ever entered.
A quick aside: I grew up in Philadelphia, a Phillies fan. The context seemed important here.
So there I was in the Phillies clubhouse looking for a player to interview. It might have been Jimmy Rollins, I don't remember now. But I got my work done, and went home.
A few months later, I returned, as the season was winding down. I was standing in the dugout during BP, and, at this point, felt more comfortable. I'd gotten to know people with the team, players knew me, as did members of the media. It was enjoyable to go there and I had a better grasp of how to get those stories done. No more intense anxiety.
I ventured over to someone with the Phillies and asked what the possibility of interviewing Chase Utley was. I was told the chances were slim.
Hearing that isn't a big deal. There are players that are simply not media-friendly and make time for certain interviews, often when they feel obligated, particularly post-game. And Utley was well-known for not being the most media-friendly guy, at least according to every Phillies beat writer that I talked to.
Fast-forward a year.
It was mid-season, and I'd done a few of those WIWAK stories on visiting team players and two Phillies players. But I'd begun developing a story on how to teach kids the right way to deal with umpires, and how to handle the emotions that come with disagreeing with calls.
I'd interviewed a couple of Phillies pitchers for the story, but needed more. I found myself avoiding asking two people: Brad Lidge and Chase Utley.
On that day, I decided I'd had enough of not trying. I approached Brad Lidge, and he kindly told me he'd have time later, just to look for him.
I looked across the room. My White Whale. The one I just couldn't get...right?
So I approached the "mean" man/superhuman/ultimate dog and animal lover/World Fu**ing Champion known as Chase Utley and started sputtering off details about the magazine and the story and why I wanted his take. I asked if it'd be ok to talk for a few minutes.
"Sure," he said with a shrug.
In the middle of the interview, Lidge tapped me on my shoulder.
"Hi. Whenever you're ready, I'll be at my locker."
No major league player just does that. And they don't always make you feel like a person. Many do, many don't. And there are plenty of minor leaguers who can be either way as well. It's the job, but it's nice when they treat you with an ounce of human decency and professionalism. Lidge was the ultimate example of that.
Utley, for all the fear that was instilled in me about interviewing him, was a gem. He was thorough, heartfelt, and funny. His attitude toward umpires also opened my eyes. As a former umpire, he understood them. And he also knew, as a player that there are calls you just don't need to bother arguing. He talked a lot like a dad that was imparting wisdom to his child, and that's exactly what the magazine looks for. He just got it.
The fear I'd harbored was gone. But post-Chase, I realized how that changed me. Like any moment in our careers where we overcome something, the moment has impact far beyond the singular experience.
I realized that being in unfamiliar territory can influence our actions. If you feel unsure, you might trust that feeling, rather than reach beyond it. That's not always easy in a baseball clubhouse. Some guys are just terrible to deal with, and you learn to avoid them. But there's many more experiences that have taught me the opposite. One key thing is that when you open a door for someone who's unsure of themselves, or of you, it frees them up. By giving me an opportunity, Utley unknowingly helped me get past worry that added up to being silly and useless. Most reporters will tell you there's players they avoid, but they'll also tell you why. I didn't have a reason. Nothing more than one person telling me he was likely going to shut me down.
Later that year, I mentioned on Twitter that he was actually great to interview & truly made the story. A Phillies beat writer tweeted back to me, 'I'm sure he was.' When I asked what that meant, he made a comment about me being female and all that jazz. Then he privately blathered on about how tough his job was and that Phillies players don't like them or some nonsense. I don't know. I guess don't be a beat writer.
The flip side of that is that I empathize and appreciate a major league beat writer's job, dealing with that day in and day out. But I'm going to shut down pretty quickly to someone who's insulting me, all women, and being a great big nasty sourpuss.
Anyway, Chase Utley left the Phillies yesterday. Not sure if you heard. Well, he didn't just pack and leave (WaWa bag image, anyone?), but he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He leaves behind an unmatched legacy. Beloved, gritty, kind, down-to-earth, but a little distant. He embodied the toughness and hardcore playing that Phillies fans crave. Not to mention that World Championship they craved. Helps.
Beyond the appreciation I've never fully expressed to him as a reporter, I'd like to remove my reporter hat.... *this thing is tight, cutting off my circulation...come on...ok...*
Thank you Chase.
From the big, bleeding, wild heart of every Phillies fan to your big, quiet, dirtball heart.
You are...well, you know the rest.