It’s always sad to see a once-great athlete become old and merely mortal, like the rest of us. Of course, in today’s world, being a great athlete also means being a rich athlete, so we don’t have to cry when we see the Phillies’ Chase Utley struggle to the finish line of his baseball career. Still, it hurts, because we know it’s not just the end of a career – it’s also the end of an era.
We’ve seen it happen too many times over the years, whether it’s Willie Mays playing out the string with the New York Mets or Johnny Unitas stubbornly refusing to admit that it’s over with the San Diego Chargers. They hung on too long, and even though we still mostly remember them in their prime, there are always those end-of-the-line memories we wish we could erase.
There is one difference that perhaps makes Utley’s decline even more painful. Mays – the greatest baseball player of all time – looked like a 70-year-old grandfather when his weather-beaten face looked out from under his Mets cap. And Unitas – the greatest quarterback of all time – moved like a 70-year-old grandfather as he walked toward the huddle with lightning bolts on his helmet instead of the beloved horseshoes.
But Utley still looks great, pretty much the same as when he was perhaps the most valuable player in baseball and the leader of its best team. Utley is tanned and fit and handsome and it’s hard to believe, just by looking at him, that his career is ending, and not well.
Perhaps the most humbling moment for Utley came last Friday night in a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Citizens Bank Park, where Utley has enjoyed so many great moments. But now the man who had been the pivotal No. 3 hitter for a generation of Phillies fans was dropped down to sixth in the batting order. Worse, when Manager Ryne Sandberg made a double switch in the sixth inning as he made a pitching change, the man he sat down was Utley, something that would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.
Perhaps it’s also fitting that it was in that game that young phenom Maikel Franco made his 2015 Phillies debut, and in the final two innings the Phillies’ infield consisted of Franco at third, Freddie Galvis at shortstop, Cesar Hernandez at second base and Darin Ruf at first base. For the first time, we got a look at what could be the Phillies’ infield of the future, although top prospect J.P. Crawford will probably man one of those positions eventually. And all of this happened on the same night when two representatives of the proud old guard, Utley and Ryan Howard, were replaced in a close game.
At last look, Utley was hitting .143 (three pitchers on the Phillies roster were hitting better than that) and Howard was hitting .252, although he has been swinging the bat better lately. But it’s not just Utley and Howard who are showing their age, or, as Indiana Jones said so famously, their mileage. Other core members of that 2008 World Series team are struggling, too. At mid-week, catcher Carlos Ruiz had the best batting average at just .258. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, traded to the Dodgers in the off-season, was hitting .196 and outfielders Shane Victorino (now with Boston) and Jayson Werth (Washington) were hitting .212 and .208, respectively.
Father Time wins again.
That’s why it’s so good to see the Phillies finally turn the page on what might have been the best era in the franchise’s long history. Team management made that clear when they sent third baseman Cody Asche to the minors to learn how to play the outfield and promoted Franco, one of the key parts of the Phillies’ future and the man who could eventually replace Utley as the every-day No. 3 hitter.
Another key change has been Sandberg’s willingness to bench Utley or move him down in the batting order and to replace Howard for late-inning defense. Both of those players deserved to go into the 2015 season in their usual centerpiece roles, but Utley, especially, can’t complain now that it’s evident that he’s not “The Man” (as Harry Kalas delighted in calling him) anymore. Utley was given a fair shot and now Sandberg can freely let results dictate who plays and where they hit, and he can freely play the kids and give them the big-league experience they need.
And that’s why, for the first time all season, I find myself tuning into Phillies games, even though they’re already a zillion games out of first place and are still a couple of seasons away from being contenders. Galvis has already shown he can be a top big-league infielder and now it’s Franco’s turn to play every day and show us what he has and what he can become.
So, instead of watching old players on the decline, we can watch young players on the rise, and that’s a lot more fun. Nobody knows what the future holds for the Phillies, but it looks like that future is finally getting here.