MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s not often you see a smile on Chase Utley’s face when he’s on a baseball field.
Don’t misunderstand. He loves being on the field. He loves the game.
It’s just that his intense approach to the sport -- from everything to an early spring workout to a ninth-inning at-bat in a one-run game in a pennant race -- masks that particular emotion and covers it with a growl and a sneer. The heart says he loves the game. The face says he’s trying to tear out the opponent’s heart.
Monday night was different.
There was Chase Utley on the diamond at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis for baseball’s annual Home Run Derby.
In his arm was Ben, his 2½-year-old son.
On his face was a smile.
And this really was a time to smile for Chase Utley.
He is back in the All-Star Game after a four-year absence. He is back in the All-Star Game not after a chronic knee condition simply changed his career, but after a chronic knee condition nearly ended his career.
“I probably appreciate this one more because of what I’ve gone through over the past few years,” Utley admitted Monday afternoon.
Utley was voted a National League starter by the fans five times from 2006 to 2010, though he had to miss the 2010 game after tearing up his thumb on a slide into second base in Cincinnati.
The thumb injury was nothing compared to what Utley went through the next two seasons. He had dealt with sore knees for a while before the pain forced him to the sidelines. He missed two months in 2011, half a season in 2012. And to be clear, these weren’t just sore knees. Serious cartilage issues caused intense pain when Utley ran, when he took ground balls, when he simply played the game in his accustomed way.
In the spring of 2012, as he tried to keep his hands working by taking ground balls while seated on a stool, there were serious questions about whether Utley would ever play again.
He traveled the country looking for answers and finally, with the help of Brett Fischer, a noted physical therapist in Arizona, found a stretching/strengthening program that eased the stress and pain on his knees and allowed him to continue his career, even sign a contract extension with the Phillies.
Mind you, Utley has a degenerative knee condition. It hasn’t gone away. He still feels soreness, though he’d never admit it. His daily behind-the-scenes routine of stretching and strengthening allows him to tolerate it, to play through it.
In 2013, Utley was able to play in 131 games. He missed a month, not with a knee issue, but with an oblique strain.
This year, at age 35, he remains a fixture in the Phillies’ lineup. He is the Phillies’ Derek Jeter and on the night the New York Yankees’ future Hall of Famer will take his final All-Star bow, Chase Utley gets to do it again.
“I never really thought about the All-Star Game,” Utley said. “My whole goal was to get back on the field and be productive. I feel like I’ve done a fairly good job of doing that. There’s still room for improvement. But after all I’ve gone through, I’m pretty proud of how things worked out.”
Though the All-Star Game was never his goal, it is an affirmation that he has succeeded overcoming some huge health hurdles.
And being voted a starter means the fans have noticed what he has done.
“I’ve had plenty of fan support over the years,” Utley said. “Without fan support, you’re not able to be a starter. And going through all the rehab, the exercises, the stuff that I went through to get to this point -- it all makes it worthwhile. All that tedious work -- it all make it worthwhile.”
Chase Utley will bat seventh for the National League on Tuesday night.
You probably won’t see him smiling on the field.
But deep down inside …