As anyone still watching this Phillies season in mid-August knows, Chase Utley returned to Philadelphia this week for the first time since his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the first game of the series, Tuesday night, Utley was introduced to cheers and a standing ovation as his familiar music, Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, played over the PA system.
And throughout the night, the fans kept cheering. They cheered after he hit a solo home run in the 5th inning -- even giving him a curtain call -- and again in the 7th when he hit a grand slam. Utley got another ovation Wednesday, when he went 0-for-5; he was cheered again during the final game of the series Thursday.
These nice moments, which made national news, have had a predictable backlash. Some in town, especially on both local sports radio stations and on Twitter, aren’t too happy with the fans for continuing to cheer an opposing player, especially during a lopsided loss. And the word a lot of them are using is “soft.”
This is ridiculous. It’s the sort of armchair tough guy nonsense way too present in sports discourse these days, that takes macho posturing to the logical extreme of near-nihilism. Like 95 percent of arguments that involve one adult referring to another as “soft,” it’s embarrassing buffoonery. "Must not cheer all-time great local athlete! Must HATE instead!"
If you believe that it was wrong to cheer Chase Utley this week in Philadelphia, let me ask you this: What is sports fandom for you? Why do you go to games, why do you watch on TV? Does it bring you joy or entertainment? Or is being a fan just a never-ending battery of masculinity/"violation" tests, conducted at the behest of no one in particular?
Suppose the fans at Citizen’s Bank Park this week had risen as one, booed Utley or even given him an indifferent or less-than-enthusiastic reception. What would that have accomplished? Do you think it would cement Philadelphia sports fans once and for all as tough, and principled, and therefore intimidate opposing teams who come through town? Or would it set off another round of national news stories about just how terrible Philly fans are? I think we all know it’s the latter.
In fact, I’d say that if anything, what actually happened (warm cheers for Utley) vs. what didn’t (three days of boos and maybe worse) shows that maybe the reality of the Philadelphia fan base is better than its reputation.
And not only that, but it’s not even the first time a former Phillie has been applauded for hitting a home run for the visiting team at Citizen’s Bank Park. Jim Thome was cheered in June 2010, when he homered against the Phillies while playing for the Minnesota Twins. It says a lot about Thome that when he returned to Minnesota as a Phillie in 2012 and homered at Target Field, the fans there cheered him, too.
Indeed, the superstar athlete who formerly played in Philly coming through town with his new team is a familiar site to most local fans. There was Barkley with the Suns, Lindros with the Rangers, Iverson with the Nuggets, T.O. with the Cowboys, Dawkins with the Broncos and McNabb with the Redskins. But what all of those players have in common is that none of them won championships here and therefore departed town with at least some degree of disappointment. Those circumstances don’t apply to Utley, a key part in the Phillies’ long run of a success that included the 2008 championship.
So why not cheer Utley? It’s not like he left on bad terms, forced his way out of town or exhibited any Jonathan Papelbon-like behavior.
Sure, there were always a lot of strange mini-controversies involving Utley throughout his time with the Phillies. He was accused at various times of playing hurt, of not playing hurt, and of not being forthright with the team and/or media about injuries. Some reporters called him prickly and decried the lack of good quotes. Much like Derek Jeter in New York, Utley played for a very long time in one city without ever really establishing a distinct public persona or providing quippy sound bites. The one memorable thing he ever said, the “World F***ing Champions” proclamation during the 2008 championship rally, drew condemnations, although it also ended up on T-shirts.
But that’s the key: They did win that world (f***ing) championship. Utley, probably for the rest of his life, will return to Philadelphia on each big anniversary of the 2008 title, and when he does he’ll never have to pay for his drinks. He’s a shoo-in to retire as a Phillie, for Wall of Fame induction and for retirement of No. 26, and while he’s got only an outside shot at the Hall of Fame, if Utley enters Cooperstown it’ll probably be with a Phillies cap on his plaque.
Chase Utley was a beloved player in Philadelphia and a major part of some of the most important moments in franchise history. He provided a whole lot of lifelong memories to a pretty large generation of fans, even my young sons who weren’t born yet in ’08 but still wear Utley shirts. Therefore, he absolutely deserved every one of those ovations and curtain calls, and that moment was obviously worth the hurt feelings of those holding up meaningless codes and unwritten rules. Anyone who doesn’t see that, I have to question if they understand what sports is even about.
Follow Stephen Silver on Twitter at @StephenSilver