Howard: Utley, a quiet hero, sure looks like another Jeter

By Johnette Howard
|  Tuesday, Nov 3, 2009  |  Updated 8:30 PM CDT
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Celebrity Fans in the Stands: World Series Edition

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Chase Utley runs the bases on his 3-run home run in the bottom of the first inning against the New York Yankees in Game Five of the 2009 MLB World Series at Citizens Bank Park.

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The Phillies haven’t even gotten the requisite happy ending yet. But the mythmakers are already hard at work trying to make Chase Utley into Reggie Jackson now that he’s tied Jackson’s epic 1977 record of five home runs in a single World Series. But the comparison is just more proof that numbers too often obscure the real soul of the game.

No matter how perfectly their statistics align, Utley isn’t the next Reggie Jackson. He’s becoming the new Derek Jeter, right before our eyes.

Any comparisons between Utley and Jackson should be disqualified strictly on something Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said about Utley on Monday night, shortly after Utley’s second, two-homer game of this World Series kept the Phillies alive for Game 6 tonight in the Bronx.

“He don’t like for you to say a whole lot of things about him,” Manuel said.

No one ever uttered that about Jackson. In the mind’s eye it’s easy to imagine Jackson talking when he was born, talking from his bassinet, talking his way through pre-school and high school and A ball in Modesto, not just after he landed in New York and then lit up the city 32 years ago with an epic five-homer Series against the Dodgers that still glows in memory.

Nowadays Jackson is a Yankees advisor and he’ll still amiably talk to anyone who asks him a question. He’s still as extroverted, enthusiastic and funny as ever, still highly opinionated and given to spasms of ego that seem more amusing with time. Even at 63, Jackson still exudes the sense that he’s Somebody, even if you just run into him on the street (or, in the case of a Swedish-born friend of mine, at a Connecticut golf course a few years ago. She didn’t have a clue who Jackson was. But he looked at her and smiled and said, “Yeah. It’s me.”)

That’s a far cry from what happens when you stick Utley or Jeter before a crowd. Both of them look like guys who would rather be picking up their dry cleaning.

Jeter has been very good in this series while hitting .364. But Utley has been spectacular. The Phillies haven’t yet beaten the Yankees without the combination of a big night from Utley and their staff ace Cliff Lee, which is just one of the challenges the Phillies have to hurdle during tonight’s fascinating pitching matchup between Pedro Martinez and the Yanks’ Andy Pettitte, who is pitching on short rest.

Four of Utley’s five home runs have come in the Phillies’ only two wins of this series. Utley has been both good and clutch this postseason, the same combination Jeter and Jackson have ridden to legend status. Yet the blandness and brevity of Utley’s postgame press conference after Monday’s must-win was almost comical. He’d just sent delirious Phillies fans rushing into the streets, loudly rejoicing that the defending champions are still alive. Yet when asked about his two blasts, all Utley said was, “First home run was a fastball, first pitch. The second home run was a fastball as well.”

Well … um … it was a bit more than that.

Utley’s first home run on the very first pitch he saw staked Philly to a 3-1 lead just minutes after the Yankees had dented Lee’s aura by nicking him for a run in the top of the first inning. Without that quick retort, the rest of the Phillies — even Lee — might’ve started hearing footsteps. Utley’s second home run — a loud, long blast off Yankees reliever Phil Coke in the seventh — stood up as the game-winner after the Yankees cut a five-run Phillies’ lead to 8-6 before Jeter killed the Yankees’ promising looking ninth-inning rally by hitting into a double play.

Afterward, you couldn’t tell who was the hero and who was going home disappointed just by looking at Utley and Jeter. If Utley weren’t so much better than Jeter at hitting home runs, they would seem like the same guy. Jeter has four rings to Utley’s one, but they both earn raves from peers for the same traits: leading by example, playing the game the right way, remaining calm when everyone around them gets tight. Each of them shares Jackson’s flair for the dramatic. But whereas Reggie celebrated his successes — egging on applause, feeding off the energy — Utley drops into that same vacant look that Jeter affects in good times and bad.

You can go ahead and ask Utley or Jeter about their feelings. But they rarely psychologize the game or publicly talk about much anything at all, really. They endure interviews patiently, as if the answers are so self-evident. They simply go out. They play. And all the other stuff — pressure, speculation, gossip, and worries — is just white noise. Neither of them seems to trust success until everything is done and won. And you never see them lapse into modern athlete-speak and describing themselves as entertainers. Being a winning ballplayer is enough.

 

“He’s one of the most prepared, one of the most dedicated, he has the most desire and passion to play the game that I’ve ever been around,” Manuel also said of Utley. But the Phils’ manager could’ve been describing Jeter, too.

After losing Game 5, Jeter had to know the Yankees would return to some fidgeting in New York. There is a very real paranoia among Yankees fans about whether the Yankees can close out this Series and avoid blowing a 3-1 lead like they did to Boston in the 2004 A.L. Championship Series because New York hasn’t won a World Series since.

“Man, that was a long time ago,” a slightly annoyed Jeter told a TV reporter who asked him specifically about the Boston collapse earlier in these playoffs.

But the way the Red Sox stormed back was full of the sort of magic that Utley is riding now. The Yankees should still win this series. But if they’re smart, they’ll do something the Dodgers couldn’t pull off in that ’77 World Series against Jackson.

They’ll give Utley his props and make somebody else beat them.

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