PHILADELPHIA -- A young Chase Utley would take swings at a batting cage until he ran out of quarters. Then he'd earn a few bucks picking up balls or trash and take more hacks.
The strong work ethic Utley possessed during his childhood in Southern California has only intensified now that he's in the major leagues. A two-time All-Star second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, Utley is never satisfied. He wants to keep improving, so he's always working to get better.
Need a minute to chat with Utley? Better catch him on the run. He's polite and mild-mannered, but he's usually too busy to talk and doesn't care about self-promotion.
Utley arrives early at the ballpark and leaves late. He takes extra batting practice, hits off a tee, watches video and makes sure he's ready for every at-bat.
"I've never seen a guy as prepared as Chase," Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's always early, and he hits every day. He eats it and sleeps it."
The countless hours Utley spends working on his swing and studying pitchers have made him an elite player. He was batting .323 with a major league-leading 14 homers and 30 RBIs, through Thursday.
A few prominent people consider Utley the best player in baseball, even better than Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, who spent his entire career with the Phillies, puts Utley first on his list. President Bush, the former owner of the Texas Rangers, recently said he'd take Utley if he had his choice of anyone in the majors.
"It's great praise," Utley said.
Manuel has been in baseball for more than 40 years and has coached many great players, including Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome. If he had to choose one player to start his team, he'd take Utley.
"Puckett for me was the ideal baseball player until I met Chase," Manuel said. "Whatever Chase does, it doesn't surprise me."
Utley's sweet left-handed swing is close to perfect. It's short, compact and generates a lot of power, even though Utley (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) isn't as big as most long-ball hitters. All that extra work in the cages and the rigorous off-season training program have certainly paid off for Utley, a first-round pick in 2000.
Kevin Tyler, owner of Lakewood Batting Cages in Lakewood, witnessed Utley's dedication at a young age.
"His father, Dave, had an office nearby and he'd drop Chase off on his way to work," Tyler said. "He was a really nice kid. We'd frequently let him keep hitting after he spent all his money. Sometimes we'd let him kick the balls back that had gathered, or we'd get him a broom and let him sweep. He definitely was a great hitter. He had a fluid, smooth swing."
In an era when players put so much emphasis on style, Utley is downright boring. He would rather win a game than watch himself on a highlight reel.
Whether he hits a routine grounder to first base or goes deep, Utley puts his head down and runs hard. There's no showboating, no flashy handshakes, no exaggerated celebration.
"That's not me," Utley said. "I don't think that's a good way to represent yourself."
There was one time Utley went out of character while playing for Team USA against Canada in the World Baseball Classic two years ago. Down two runs in the eighth inning, Utley ripped a shot to center that appeared to be a go-ahead three-run homer. He flipped his bat and raised both arms in the air the way Joe Montana used to after throwing a touchdown pass.
But Utley's drive was caught at the fence, and his friends razzed him about it.
"We were down, the fans were going nuts and there was a lot of intensity," Utley said. "You had to be there. I hit the ball extremely well, but it didn't go out. You won't see me do it again."
Utley's hard-nosed attitude made him an instant fan favorite in gritty Philadelphia. He always has a dirty uniform and he'll do anything to win, including taking pitches off his body. Utley was hit 25 times last season. One fastball broke his hand, forcing him to miss 28 games.
The Phillies overcame Utley's absence and eventually won the NL East title after he returned. The month off probably cost Utley the MVP award, which went to teammate Jimmy Rollins. Utley finished the season with a career-best .332 average, 22 homers and 103 RBIs. If he keeps up his current pace, Utley could give the Phillies an MVP three-peat following Ryan Howard and Rollins.
"He can do it all," left fielder Pat Burrell said. "He's definitely our best player and that includes everything. That's why it's so important for him to stay healthy."
Burrell is close with Utley. While fans and reporters see a player who goes all-out all the time and hardly cracks a smile, Burrell knows another side.
"Just because he doesn't say much doesn't mean he's not having fun," Burrell said. "There's a whole other side to him outside of here. He does a real good job not taking this home. Of course, that's easy when you go 3 for 4 every game."
The 29-year-old Utley didn't become an everyday starter until June 2005. He hit .291 with 28 homers, 39 doubles and 105 RBIs that year. In '06, Utley batted .309 with 32 homers and 102 RBIs. The Phillies rewarded him with an $85-million, seven-year contract extension after the season.
The deal seems like a bargain now.