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In Chase Utley's case, a star was formed

BASEBALL

The Philadelphia Phillies' standout second baseman fought through struggles at Long Beach Poly and UCLA to forge an All-Star career.

October 31, 2009|Kevin Baxter and Ben Bolch

PHILADELPHIA — Joe Perruccio knows a professional baseball player when he sees one. And he didn't see one the first time he saw Chase Utley.

"He was a skinny little kid," Perruccio remembers of Utley, then a freshman at Long Beach Poly High. "He didn't have a lot of natural ability."

Ken Munger, another coach at Long Beach Poly, didn't think Utley was a pro prospect either. Especially not in comparison with Poly teammate Milton Bradley, who everyone knew was a future big-league All-Star.

"I could see that Milton was a sure major league ballplayer," Munger says. "I didn't really see the same in Chase."

Even his father, Dave, was fooled.

"He was always a good player. But nothing that would have suggested that he was going to be the guy that would go to the show," the elder Utley says. "Chase wasn't a kid who was on the USA baseball teams, under 16 and under 18 teams and stuff like that."

Maybe not.

But he has turned into a man who, at 30, is three wins away from his second consecutive World Series championship. Which is why Utley says he pinches himself every day to make sure none of this is a dream.

"Absolutely," he said after the Philadelphia Phillies' workout Friday in preparation for Game 3 of the World Series tonight. "Growing up playing baseball, obviously your dream is to play in the big leagues. And you don't really realize how far away that is until you get here and see how many good players that you played with, played against throughout your time growing up never had the opportunity to get to this level.

"It's definitely pretty surreal."

Especially when you consider Utley wasn't content proving everyone wrong by simply getting to the big leagues. Because once he got there, he really turned it on, making four All-Star teams in his five full seasons, averaging nearly 30 homers and more than 100 RBIs.

In Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday he hit two home runs off the Yankees' CC Sabathia, becoming the first left-hander to hit two homers off a left-handed pitcher in a Series game since Babe Ruth in 1928.

And no less an authority than Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, who has spent nearly five decades in the game, calls Utley "one of the best players that I've ever had. He might even be the best."

Not bad for a guy who was cut from the team in his first season at Long Beach Poly and played himself out of a starting infield spot in his first season at UCLA.

"I've seen a lot of players," says Perruccio, who has sent 26 players to the pros and one, Tony Gwynn, to the Hall of Fame. "And yes [Utley] is a surprise. But the work ethic isn't. So in a way you're not surprised."

When he was a youngster, coaches fretted about Utley's size but marveled at his quick hands and dedication.

The adjectives most commonly thrown about were "feisty," "tenacious" and "smart." But not "athletic" or "talented."

In fact he struggled for years to master the game's simplest task: throwing the ball.

Midway through his first year at UCLA he was so bad the Bruins took his glove away and used him exclusively as a designated hitter. All that did was make Utley work harder, and he was already working pretty hard.

"He figured out that if he was going to have a major league career he needed to step up defensively," says his father Dave, a lawyer. "He wasn't the most beautiful thing out there, but he was getting it done. And he continued to improve each year."

So while his bat -- he hit .382 with 22 home runs his junior year at UCLA -- made him a first-round pick in the 2000 draft, his glove has made him the best all-around second baseman in baseball.

The same guy who was so bad he wasn't allowed to play the infield as a college freshman led all major league second basemen in putouts this year.

"He's an exception," Perruccio says. "He didn't have a lot of natural ability. But he did the hard work. He just loved playing the game."

And he hasn't stopped, working hard or loving the game.

"He's the most prepared guy I've seen. He's one of the hardest workers," Manuel says. "Would you call him an overachiever? I would. But when I look at his ability, his eye-hand coordination as a hitter, his balance and the rhythm and the preparation, I think that all comes into play.

"As far as dedication and everything and loving to play the game, he's off the charts."

Utley, then, would seem to have earned the right to thumb his nose at his detractors, at the people who saw the skinny body and the awkward throws but not the gigantic heart or the boundless desire.

Instead, he says he's too busy getting better to worry about what anyone else thinks.

"That was never my attitude," he says. "I have worked hard over the years to improve. I'm still doing that every day. I feel like I motivate myself rather than other people trying to motivate me."

And now he's three wins away from a second consecutive World Series ring, which has his dad pinching himself as well.

"It's otherworldly. We're excited for him. It's fun," Dave Utley says.

But for the elder Utley, that's just the beginning of the dream. Because as a lawyer he's trained to look beyond the obvious to find a deeper truth: Sometimes hard work does pay off.

"When it's all said and done, we're proudest of the fact that he's turned out to be a good guy," he says of his son. "And it hasn't twisted him into somebody that you wouldn't have the same respect for.

"He's modest. He's generous. He seems to be well respected by his peers. And I think that's the biggest sense of pride for us: That he's grown up to be a good guy and accomplished a lot but has the respect of the people that he works with."

"And that he's in baseball because of his approach to the game."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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