Chase Utley belted a solo home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fifth inning on Tuesday night and ran — no, sprinted — around the bases at Citizens Bank Park.
It was a sight Phillies fans had seen many times during Utley’s 13 years in red pinstripes.
Put your head down and run like the cops are chasing you.
But it was also a scene many wondered if they’d ever see again back when Utley was beset by knee problems in spring training 2011.
He missed most of the first two months of that season when one knee flared.
He missed almost half of the next season when both knees flared.
The pain was so bad in spring training that Utley, looking to keep his hands soft and quick, had to resort to sitting on a stool while taking ground balls in spring training.
Until Utley learned to manage his knee condition, there was in some circles legitimate doubt that he’d be able to continue his career.
Utley, of course, did not live in those circles.
“It was nothing that I really thought about,” he said upon returning to Citizens Bank Park with the Dodgers on Tuesday night and following that fifth-inning solo homer with a seventh-inning grand slam en route to almost personally hanging a 15-5 loss on the Phillies (see story).
“Maybe I should have thought that way but I tried to stay positive and tried to keep my focus on what I needed to do to get back on the field, so those things never crossed my mind, which I think is a way to kind of move past it, and I have.”
Scott Sheridan, the Phillies’ head athletic trainer, always believed Utley would be able to continue his career once the second baseman figured out how to handle his knee issues.
“You knew he’d find a way to get better,” said Sheridan, watching Utley work out from the Phillies’ dugout before Tuesday night’s game. “He was a grinder. Part of getting better is you have to want to get better and he did.”
There was no way Utley was giving in to painful knees. With the assistance of Sheridan and agent Joel Wolfe, Utley identified and visited doctors and physical therapists all over the country until he finally learned to take pressure off his knees with a program of stretching, strengthening, deep tissue massage and other therapies.
Sheridan’s importance in Utley’s ability to manage his knee problems — and subsequently continue a productive playing career — can’t be underestimated. Utley is a preparation freak who takes dozens of swings and ground balls before every game. Once the knee issues entered the picture, he needed to spend significant time in the trainer’s room with Sheridan just so he could go through his usual physical preparation for the game.
During his final years with the Phillies, Utley would arrive at the ballpark by 12:30 in afternoon for a 7 p.m. game. That meant Sheridan had to be there at that time, too, to work on Utley’s legs just so he could play that night.
Did Utley play in pain often?
“I think so,” Sheridan said. “Though he’d never say it.”
Sheridan rethought his answer.
“I don’t know if pain is the right word,” he said. “But there were definitely times he was not comfortable.”
Over time, a brotherly bond formed between Utley and Sheridan.
“Our conversations were always good,” Sheridan said. “Chase can be very funny.”
And sometimes he could be more than that.
When Sheridan lost his father in May 2015, Utley became more than just a player on the training table. He became a compassionate and caring ear for his friend.
Sheridan gets a little lump in his throat when a player — at least one of the good guys — gets traded.
“With Chase, it was a little more than others,” he said. “He never walked out of the room without saying thank you.
“I speak to our minor-league prospects every year and tell them don’t be afraid to say thank you now and then to that guy who stretches out your shoulder. Chase always got it.
“When he was traded he left me a signed bat. But just getting off that table every day was thanks enough.”