What does it take for an athlete to be loved in Philadelphia? What about beloved? What does a player have to do to win over a fan base that prides itself on prickliness, and then hold onto that adulation for more than a decade?
On Tuesday night, Chase Utley returned to Citizens Bank Park for the first time since he was traded to the Dodgers last August. All season, the Phillies hyped his visit: August 16–18, Philadelphia versus Los Angeles, Chase Cameron Utley, get your tickets now. When the second baseman walked up to the plate to lead off the game, this time wearing blue, he was serenaded with a 90-second standing ovation. He tipped his batting helmet and pointed to the fans, who quieted down seemingly only when they ran out of air. Utley then proceeded to knock the home team around en route to the Dodgers’ 15–5 victory: first with a solo home run in the fifth inning, and then with a grand slam in the seventh. Phillies fans weren’t bothered by the treatment. He got a curtain call after both.
Why is Utley still so adored in Philadelphia? Part of the answer is he was good — very good — for a long time. Over 13 seasons in Philadelphia, he hit .282 in 1,551 games. He was a member of the 2008 championship team, helping the city win its first major sports title in 25 years during a season in which he logged 33 homers and 104 RBIs. In the 2009 World Series, which the Phillies lost to the Yankees in six games, he hit five home runs. Beginning in 2006, he was named to five straight All-Star teams, plus a sixth in 2014, when he batted .270 and posted a 3.7 WAR at age 35. At the time of his trade, he was the city’s longest-tenured athlete; by putting up the numbers he did for as long as he did, it might seem expected that he would receive a hero’s welcome upon his return.
But this is Philadelphia we’re talking about, and there’s more to Utley’s popularity than that. He was a real Philly guy, which is another way of saying he was a real asshole, but to the right people: He openly antagonized the rival Mets (a tradition he has carried with him to L.A.; during last year’s NLDS, his controversial slide into second base resulted in Mets shortstop Rubén Tejada breaking his leg), but made it clear that he was there for puppies. He hustled. He liked to swear on live television. At the 2008 All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium, he responded to the crowd’s boos by saying, idly, as though cameras weren’t inches from his face, “Boo? Fuck you”; then there was the 2008 championship parade, at which Utley forced numerous local stations to pay FCC fines. He’s been, perhaps unsurprisingly, hit by more pitches than just about anybody, including Alex Rodriguez. He’s been weird without being revealing, arranging baseball bats into occult symbols and calling Chris Wheeler “Muff” on air before striding away.
In response, Utley became an icon; in one episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mac writes him a letter that reads, in part, “I feel like I can call you Chase because you and me are so much alike.” “He’s a power-hitting second baseman,” Mac tells Dee when she expresses a preference for first baseman Ryan Howard. “Do you know how rare that is?” Utley eventually responded in a 2013 MLB video from the Phillies dugout, writing his own letter that concluded, “Fans like you make my life a ‘grand slam’!”
When he left last summer, Utley didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to Philadelphia fans: His trade happened late at night, after the day’s game against the Blue Jays had concluded. On Tuesday, he was able to harken back to his Philly years in more ways than one: His first major league hit was also a grand slam.