PHILADELPHIA -- On Friday, the Phillies welcomed Chase Utley back to their starting lineup. What he means for the team, in terms of his place in Phillies history, is not in dispute. But exactly what his presence means now, how long it will last, and even how Phillies fans feel about it is in a state of flux. And that was evident in the Phillies' 4-3 loss to the Mets, not to mention the reaction to it from their manager, Charlie Manuel.
But back when the sun was still shining, on the kind of evening designed for baseball, any Phillies fan paying attention came to Citizens Bank Park Friday to begin the process of saying goodbye. Because the remaining tenure of Chase Utley with the Phillies is most likely measured in weeks, or months, not years.
Utley is so much better than any other second baseman in Phillies history, a history that stretches back to 1883, that their positional WAR list is essentially a sight gag. Utley is first, at 56.2 wins above replacement per Baseball Reference. Tony Taylor is next -- at 17.7, and in about 25 percent more games. Then comes Juan Samuel (11.8), Dave Cash (11.7) and Otto Knabe (10.6), the only others in double figures. You need to add them all together, and throw in sixth-place Mickey Morandini (7.3) to equal Utley's career value.
But the Phillies aren't necessarily one player away from a pennant push. Friday's loss dropped their record to 35-39, good for third place in the N.L. East, behind the Nationals and well behind division-leading Atlanta. The wild card stood even further out into the distance, with the final wild card leaders, the Pittsburgh Pirates, eight full games up on the Phillies entering Friday night.
So sure, Phillies second basemen had hit a combined .179 with a .250 on-base percentage and a single extra-base hit in 28 games while Utley, dealing with a sore ribcage, sat and watched. But maybe fans just had a realistic view of what Utley could provide the team. They are 15-16 this year when he doesn't start. But they are 20-22 when he does.
There were plenty of Utley 26 jerseys and t-shirts among the sea of red walking slowly toward the park Friday evening. Unlike the Veterans Stadium of my youth, I could actually open my car windows as I approached the parking lot, and smell the cheesesteaks to be found at the thriving restaurants around CBP, the businesses part of the reflected success that's come from the five recent winning seasons for the Phillies, and the attendance boom that went with it.
A family of five walked toward their seats on the 300 level, the mother in an Utley jersey. I'll keep them anonymous, as the son, a former Phillies fan, according to his disapproving mother, had already converted to the Nationals in time for their National League East division title in 2012, but was wearing Mets colors for the evening. I don't wish that kind of character trait to follow him around through an Internet search for life.
When I broached the subject of whether Utley would make a good trade target, the boy expressed hope the Nationals would get him, which sounded odd coming from someone wearing a Mets hat and shirt.
"Oh no, I wouldn't like that," his mother protested an Utley trade. But it was a pretty weak protest, for as soon as I explained Utley would be a free agent, she relented. "Well, okay," she said, giving me permission to deal Utley. "But I still miss Victorino."
Bob Ballay, a Philadelphia native, and his son Bobby were significantly more open to the realities of the baseball business, even though the younger Ballay, a Little League catcher by trade, wore an Utley jersey. When I broached the subject of a trade, his eyes lit up.
"Who could we get?" he asked.
We all shrugged, though. It will be pretty tough to find someone who can help more than a plus defensive second baseman with a 120 O.P.S.+, which is what Utley still is, even at 34. It is easy to envision a scenario where Utley got the chance to play regularly when he was younger -- a previous Phillies administration didn't properly value him, and he wasn't a regular until age 26 -- and he'd be putting the final few touches on a Hall of Fame career.
But while Utley's productivity has remained pretty constant, his health has not. Utley played 115 games in 2010, 103 in 2011, 83 in 2012 and just 44 so far in 2013. So maybe Phillies fans are just used to welcoming him back from the disabled list.
Utley is in the final year of a seven-year, $85 million contract, however. The Phillies, under general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., have done what few teams usually try, which is to keep together the core of a winning team, while generally ignoring the likely effects of aging. Branch Rickey may be most famous for saying it is better to trade a player a year too soon than a year too late, but most of baseball has followed his advice ever since.
Even for Amaro, who has lately taken to declaring himself no fan of five year plans, and only willing to deal at the trade deadline if he gets equal or better value in return (one would think that should have been his policy from the beginning), it is awfully hard to imagine him re-signing Utley to play a demanding defensive position up the middle beginning with his age-35 season.
With Utley and Carlos Ruiz, who was suspended for the first 50 games this season, now back in the lineup, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, also in the final year of his contract, finally had the eight starting players he'd planned on back together. Friday night was the fourth such time all season.
Earlier, riding down the New Jersey Turnpike, I'd listened to the perfect WIP-FM prototypes, the learned Glen Macnow and the South Philly essence of Anthony Gargano, arrange and re-arrange these eight, without coming to a lineup that made them remotely confident about the rest of 2013. Nor did many callers seem to disagree. Most of the calls were focused on the Eagles, though, whose training camp doesn't begin for another 31 days.
The Phillies have five weeks to prove Macnow, Gargano and their skeptical fans wrong, to show they are contenders. And if they don't, this could well be the last five weeks of Chase Utley's Phillies career.
Nevertheless, when public address announcer Dan Baker, who could get you excited about the plate appearance of a stuffed cabbage, drew out "Nummmmmber Twennnnnty Sixxxxx, Chaaaaaaaase Uuuuuuuuuutley!" both during lineups and when Utley strode to the plate in the bottom of the first, the applause was appreciative, but more polite than warm. An often-stuffed Citizens Bank Park stands had more than a few empty seats, though that might have been due to the Rolling Stones across the street.
"Come on, Two-Six!" a man yelled to encourage Utley, but it was telling how easily he was heard from the press box.
Utley had been 0-for-9 over two rehab games in Reading, but his swing looked just fine when he laced one right at Lucas Duda, playing first base. He struck out in the third, ending a chance to put the Phillies, already up 3-0, in a commanding position. He left two more on in the fourth with a pop out to the catcher. In the sixth, with the Phillies now trailing 4-3, a screaming liner off his bat found Juan Lagares in center field.
In the ninth, the Phillies still trailing by a run, Utley had the chance to make himself the story in his return. But a 1-1 fastball that got plenty of plate from Bobby Parnell induced Utley to hit a groundout to second base. The process was sound; the results, 0-for-5. Utley hadn't saved the Phillies just yet.
When it was over, Manuel expressed confidence in Utley, as he has ever reason to.
"Utley didn't get hits with guys on base,' Manuel said of Utley's performance. "But at the same time, he hit the first ball hard to first base, the line drive to center field was hit hard. He didn't get hits with guys on base, but at the same time..." Manuel paused. "He's gonna be fine."
Whether the Phillies as a whole will be fine is another question, one posed by WIP-FM's Howard Eskin as a follow-up. The two had previously yelled at each other, back in 2007, when the Phillies were off to a slow start. There hadn't been too much tension since, with all the, you know, winning.
"Is the rest of the lineup gonna be fine?" Eskin asked Manuel.
"Hey Howard, if I knew that, I would fix it... Hey, do I know if the rest of the lineup is gonna be fine?" His voice rose now. "If I knew that, don't you think I'd fix it? Does anybody know that, Howard? Do you know it?" He continued to yell. "I don't think so! I know you don't know it, matter of fact. Who does know it?"
Eskin followed up, asking if Manuel had any other ideas if this lineup didn't work.
"I don't know what I can do, Howard," Manuel said, still in an agitated state. "I don't know what nobody else can do about it, and I know you can't do a damn thing about it! So... what else you want to know? Anything else?"
No one did, and Manuel started to get up and leave. Looking at Eskin, aware he'd allowed him to get under his skin, Manuel asked, "You happy?" Eskin shot back with, "When you gonna score ten runs, that's what I want to know," laughing at Manuel.
"When I knock you out," Manuel responded, as he left the room.
Later, Utley at his locker wanted to know all the details of the encounter. Utley didn't have to guess who Manuel got into it with.
Utley laughed when he heard Manuel's threat, but then his smile disappeared and he just shook his head. Utley's been around for the Phillies teams capable of scoring ten runs, and has to see the difference with this group. Like Manuel, Utley took solace in his process, though he acknowledged the frustration he felt about going 0-for-5.
"A little bit of both," Utley said on process versus results. "Obviously, I had some opportunities to drive in runs, and I wasn't able to do that. But overall picture, I feel good, I feel like I can contribute, and move on to tomorrow."
But that's one more day until the trade deadline. More frustration for the manager, more losses for Cole Hamels, the starting pitcher with a 2-11 record.
"He's definitely pitched better than his record indicates," Utley said of Hamels.
But Hamels, and Utley, and this version of the Phillies as a whole, who brought so many great moments to the fans of Philadelphia, are running out of time to prove that.