From an early age, Utley was a natural
Once a right-handed-hitting shortstop, he's now 'Mr. Everything'
LONG BEACH -- Night air gets heavy at Blair Field, heavier when a fog has arrived. On such Southern California evenings, baseballs don't maintain flight long, especially ones hit by members of Long Beach Polytechnic High School playing on a field normally reserved for Long Beach State College.Then there's the 1995 night that a wiry sophomore shortstop smacked a lightning bolt through the misty darkness, previewing a sweet, powerful stroke in its nascent stages. The ball, and Chase Utley, have never looked back.
The right-field scoreboard never had a chance."That was amazing," said Ken Munger, the baseball coach at Poly that night. "He cleared it. That had to be well over 430 feet. I never saw a high school kid do that." Utley, of course, was no ordinary high school kid. The kid has since moved to second base and ascended to become the best offensive player at his position.
"He's Mr. Everything," Jimmy Rollins said in June. "He's been Mr. Baseball."It appears to have been that way for a while, even though the Phillies didn't know what they had. But Munger did. "Poly," as it's known by those who roam the halls, was founded in 1895 as Long Beach High School. The most populous urban high school in California hosts more than 5,000 students, serving portions of Long Beach, including Bixby Knolls and parts of Signal Hill and Lakewood. In 2005, Sports Illustrated named Poly the "Sports School of the Century," and reported that it had sent more players to the NFL than any other high school in the country. It's sent its share to the Major Leagues, too. Actress Cameron Diaz, rapper Snoop Dogg, tennis player Billie Jean King, Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson and bandleader Spike Jones are among the school's distinguished alumni. Baseball players Milton Bradley (Utley's high school teammate), as well as Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, his brothers Charles and Chris, and former players Vern Stephens and Randy Moffitt also played there. The field at the school -- renamed Gwynn Field in 1999 -- boasts a 409-foot center field and 362--foot right-center field. "He put a few out there," Munger said, pointing to right-center. "As a sophomore, we had some decent pitchers then, and you could never get anything by Chase. It was amazing how he could turn on a pitch that was a foot inside and still hit it off the barrel of the bat. He was a pleasure to coach, a hard-nosed kid who never quit. The passion shows in him all the time." Munger stopped coaching for Utley's junior and senior years, but has remained with the school and stayed a fan. During Utley's senior year, he hit .525 with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs, and was named to several high school All-America teams. The Dodgers drafted him in the second round and offered him $750,000. After serious consideration, Utley opted for UCLA. "For me, it was about growing as a person and trying to get that college experience," Utley said. "I'm happy with my decision. I wouldn't change it for the world." "He was a wiry kid who could flat-out hit," said Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' assistant general manager. "He had a good compact swing. We knew he could hit. We didn't know where he was going to play defensively. He was playing shortstop at the time. We saw him at Blair Field in Long Beach. It's a big field and no one hits them out there. He hit a few out." Naturally, and his left-handed stroke developed long before. Here's a little-known fact: Utley used to hit right-handed, which proved a serious inconvenience for his father, Dave Utley, the pitcher. In the front yard, his right-handed stroke meant Dave would have to retrieve it down the street, so he ordered his son to bat left-handed, allowing the ball to hit the side of the house. "I found that 70 percent of the time was me chasing it," Dave Utley said. "I didn't enjoy that part, so I turned him around, so the ball would bounce back to me. We got more work in that way. Then finally, he started to launch the ball into our neighbor's yard and that would end the session."
|"I never had any idea that something like that would ever happen. I still can't believe it. Back then, we were just having fun and playing a game. Nobody ever thought it would lead to this. It's funny what you can do with a Wiffle ball."|
|-- Denny Mayfield, on Utley|
Reminders of Utley remain in the town where he grew up. A poster hangs outside of a car dealership, ignoring the fact that the Phillies are playing the hometown Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.When Utley laced a double down the right-field line in the first inning of Game 4, Munger remembered the swing.
"That was all hands," he said of Utley's swing. "They're so lightning quick."When Utley snared a liner from Russell Martin and turned it into an inning-ending unassisted double play in Game 4, snuffing a huge Dodgers rally, Tyler's cell phone buzzed with a text message from his friend. "Your pal, flippin Utley." Tyler smiled. "I had nothing to do with his defense," he said. For Utley's mental toughness, his father credits neighbor Denny Mayfield, who challenged them in a mean game of Wiffle ball, and former American League MVP Jeff Burroughs, who refined Utley's swing as a T-ball coach. "I'm a big guy, 6-2, 250 pounds, and I wouldn't let up," Mayfield said. "I would go into the pro windup, and throw curves, heat, changeups. We would play past dark, using the streetlights. You'd have to be able to see pretty good to pick up the ball.
"When they were about 7, I was throwing the ball at them pretty fast. Chase's bat speed, even at a young age, was faster than everybody else's. That's something you can't teach, and he always had that."To get someone out, Mayfield said, you had to hit the kid with the ball, unless he called mercy. Major League pitchers might do that now, if they could. "Denny always yelled, 'Play the game hard,'" Dave Utley said. "I don't know how much of that seeped into Chase's kid consciousness, but we'll give Denny credit for it. I can still hear him now yelling in T-ball, 'Show me what you've got! Be a star!'" Utley listened to that, too. "I never had any idea that something like that would ever happen," Mayfield said. "I still can't believe it. Back then, we were just having fun and playing a game. Nobody ever thought it would lead to this. It's funny what you can do with a Wiffle ball."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.