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By Mike Angelina
In 2003, Chase Utley’s rookie season, the second baseman was called up on August 14, and remained with the team for good. The Phillies shifted their infield around for the stretch drive, pairing Utley on the right side of the infield with the veteran Jim Thome, joining Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco. The alignment would play together, when Polanco was healthy, for the remaining six weeks or so of the season, including perhaps the season’s most important game on September 24, when their playoff hopes unofficially ended.
That was nine years ago. That was before Citizens Bank Park, before the five division crowns, two pennants, the world championship and ten all-star selections from the group. It was also before the corner infielders were traded and eventually brought back, Jimmy Rollins’ MVP season and Jim Thome’s 400th, 500th and 600th homeruns.
It was also before Chase Utley became the man.
Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but April 5, Opening Day in Pittsburgh, was on deck to potentially be sort of a reunion of the group, maybe even getting Jim Thome a start. That call would be coming from Thome’s guy Charlie Manuel, who is now at the helm, another change since then. They very well could have been the top four hitters in the lineup.
It’s not looking very likely that reunion will take place then or anytime soon.
The person preventing it from happening is not the 36 year old third baseman with, as he describes, “short stubby legs,” who was nothing more than a former utility infielder-turned-starter at the time. Meanwhile, Polanco prepares to man the hot corner after coming off double-hernia surgery.
Not the athlete who had been in Philadelphia the longest, and was without a contract this off season is not missing the Opening Day party. Rollins will be opening his twelfth season up the middle, despite facing multiple leg injuries the past few seasons. He also spent the most time on the old Veteran Stadium’s artificial turf.
And if Thome does not get the start, it won’t be because of a chronic injury the burly 41 year old from which he is suffering.
It will be because of the youngest, least-tenured member of that 2003 infield’s chronic knee issues.
The reason why? Most likely, it’s because of what has made him the man since 2003, his style of play
The fact that he can not get his body ready for the regular season before a 41-year-old 250 pounder with a history of back problems and 21 years of service is very telling of how damaging his style of play has been.
There were his collisions with catchers like Russell Martin and Jesus Flores. All of the times he busted it down the first base line or took out guys like Ruben Tejada on slides. All of his acrobatic plays around the second base bag. Each stride he took and impact he felt as he raced around the bases on his inside the park home runs. They all contributed to his downfall of health.
Baseball proved this off season that it has no problem identifying any superstar linked to any possible illegal drug use, so there is not any reason to believe it could be the cause of the breakdown.
The fact that it’s Utley and not one of the others, highlights the beating his body has taken from his style of play. It is not uncommon for a player with a style such as Utley’s all-out play to suffer recurring injuries like this. Lenny Dykstra, whose nickname was “Nails”, had his career derailed with a sudden string of injuries. Over in the American League, Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore has struggled to stay on the field the past few seasons.
The trio of Utley, Dykstra and Sizemore are all common in their hustle on the field, and as they reached the later stages of their careers, they too were all alike in the decline of their condition of their bodies.
That trio differs from the trio that Utley joined in that 2003 infield. Polanco is more of a finesse type player, Rollins monitors himself for when he busts it and when he doesn’t to prevent injury, and Jim Thome is your classic power hitter.
History shows that once the declines starts, it ends as quickly as Utley dashes out of the batter’s box. Now, Jim Thome is quicker to the starting lineup than Utley’s once five-time All-Star body. It started last year with the right knee, and now the left knee is even worse than the right. Who knows how bad it gets.
Mike Angelina is a Producer at 94 WIP-FM / 610 WIP-AM and contributes to CBS Philly on both local and national sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeAngelina