How a silver fox back-up middle infielder currently hitting .237 is the MVP of the hottest team in baseball this decade.
By Kyle Magin
“If you think the world ended today, you don’t belong here.”
Sportswriters saw that scrawled in chalk on a board in the visitors locker room at Yankee Stadium on August 25, 1968. Some Detroit Tiger had penned the cheer—or challenge—after the team dropped both ends of a double header to close out a long weekend that saw them go 0-4-1 in the Bronx.
Worse, the losses dropped the team’s lead to just 5 games over a charging Baltimore Orioles squad.
Worse still, the first half of the double-header was won by Rocky Colavito, an ornery prima donna outfielder who had left Detroit in a huff a few years before, convinced (correctly) that he’d never be as loved as longtime right fielder and “Mr. Tiger” Al Kaline. Colavito pitched the game as an emergency option beginning in the fourth inning and promptly retired Kaline. It was a bad day.
Still, the message on the chalkboard—a life raft in what must have felt like a storm to the struggling Tigers—caught the attention of the late George Cantor, a baseball beat writer with the Detroit Free Press that season. Cantor (my college sports journalism professor and a cherished mentor) never let a detail go unexamined, so he asked about the missive while writing his book The Tigers of ‘68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions.
“It was assumed that [catcher Bill] Freehan, the emotional former football player, had written the words,” Cantor wrote. “But Freehan says the author was Eddie Mathews. The veteran had injured his back in June and not played since. The injury would force his retirement at the end of the season. But while he was on the disabled list he dressed for every game, at home and on the road. He was held in such high regard that every Detroit opponent approved the arrangement, a necessity for road games… During this perigee of the season, he became Detroit’s inspirational leader.”
Eddie Mathews, for those who aren’t familiar, was a Hall of Fame third baseman for the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (he played for all three) who finished his career with just 52 at-bats for the World Champion Tigers. I heard Cantor relay the story a handful of times, steadfast in his belief that the little-used infielder had calmed the team that day. The Tigers would go 9-3 in their next 12 and cruise past the Orioles by 13.5 games for the American League pennant.
I see a lot of parallels in his 1968 and second baseman Chase Utley’s 2017 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Utley, of course, is counted on by LA far more than Detroit depended on Mathews, at least in terms of at-bats (Utley is at 228 and counting) and production (Mathews logged a .655 OPS, Utley is at .741.) But, I think Utley, in his age 38 season, is displaying the same kind of leadership Mathews showed in his age 36 campaign in ’68.
Utley—a Pasadena native and former UCLA Bruin—of course enjoyed most of his success with the Philadelphia Phillies, including a World Series win in 2008 to help validate a probable Hall of Fame career. He’s in LA to play a solid second base for a team that can afford a premium vet at or above cost.
Utley, like Mathews before him, is exceeding his mandate, though. He fought back from an ugly .122 April to hit .283 since then, mashing a tater in front of Mets fans who hate his guts and generally instilling an air of toughness into a team which could easily content itself with pretty baseball. He’s a rock-solid relay partner for 23-year old shortstop Corey Seager and still compresses the infield for 21-year old first baseman, and rookie, Cody Bellinger. Finding yourself between two infielders barely older than you in combined age has to be frustrating on certain nights, but Utley quietly quarterbacks a spectacular Dodgers defense from his perch on the right side of the infield. No team’s highs are higher (33 HRs for Bellinger on the fastest Dodgers squad in team history to 80 wins) or lows lower (the team is weathering a 6-8 week injury to ace Clayton Kershaw and has put 4/5ths of its starting rotation on the DL at some point this season.)
Through it all, the second baseman with more salt than pepper sticking out from underneath his Dodger blue cap, has been a steadying influence on this club. If the Dodgers successfully navigate the inevitable late-season swoon and then tool up for the playoffs after not contesting a meaningful game in months, it’ll be in no small part due to Utley’s steadying influence.
With Mathews’ help, of course, the Tigers would go on to win the 1968 World Series, sending him into retirement with a second championship ring. It’s a path Utley seems destined to walk.
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