The Big Chase
Rain or shine, the Philadelphia Phillies are the 2008 World Series champions. Congratulations go out to all of the players, coaches, staff, Charlie Manuel, Pat Gillick, ownership, and the City of Brotherly Love.
As a Long Beach native, I am extremely happy for Chase Utley. He and my son Joe are the same age, and they played in the Long Beach Little League and Long Beach Pony League at the same time. I had the good fortune of coaching Chase for a couple of games on a youth All-Star team but had the bad fortune of coaching against him most of the time.
Chase played on the Pirates while Joe played for the Dodgers. We didn't stand a chance. As it turned out, the Dodgers didn't have anyone who went on to play Major League Baseball. The Pirates had two. Yes, two. Chase Utley and Sean Burroughs. Although Chase is better known today, it was Sean who made headlines in those days.
You may recall that Burroughs was the star of the Long Beach Little League teams that won back-to-back world championships in 1992 and 1993. He pitched two no-hitters at Williamsport in 1993, striking out 16 in each game. Sean was also the best hitter on both All-Star teams.
Burroughs was much more than a Little League phenom. He was the ninth overall pick in the 1998 draft by the San Diego Padres. Two years later, Sean won a gold medal as a member of Team USA in the Olympics Games in Sydney, Australia. He is the only player that I am aware of who has ever won a Little League Baseball World Series championship and an Olympics gold medal.
Chase was two years older than Sean and did not play on the Little League All-Star teams that won consecutive titles. But Utley was special in his own right. I shared my thoughts on Chase in the summer of 2006 after he had extended his hitting streak to 31 games.
I have a special affinity toward Utley. Chase and my son Joe played youth baseball for Long Beach Little League. Joe played on the Dodgers. Chase played for the Pirates. One of Chase's teammates was Sean Burroughs, who just may be the best Little League player ever. Joe and Chase are two years older than Sean and neither played on the LBLL All-Star teams that Burroughs spearheaded to World Championships in 1992 and 1993.
My son's team was coached by a real estate agent and me. The Pirates were coached by an attorney and Sean's dad, Jeff, the 1974 AL MVP. Needless to say, the Dodgers never beat the Pirates in those years. Jeff was a terrific coach and the Pirates had more talent than the rest of the league combined.
I can remember Utley's tryout like it was yesterday. You could tell that he was special. Everything Chase did stood out. He roped a handful of line drives from the right side, then crossed over the plate and repeated the same feat from the left side. The kid had star written all over him.
Utley prepped at Long Beach Poly High School (hitting .525 with 12 home runs his senior year in one of the toughest leagues in the country) and was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the second round (76th overall) of the 1997 amateur draft. He turned down a large signing bonus from his hometown team, played three seasons at UCLA (earning All-American honors his junior year), and was taken by the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round (15th overall) in the 2000 draft. He signed that summer, hit over .300 in low-A, advanced to high-A in 2001 and triple-A in 2002. Utley tore up the International League the second time through in 2003 and got called up to the majors that summer.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder was one of the best-hitting middle infielders in 2005 and has become one of the best hitters period this year. A fan favorite, Utley's makeup is off the charts. He plays hard all the time, running out groundballs and hustling in the field and on the basepaths. Chase is well-liked and respected by his teammates, as well as those of us who were fortunate to witness his beginnings.
Like his former teammate Burroughs, Utley can now lay claim to being a world champion. The second baseman did his part, hitting .292/.380/.535 with 33 HR during the regular season and adding three more homers during the postseason while making a memorable and decisive defensive play in the final game of the series.
With the score knotted at three in the top of the seventh and the go-ahead run on second base, Chase ranged to his right to field a ground ball off the bat of Akinori Iwamura, pump-faked a throw to first, and made an off-balance throw to home plate to nab a surprised Jason Bartlett for the final out of the inning. It was the type of heads-up play that has distinguished Utley throughout his baseball career, from Little League to Pony League to high school to college to the minors and for the last six years in the majors.
As fate would have it, Utley and Burroughs almost faced each other in the World Series. San Diego traded Sean to Tampa Bay for Dewon Brazelton in December 2005. Unfortunately, Burroughs only played eight games for the Devil Rays and was released in August 2006. He never played another game in the big leagues.
Two months before Burroughs was released, Tampa Bay selected Evan Longoria with the third overall pick in the amateur draft. Not only were Burroughs and Longoria third basemen but both are Long Beach products – just like the 2008 World Series champion Chase Utley.