(AP) — More than a dozen years ago, Chase Utley put his head down and ran fast around the bases after lining a grand slam for his first career hit.
He hasn’t stopped running and playing hard.
Utley goes all-out all the time, whether it’s Game 2 of the NL Division Series or the second day of spring training. He only knows one way to play, and he’s done it in every one of the 1,633 games he’s played.
The six-time All-Star second baseman is an old-school ballplayer who avoids the spotlight and has never been confused for a look-at-me, bat-flipping showboat.
But now Utley finds himself in the middle of baseball’s hottest controversy after his hard takeout slide broke New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada’s right leg on Saturday night.
Major League Baseball suspended Utley for two playoff games, and his agent said he will appeal.
The Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers are tied at 1-all in the best-of-five NL Division Series. Game 3 is scheduled for Monday night at Citi Field, and it’s possible Utley would’ve been in the starting lineup against ace Matt Harvey.
“A two-game suspension for a legal baseball play is outrageous and completely unacceptable. Chase did what all players are taught to do in this situation – break up the double play,” agent Joel Wolfe said in a statement.
The disputed play angered Tejada’s teammates and drew the wrath of Mets fans. The slide has led to a polarizing debate about whether such slides are dirty or merely aggressive baseball.
Upon further review and facing mounting public pressure, MLB executive Joe Torre called it an illegal slide in issuing the penalty.
“That’s a hard, clean play,” Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. said during the game broadcast.
Many want MLB to change the rules to protect infielders the same way it did for catchers after Buster Posey was injured in a collision at the plate.
“They protect the catcher. I think they should protect us middle infielders as well,” Houston Astros rookie shortstop Carlos Correa said.
Those who’ve watched Utley play this way his entire career believe him when he said: “I feel terrible that he was injured. I had no intent to hurt him whatsoever.”
Several players and managers still in the postseason said they understood the play.
“I know he has the reputation of a guy who goes in hard,” said Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, who played with Tejada on the Mets. “Ruben knows that. He knows that when Chase is on first, he had better watch out. As Chase’s teammate, I would want to know that my guy’s going in there to try to break it up in a playoff game as long as, you know, it wasn’t cleat to the waist, right, and that he could touch the bag.”
Utley defined a “dirty” slide as one where a player goes in “cleats high, hitting the guy before you hit the ground.” He kept his spikes low, but his upper body was high and his face hit Tejada’s leg after he started his slide late.
“You can see his first thought was to break up the double play. That’s what everybody will do, especially in the postseason,” Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said.
The 36-year-old Utley made his big league debut in 2012 and is revered by Phillies fans for his hustle. He epitomized a gritty city that loves hard-nosed players. He might be the most popular player in Philadelphia sports history. A town notorious for its toughness never booed Utley no matter how badly he slumped.
“Chase is an iconic, generational player,” former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said after the rebuilding Phillies traded Utley to the Dodgers in August.
His teammates, coaches and managers love and respect him. Some opponents (the Mets, obviously) don’t share those feelings.
It wasn’t the first time Utley slid hard into second. In September 2010, a similar play occurred when Utley, then with Philadelphia, tried to break up a double play involving Tejada.
After that game, Mets captain David Wright had harsh words for Utley.
Utley’s style is more appreciated as a teammate than an opponent. He’s an intense guy who never smiled on the field, but he displayed rare emotion when he thanked fans after he was traded to Los Angeles. He showed his softer side last December when he surprised a young woman battling cancer by visiting her on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Utley didn’t show much of a personality during his career with the Phillies, except for the time he used an expletive to accentuate his shout of joy at the team’s World Series victory parade in 2008. He was former manager Charlie Manuel’s favorite player, in large part because his work ethic rubbed off on younger teammates.
Utley helped lead the Phillies to five straight NL East titles, two NL pennants and one World Series championship between 2007-11. He hit 243 home runs for Philadelphia, including 10 in the postseason and five in the 2009 World Series against the Yankees.
But the one play that cemented Utley in the hearts of Philadelphians came in 2006 when he scored from second on a bouncer to the pitcher in a game at Atlanta. It inspired beloved former broadcaster Harry Kalas to declare: “Chase Utley, you are the man!”
In New York, Utley is a wanted man.
AP Sports Writers Mike Fitzpatrick in New York, Jay Cohen and Andrew Seligman in Chicago, Beth Harris in Los Angeles, Kristie Rieken in Houston and Stephen Hawkins in Arlington, Texas, contributed to this report.
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