New York is no stranger to superheroes and villains. The city has served as a backdrop in many clashes between good and evil in comics for decades, but the eternal struggle has not been limited to pop art panels in the weekly issues of Marvel and DC.
The “good guy vs the wrongdoer” narrative has managed to be applied to every single topic and issue imaginable. It paints a clear picture of what the sides are, for better or for worse, and it allows the onlookers to make an easy decision about who is the hero, who is right.
Sports have not been exempt, and perhaps the ballfield is the best real world stage for the clash of hero and villain. There’s no superpowers, no extravagant costumes with capes and utility belts, but the conflict is there. The home team is the Avengers. The away team is Loki and his army.
It is only fitting that a team located in Queens with players donning nicknames of Thor and Captain America have found themselves engaged in one of baseball’s newest intense rivalry. But unlike the comics, there’s no Norse supervillain opposing them. It’s a 37-year-old second baseman on the Dodgers that has become the most hated man in Flushing.
The Mets have a laundry list of team killers ranging from Stargell to Burrell. There’s a separate list for the players whose actions and comments have painted bullseyes on their backs for reasons far beyond being good. I like to imagine John Rocker’s name occupies the masthead, perhaps highlighted and circled in red pen for emphasis. These two lists aren’t mutually exclusive, as Chipper Jones comes to mind as one dual citizen.
But Jones and Rocker are long since retired, and while the likes of Ryan Howard and Wilson Ramos are still chugging along as Mets killers, they haven’t done anything beyond picking up clutch hits to draw the ire of the Mets faithful. Since Chipper retired, it felt that there was not going to be another player so universally despised in Queens for a while, maybe forever.
Until the 2015 NLDS, that is.
The case of Chase Utley versus the Mets Faithful had been open since his debut with the Phillies in 2003. He played for a divisional rival, one that took a playoff spot away from the Mets during the dark days of the 2007 collapse. It felt as if every time he was at the plate, something bad was bound to happen for the Mets, regardless of who was on the mound.
Entering 2016, Utley had hit .281 with 35 home runs and 103 RBI in 179 games against the Mets. Not surprisingly, he also been hit by more pitches thrown by Mets players than any other team. But before 2015, there was no real reason to hate Utley beyond his uncanny ability to get hits at the most inopportune times.
Then Utley broke Ruben Tejada’s leg in Game 2 of the NLDS on a slide, a sentence where I use the word “slide” in the loosest sense of the word. Perhaps “tackle” is more apt a definition, but MLB disagreed, overturning the suspension initially handed out for the collision. The league enacted new sliding rules in hopes of preventing such an incident from happening again during the off-season, and the Mets eventually won the series in five games, earning the last laugh with or without warranted punishments.
Despite the series outcome, Chase Utley climbed to number one on the fan hitlist. When the Mets went to Los Angeles earlier in the season for the first matchup of the teams in 2016, many wondered if there would be retaliation. The Mets didn’t hit Utley in the rest of the NLDS, and they left no bruises behind after leaving LA after the series earlier this month. Well, maybe Kenta Maeda’s confidence took a few hits after giving up two home runs to Noah Syndergaard, but I digress.
With the lack of payback in Los Angeles, warranted or not, the question of if it would happen when the teams squared off in New York began to fly. The opener of the series on Friday did not see any retaliation come to pass, although Utley continued to make more enemies in the city after hitting a game tying double in the 9th inning off of Jeurys Familia. But like in the divisional series, the Mets laughed last as Curtis Granderson hit a walk-off home run in the bottom frame.
The Mets and Dodgers had played eight games since the Tejada injury, and Utley had not faced the retaliation hit-by-pitch everyone was anticipating. As many began to believe payback was not going to happen, Noah Syndergaard took to the mound on Saturday and threw a pitch behind Utley in the 3rd inning. Without a warning and without a plunked batter, Syndergaard was ejected.
Utley then hit a solo homer in the 6th to break a scoreless tie.
Then for his swan song of the night, Utley hit a grand slam in the 7th.
“Villain” is too light of a word to describe what Mets fans think of Chase Utley. The more accurate descriptions are not fit for print.
I was too young when John Rocker was spouting his hatred and homophobia about the 7 train and New York, and I was fully getting into baseball towards the tail end of Chipper Jones’ career. But I grew up watching Utley kill the Mets. To say I was never a fan of his is putting it lightly. I did not lose sleep when Matt Harvey hit Utley with a pitch during an early season matchup between the Mets and Phillies in 2015 instead of opting to intentionally walk him.
I know I am not alone in saying that Chase Utley has climbed the ranks of a personal “most hated players” list. He is the living embodiment of the comic book bad guy, and despite the heroes’ best attempts, he cannot be permanently thwarted.
While watching the villain climb to power is painful, it is the fall that keeps us glued. When Bane broke Batman’s back or when the Flash lost his speed, the hero returning to form made the redemption all the sweeter. It is what made winning the NLCS all the sweeter, knowing that Utley’s actions only served to bring the Mets closer together in vanquishing the foe.
Chase Utley has firmly cemented himself in Mets lore as one of the franchise’s greatest enemies. He seems to feed off the boos and jeers to become all the more powerful and continue to punish the Mets.
Which means that should the two teams meet in the playoffs again and the Mets emerge victorious, the pain and torment of injuries, ejections, and home runs will give way to the jubilant emotions of the best form of revenge.
Sweet, sweet victory.
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