Utley, Atkins go way back
Teammates at UCLA, their friendship goes beyond baseball
DENVER -- With each line drive ripped out of a park or smacked hard to a gap by Chase Utley, Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins shakes his head.Not in disbelief, but in acknowledgment of superior hitting. Atkins would rather watch from a distance, but such favors aren't always granted, so he endures the human highlight reel from 90 feet away. "He's a great hitter, great player," Atkins said of his former UCLA teammate and one of his closest friends. "When things are going well, like they are now, anything is possible."
But this? Utley has stroked six home runs in the past five games, and would set a team record if he homers in a sixth straight game on Tuesday. He entered the game batting .354.The story of their friendship has been told. The two met freshman year at UCLA and left after their junior years, with Utley heading to the Phillies in the first round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft and Atkins going to Colorado in the fifth. They've kept track of each other ever since, though Atkins can do that just by turning on the television. "He's on SportsCenter every night hitting homers, so you don't even have to look at a box score," Atkins said. "Every now and then I'll check and see how his batting average is doing." Should Atkins lead Utley in any offensive category, the Phillies second baseman will hear about it, and vice versa. It's part of the competitive nature that was heightened when Atkins' Rockies downed Utley's Phillies in the 2007 National League Division Series. Gracious, Utley texted Atkins to wish him luck when the Phillies were eliminated.
Though the stats don't lie, Atkins wasn't sure about Utley when he first saw the 19-year-old freshman. A highly sought-after recruit who chose the Bruins over the Dodgers, Atkins remembers a thin Southern California kid."At that age, you don't really know what it takes to get to the big leagues and what kind of talent you have to have," Atkins said. "He was a second-round pick out of high school, so you know the scouts like him a lot. You look at him, and you're like, 'I don't really get it.' But you watch him hit, and you can tell he's got a lot of pop for a skinny guy. That's obviously what got him drafted. For a second baseman to have that kind of strength and the ability to drive in 100 runs each year and score 100 runs is something you don't find every day." The Phillies are lucky they did. Utley and Atkins' friendship goes well beyond baseball, with the Rockies third baseman serving as best man at Utley's wedding in 2007. With Utley calm in all situations, Atkins admits to being more nervous about having to give a toast. "I was probably 20 times more nervous than trying to hit in the playoffs," Atkins said with a laugh. "It was my first one. I had a few cocktails to loosen up a little bit."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.