I’m no Philadelphia Phillies fan.
When I was 5, I transferred to the dark side, became a Chipper Jones fanatic and fell in love with the Atlanta Braves. But one thing always stuck with me over the years.
I remember watching some of the greatest Phillies of all-time at the old Lackawanna County Stadium. The likes of Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and even Shane Victorino come to mind. One player, Chase Utley, was a different breed.
Watching the future Phillies play for the Red Barons a few times, it’s hard not to root for them. In 2008, when the Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series, it was fun. I cheered for them throughout the playoffs and the series. And, boy, did Chase Utley do amazing things in that series.
On Thursday, Aug. 19, Utley’s 13-year career with the Fightin’ Phils came to an end when he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a pair of Minor League players. Utley is from California and was originally drafted by the Dodgers in 1997.
Jeff Donnora, who is getting ready to start his senior year at Pittston Area, got an opportunity to spend a day with Utley at the team’s spring training facility in Clearwater, Florida back in March 2013.
Jeff was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis almost immediately after he was born. Cystic fibrosis is a sometimes life-threatening genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and progressively limits the ability to breathe. One of Jeff’s dreams — meeting Chase Utley — came true through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Jeff spent an entire day with Utley. The all-star second baseman showed Jeff around the complex in Florida and Jeff even watched Utley take batting practice. When the duo returned to the clubhouse, Utley gave Jeff a personalized glove, which sits in Jeff’s room to this day.
Jeff got to meet Phillies like Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz and Freddie Galvas. When he learned his favorite player was heading to the West Coast, it was hard.
“To see a guy that you see coming up from the farm system with the Red Barons not there anymore will be difficult,” Jeff said. “You have to look at the business side of it, too. He should be a guy that can help out an organization very well. I really wish him the best of luck.”
Many of us feel a little closer to some of these big leaguers because of our Minor League affiliates, whether it’s with the RailRiders or the Red Barons. In Utley’s 271 games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he hit .315 with 41 home runs and 172 RBI. From 2005 to 2009 with the Phillies, Utley ranked in the top-15 in MVP voting.
Jeff started attending baseball games with his father when he was 8 years old. Just three years later, the Phillies cashed in on the World Series.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Jeff said. “Once they clinched it, it was almost unbelievable to me. You don’t see too many trophies roll around in Philadelphia so it’s something special.”
Off the field, Utley is just what you would expect: A class act.
Along with his wife Jennifer, Utley started The Utley Foundation years back. The non-profit foundation brings awareness to animal cruelty. Through the foundation, Utley helps educate the community in proper treatment of animals and raises funds for the fight against animal neglect.
The son of Michelle Welter, Hughestown, and Jeff Donnora, Jenkins Township, Jeff is currently a starter on the Pittston Area golf team. He also scored the winning run for Pittston Area in the annual Ashby Game against Wyoming Area at PNC Field in Moosic.
Jeff doesn’t worry about his health.
“I’m doing very good right now,” he said. “I am actually one of the better-conditioned people. I am so blessed and I couldn’t be happer with where I am. Every day I wake up blessed to do whatever I want.”
We all remember former Phillies broadcaster, the late Harry Kalas. Kalas is most recognizable for his, “It’s outta here” phrase during a home run call. He summarized one of Utley’s famous hustle plays in six words, “Chase Utley, you are the man!”
As I spoke with Jeff and learned what he has gone through, I’m pretty sure it’s not just Chase Utley who deserves praise. Jeff Donnora, you are the man!