Matt Murton’s wild ride

Matt Murton
Former Hanshin Tiger Matt Murton outside the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona.

Matt Murton knows a few things about role reversal, having gone from phenom to role player for the Chicago Cubs and from record-setting hero to villain in his six seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League.

‘Win or lose, they find a way to put me on the front page,’ he quipped in his final season here.

Murton debuted with Hanshin in 2010 and proved a quick study in the ways of Japan’s game. His precise and rigorous pregame practice blew away manager Akinobu Mayumi. And when he began challenging to break Ichiro Suzuki’s 16-year-old single-season hit record, he seemed a worthy heir. When he did set a new record, Murton did it in a season that was 14 games longer, but Suzuki said that didn’t make it less of an accomplishment.

“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot of people who are not baseball people. And then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be very cognizant of their back.”

Matt Murton to Kyodo News in 2015

But what should have been the happiest of times turned into a depressing slog, a stellar season overshadowed by hyper expectations. When Murton finally got hit No. 211, the weight of the world came off his shoulders. At the end, a season begun as a way to learn lessons needed to restart his major league career instead created an unbreakable molecular bond between player and country.

Yet, within two years, when Murton and the rest of the Kansai region’s most popular club failed to meet expectations, everything around him had changed. In 2013, when a reporter insinuated he hadn’t been trying hard in the outfield, Murton sarcastically said he didn’t like pitcher Atsushi Nomi — who was on the mound when Murton failed to throw out a runner at the plate.

Not only did the regional sports media, who report every scrap of Tigers news, turn on him, but his words were splashed across the front page of every sports daily in Japan.

“You can’t go back and you can’t change it,” Murton, now an assistant in baseball operations for the Cubs, said this spring in Mesa, Arizona.

“I think for me specifically, it became kind of polarizing. We are playing for a team that was very visible. Given what I was able to accomplish as an individual in unison with our team in our first year, it puts you in a place of being very visible as a foreign player, and any misstep or anything that happened along the way was magnified. I feel that some of it wasn’t as big a deal as they made it out to be, some of it could have been handled differently. It was probably a combination of all of the above.”

Matt  Murton data splits

Breaking Ichiro’s hit record

In retrospect, 2010 can be seen as a lesson about one aspect of the dynamic between Japanese groups and their individual members. Because Japan emphasizes group success and failure, it can be a surprise that league-leading achievements and individual awards take on so much importance.

One trick is to look at those things as credits to the group ledger, because they raise the profile of the group as a whole. This may help explain why teams sometimes do whatever they can to boost individuals accomplishments even to the detriment of team wins. It used to be common to intentionally walking opposing hitters – regardless of the game situation – if it assists a teammate’s effort to win an individual title, provided the team had nothing to play for.

The introduction of playoffs in the Pacific League in 2004 and the Central League in 2007 has reduced the number of meaningless games, so there are fewer chances to witness those farces. But having a sense that individual accomplishments are to teams is important in getting a feel for the pressure Murton felt as he approached Suzuki’s record.

“I felt that if I didn’t get it, I would be a failure, that I would be letting my team down,” Murton told The Daily Yomiuri that October as the Tigers prepared to begin the playoffs.

Ironically, he said, the solution came when looking at the problem in a different light.

“What’s so funny about that is I go back to that individual moment in 2010, when I had a chance at Jingu (Stadium) to get a base hit on a changeup up the middle and set the single-season hit record,” he said. “I remember the feelings I had coming into the game. There was an expectation, whether it was the media or people talking about it, whatever it was, to accomplish something as an individual. So I felt that there were these external pressures that I had to carry with me.”

“I’ll never forget that moment because on that day, it was bases loaded, and all of a sudden it came over me, ‘This isn’t about me getting a hit. It’s about knocking my teammates in.’ My thinking transferred from individual result to team success. When I was able to transfer my thinking to more of a group mentality, and living in the moment and competing as a team, the individual success came.”

“If we make it all about self, we oftentimes can find ourselves living at the address of thinking about factors we don’t need to be thinking about. When we keep it simple about the competition in the moment and how to help our team, the individual numbers take care of themselves.”

That was 2010, the last year of loosely regulated baseballs in Japan. That year, offensive numbers did more than take care of themselves. They took care of fellow Tiger Craig Brazell. The Tigers first baseman hit 47 homers that season, despite playing at Koshien Stadium, where the vast power alleys make it one of Japan’s toughest home run parks.

That power output secured Brazell a hefty three-year extension good times seemed just around the corner for Hanshin.

Murton hates Nomi
Murton’s shocking declaration “I hates Nomi” so he helped give away a run.

“I don’t like Nomi”

Like nearly every hitter in Japan, 2011 was a letdown for Murton. After more than a decade of barely regulated balls, Nippon Professional Baseball for the first time introduced a uniform baseball. The new ball was intended to as dead as possible, and it was.

In addition to the deader ball, that season saw umpires from Japan’s two top-flight circuits, the Central and Pacific leagues merged for the first time. Games in Eastern Japan were also played with reduced lighting for much of the season after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami resulted in nuclear meltdowns and created a power shortage.

Across NPB, batting averages dropped by 8 percent and there were 41 percent fewer homers. Murton’s offense took a hit, but he still went on to win his second straight Central League Best Nine Award in the outfield. That earned him a contract extension, but after finishing in fourth place, the Tigers replaced manager Mayumi with Yutaka Wada.

Under Wada, the club did not flounder, but try as they might, the Tigers couldn’t climb above .500. It didn’t help that older Tigers players were not batting as well as expected and Brazell’s power evaporated after 2010. Nor did it help that Murton was guilty of a couple of careless plays in the outfield.

Suddenly, the news among the sports papers feeding the Tigers’ massive fan base began find fault with the team’s foreign players. Part of Hanshin’s dynamic is the extreme degree the club worries about its press coverage.

“You have an organization that has a lot of input from a lot of people who are not baseball people,” Murton told Kyodo News in 2015. “And then you have the media. It creates an environment in which everyone has to be very cognizant of their back. In my experience, they (the team) allow that to infiltrate the organization.”

One of the Hanshin beat writers in 2012 has suggested that Wada and his coaches had caved in to media pressure for a scapegoat and the Tigers threw the foreign players to the wolves.

Murton found himself running a daily gauntlet of insinuations masquerading as post-game questions. And on June 9, after the Tigers lost their interleague game against the PL’s Orix Buffaloes 6-1, he’d had enough.

Murton went 1-for-5 with two strikeouts, dropping his batting average to .231 for the season, but the question was about his defense. With the Tigers losing 1-0 in the fourth, Murton’s throw home on a two-out single to right was unable to nail the runner at the plate or prevent the batter from advancing to second.

Asked if he had tried to throw the runner out at the plate, Murton, who had spent much of his professional career trying to reign in his temper, didn’t get overtly angry, but that hardly mattered.

His “I don’t like Nomi,” offered as a joke, transformed the Tigers irritating media into a personal pestilence.

The sports dailies called for Murton’s head, and parent company stockholders called for Murton’s dismissal. The fans who went to the ballpark, those who actually witnessed his attitude and effort, stuck with him, but the media had a circus to report on and wasn’t going to give it up easily.

“It was frustration, and the question that was asked and I didn’t understand,” Murton said. “I think the question was questioning integrity or how hard you were trying to do or whatever, so it was tough. But that probably wasn’t the right way to respond. But it was certainly in jest, a joke. Therein lies a cultural lesson that our jokes don’t always translate.”

Matt Murton on his transition to a non-playing job with the Cubs.

Cultural collisions at home and abroad

Having learned sarcasm doesn’t travel, Murton crossed another cultural divide in 2013, when he twice slammed into Yakult Swallows catchers. Japanese catchers had been trained to block the plate without the ball, and then duck and cover in case runners tried to bowl them over. Umpires did not require tags on such plays, demanding catchers only hold on to the ball.

Most, but not all, collisions on Japanese base paths have involved foreign base runners, who had been taught since childhood that separating catchers from the ball was the base runner’s duty to his team.

On the same day Yakult Swallows catcher Masahiko Tanaka returned to duty months after an earlier collision with Murton, the Tigers outfielder slammed into Swallows veteran Ryoji Aikawa at Jingu. Aikawa himself had been sidelined early in the season in a collision with a different runner, and was not in a forgiving mood. Shoving and F-bombs ensued at home plate, Murton was ejected, and his transformation from famous to infamous was complete.

The following spring, instead of pulling out the “This is how baseball is played” excuse, Murton said he would be fine with rules that prohibited catchers without the ball from blocking the plate and prevented runners from trying to dislodge the ball rather than reach home.

“If that’s the rule, then the catcher doesn’t get hurt and I as the runner don’t get hurt,” he said.

“I’m very passionate and driven. We can sit here and make excuses all day long, but excuses are a hindrance to growth. In order for us to grow, we’ve got to be raw. We’ve got to be vulnerable and realize we do have some shortcomings and that there are plenty of ways to learn from previous experiences.”

Japanese lessons

Needless to say, Japan provided Murton with lots of grist for that mill. And though he first came here to acquire skills with which he could relaunch his major league career, he got more than he bargained for.

“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing there, the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out basis, coupled with the enthusiasm and the support of the people. This is very unique. Chicago, I think (is one of) a few markets that present similar type feeling from a player’s perspective. But on a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”

“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is very unique and a lot can be learned and it’s a place that as an American or a foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never want to shut the door on that.”

Murton said that was true even when things went awry in ways he couldn’t fathom at the time. Three-plus years later, having finally retired and moved on to a team-building career, Murton has gained more perspective.

“It’s always easier once you are removed from an environment to be able to look at it more objectively. The same is true in regards to competition. What competition does in terms in the sense of the heightened sense of our emotions and our responses, those are all a factor,” he said.

“Culturally, you would feel things or sense things that really weren’t there. I look back on things and say, ‘I wish I wouldn’t have been so taken back by whatever it was, A, B, C or D.’ I think there were times when the feelings were warranted and made sense, but the responses you always wish were different.”

While there’s no going back to the way things were, Murton said his family thinks of Japan a lot. He lives in the Nashville area and is involved with the Japanese community there, and his wife longs for the simplicity of life on Kobe’s Rokko Island, where everything they needed was no more than a short walk away.

“I came back this past September and I was only there for four days,” Murton said. “My two older ones asked on that trip if they could go, and they’ve more recently verbalized that they want to go back. It’s something that will happen, when we make sense of when that time is right for the younger kids and for us as a family.”

“You walk away from experiences and you want to do it in a way that you’re wanting more,” he said. “It’s a part of you. It’s a season in your life. It’s a chapter. It doesn’t change your identity or future, but that will always be a part of you and that will never change, so there’s gratitude for the experience and the relationships.”

“At the end of the day it’s the respect you gain by playing there (in Japan), the level of the competition you see on a day-in, day-out basis, coupled with the enthusiasm and the support of the people.”

While Japanese baseball is not major league baseball, it represents some things that are hard to find in the majors, and he wasn’t talking about 3-1 sliders, 2-0 curveballs or 100-pitch bullpens but engagement.

“I think there are a few (major league) markets that present similar type feeling from a player’s perspective,” Murton said, noting that playing in Chicago has a similar vibe. “On a whole, it’s the love of the game, and the opportunity to compete in front of people who care.”

“Culturally, you get a chance to engage something that is very unique and a lot can be learned. And it’s a place that as an American or a foreigner, there’s so many things that Japan offers, it’s a really cool experience. You love that experience, the time you spend there and you never want to shut the door on that.”

Words for the wise

For those wishing to share that, and who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when a Japanese club has its eyes on then, Murton has some advice.

“The first thing would be to be prepared for a challenge physically. If you’ve never experienced it, you don’t quite understand the level of competition,” he said. “No. 1 is you have to prepare your body and your mind. Never forget who you are, but take that America mindset or whatever it is from whatever country you are from and check it at the door.”

“Kind of embrace the culture on the field and off the field. Right off the bat, there are going to be things done differently that maybe doesn’t make sense to you. That’s OK, because the feelings that you have are probably not any different from other guys that have played before you. Be aware that some of those situations are going to create feelings that are going to make it hard for you to understand.”

“But just live at the address of showing up every day, caring for people and love the game. If you can do those things, embrace the culture and the unique opportunity you have. You’re one of a very select few, so just try and make the most of that.”

But that is the hindsight of six seasons of seeing foreign players come and go. One early surprise in 2010 was seeing coaches’ brows furrow when he’d spend an entire batting practice working on fundamentals. Murton wasn’t yet used to Japanese baseball’s love of material results, where a fluke single on a bad swing can be declared a good sign, while good swings and hard-hit outs can be a cause for concern.

“Normally, I come to camp thinking, ‘I’m going to work the backside of the field, and I’m going to get my swings in,’ because that was the mentality you had coming from America,” Murton said. “If you’re a hitter (in Japan), the first day go ahead and try to hit some home runs, try to let them know you can do it. Then everyone will relax and you can go back to doing what you’ve got to do. So yes, that is the one other piece of advice I’d probably give.”

That and perhaps, save the sarcasm for home.

“I had a chance to see him (Nomi) for dinner this past September, and I gave him a nice hug,” Murton said.

“That was always going to be a thing,” Murton said. “I still can’t believe to this day that it took on this life of its own. And part of that is my own fault.”

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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