I’m not certain that Yangervis Solarte is being fitted for the goat horns or not, but the news today that he went 0-for-3 and made an error in his first game on the farm since being deactivated is a bad sign.
The bigger the team is in Japan, the greater the need for a fall guy when things go wrong. As a result, we see it a lot with Japan’s too oldest clubs, the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants — although less with the Giants now that their fascist generalissimo, Tsuneo Watanabe, is fading into the background.
Solarte is 13-for-69 with nine walks and a .406 slugging average, and has been a ball of energy and fun, although not a superior defender at short.
A friend of mine who was spending a year covering the Tigers for the Daily Sports, perhaps the paper that has the most intense Tigers following, told me that in the summer of 2012, a number of the team’s veterans –including legend Tomoaki Kanemoto — were hitting for a low average, but the coaches refused to criticize them to reporters, who badly needed a scapegoat.
According to the reporter, the coaches began giving harsh evaluations of Matt Murton and Craig Brazell in order to satisfy the media pack. This led to streams of annoying questions for Murton who eventually burst out with a sarcastic quip that gave the press what it wanted.
I don’t think the team is looking to turn Solarte into a scapegoat, but stories by the Tigers beat writers this summer suggested that Jefry Marte was the leading candidate until Solarte’s arrival, but that his new teammate is the man whose head is being fitted for horns by reporters.
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
‘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,
“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.”
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
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.
“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
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
“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
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.”
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.”
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
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.”