Tag Archives: Koshien Stadium

Summer HS championship faces cancellation

The Japan High School Baseball Federation will decide on Wednesday whether or not to cancel its 102nd national championship, Japan’s most iconic sports event, at Koshen Stadium in light of the current public health crisis.

The federation’s second-biggest tournament, March’s national invitational, was canceled.

From Friday, the government-issued state of emergency was lifted in 39 prefectures. The Nikkan Sports reports that 20 of the 35 prefectural federations that replied to their inquiries indicated they will hold their annual summer tournaments regardless of whether the national championships are held or not.

According to the report, Tokyo’s federation is still planning to hold its tournament in some form.

Scout Diary: Jan. 31, 2020: The question about Junya Nishi

Today’s topic is right-handed pitcher Junya Nishi, the Hanshin Tigers’ top draft pick last autumn. Nishi, a Hiroshima native, played for Soshigakuen HS in Okayama and is a distant relative of Tigers pitcher Yuki Nishi.

Haven’t heard anyone talk about Nishi’s hitting, but he’s got real power. I asked longtime former Dodgers scout Hank Jones, one of the instructors in the Scouting and General Manager course at Sports Management World Wide, what teams did back in the day when guys had hitting AND pitching tools back in the day before Shohei Ohtani.

Essentially, Jones said, “Let him prove he can’t hit. If he can’t then he’s a pitcher.”

But now that we’re living in the post-Ohtani world, one would think any team would at least consider a novel approach to a player with such obvious talent.

Jump to 1 year as a scout page

Physically, Nishi resembles Ron Cey, although he is a little taller than Cey. His pitching motion makes it look like he’s constantly overexerting himself, and his follow through is violent rather than smooth.

The pitcher

In the pitching video below, the announcer reports Nishi as saying his balance is off when his cap comes off his head — which it does frequently. When he bats, it looks like his lower body imparts very little of the impressive power he generates.

Here’s a first-round national championship game in 2018, when Nishi was a month shy of his 17th birthday. He touched 91.3 mph in this game with 40 command. He has since been recorded at 93.2, which would make his velocity a 60. He has a slider with depth and 50 command, a curve that he doesn’t command well what appeared to be a splitter with arm-side run and good depth.

Junya Nishi’s 16 strikeouts in the national championships as a 16-year-old.

The video below is an analysis of his motion and deliveries against the national collegiate team prior to last year’s Under-18 World Cup. I can’t vouch for the RPMs given on the video. The curve with poor command appears little different than the ones he threw at Koshien Stadium a year earlier, but it looks like the slider and fastball are even better and he’s added a changeup and improved the splitter.

Some slow motion of him pitching against Japan’s national collegiate hitters.

The hitter

I first noticed Nishi when he drove in eight runs against South Africa as Japan’s DH in their Under-18 World Cup game last autumn in South Korea.

The other instructor in our scouting course, former Dodgers GM and Blue Jays scout Dan Evans, provided us with a hack for recognizing above-average major league power, which I won’t spill hear, but suffice it to say hearing that he led the World Cup in home runs and hit 25 in his high school career as a pitcher.

He’s a right-handed hitter, with 60 power that I’ll project to 65 with work on his lower body mechanics with a 50 hit tool. Like most Japanese hitters he sprays the ball to all fields, although his power seems to be mostly to left.

Here’s some video of Nishi hitting in high school.

Pitcher Junya Nishi raked and mashed in high school.

Conclusion

Japan is obsessed with pitchers, and Nishi has a lot to offer on the mound, but his delivery bothers me a little. I’m inclined to think his power is the real deal and that he may have more future value as a hitter with fewer adjustments needed.

Whether he can be a two-way player or not is a good question. But if I’m the Hanshin Tigers, I’d at least ask him if he’s interested instead of just assuming that the team knows more than the player. The Tigers are kind of a mystery to me. I don’t understand their inability to commit to young players or their past failures to modernize the club’s strength-training program.

Maybe they see the possibility Nishi presents, but if I were to bet, my money would be on the “We’ve already made up our minds about his future as a pitcher.”

The kotatsu league: Tigers conclude Bour hunt, Giants rearm

The Hanshin Tigers on Saturday announced they have acquired 31-year-old slugging infielder Justin Bour on a one-year deal reported at $2.5 million according to Kyodo News (in Japanese).

One interesting thing about Bour is that according to Fangraphs he has a fastball hitter with a history of success against curveballs. While most of the curves he sees in Japan will be a little different from those he was more used to in the States, it suggests some ability to adjust off the fastball. He will see really good breaking balls, and it would be no surprise if he still has good success once he gets his timing down — until the locals wise up and become more selective.

When the deal was first agreed to, Tigers head of baseball operations Osamu Tanimoto compared Bour to former Tigers icon Randy Bass because of his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field — potentially negating the impact of the jet stream blowing in from Osaka Bay that holds up fly balls hit to right field at Koshien Stadium.

As a matter of interest HERE are how NPB’s different main parks affect the frequency of home runs hit by left- and right-handed hitters — with the higher figures indicating how much harder it is to hit home runs based on which side of the plate the batter bats from.

Sanchez to Giants

On Friday, the Yomiuri Giants announced they had concluded a contract with 30-year-old right-handed pitcher Angel Sanchez, who went 17-5 with a 2.62 ERA last season for the SK Wyverns of KBO. Sanchez was in his second season in South Korea. His two-year contract with the Central League champs will pay him approximately $3 million for the first year according to Kyodo News Japanese language site.

The Giants are going to lose their best pitcher from 2019, Shun Yamaguchi unless the right-hander fails to sign an MLB contract by the end of his 30-day posting window.

In a statement released by the team, Sanchez, who is from the Dominican Republic, said coming to Japan had been a dream of his since he was a child and that he was eager to learn the language so he could communicate with fans and teammates.

Bolsinger still available

Mike Bolsinger, who was released this month after his second season with the Lotte Marines, surprisingly remains on the market. Following a 2018 debut campaign in which nearly everything went right and he finished with a 13-2 record, Bolsinger was 4-6 in 2019 with an ERA 1.5 runs higher than the year before.

Although Zozo Marine Stadium had new turf in 2019, Bolsinger suffered from a foot injury through the first half of the season, when he went 1-3 with a 4.87 ERA over 57-1/3 IP through June. During that stretch, he allowed 12 homers and walked 34 batters. From July, he was 3-3 with a 4.34 ERA while walking 18 batters over 45-2/3 innings and allowing two home runs.

Take him to the SoftBank

This should trigger your “small sample size” alarm, but Bolsinger is 4-2 in his seven starts against the three-time defending Japan Series champion SoftBank Hawks with 1.41 ERA and an average game score of 62.7.

To show you he’s human, the two-time defending PL champion Seibu Lions batters have treated Bolsinger like he doesn’t walk on water, handing him a 6.81 ERA and a 3-2 record over eight starts. Still, that’s 15 starts against the Marines’ two toughest opponents out of 35 career starts against the five other PL teams.

As I pointed out somewhere, that besides the foot issue, Bolsinger’s biggest shift from 2018 was in how often batted balls found holes against him. Opponents batted .278 against him on balls in play a year ago and .295 through June — when he was not pitching well. From July, when he had stopped giving up walks and home runs, opponents’ Babip was .329.

I’m biased because Bolsinger is a good guy, and easy to talk to, but those are the facts. The team that picks him up should get a bargain and results somewhere in between what he did in 2018 and 2019.

High school body sets limits, kind of

For the first time in its history, Japan’s national high school baseball federation set pitch limits for its games and those organized by prefectural federations.

Kyodo News’ English language story is HERE.

The move is for three years starting from next spring’s national invitational. During the time the rule is in effect pitchers will ONLY be allowed to throw 500 pitches over any seven-day period, but will be able to pitch on back-to-back days, although not on three straight days.

The move comes 11 months after Niigata Prefecture’s high school body implemented its own measures and was shouted down by the national federation. But without Niigata going out on a limb and without some strong words of support from the head of Japan’s Sports Agency, Daichi Suzuki, it is an open question whether the national body — which had resisted considering pitch counts for so long — would have acted.

Still, it’s a positive step, and the mere fact that is coming from a body that has in the past seemed so intransigent, could have an oversized impact on the amateur baseball landscape.

NPB games, news of Sept. 30, 2019

Tigers have their cake and eat it, too

The Hanshin Tigers booked a spot in the playoffs by winning their sixth-straight game on Monday, beating the Chunichi Dragons 3-0 at Koshien Stadium in the final game of Japan’s regular season.

Not only did they win their sixth-straight elimination game, but they found room to play departing veteran Takashi Toritani two innings at shortstop and give longtime reliever Akifumi Takahashi a place in the limelight.

In his speech to the fans, first-year manager Akihiro Yano promised that the Tigers would do their best to inspire Japan the way the national rugby team had been doing in the Rugby World Cup currently taking place across Japan.

The Tigers got a boost when Dragons starter Yudai Ono was pulled with one out in the fourth inning, having lowered his ERA to 2.58 so he could lead the league in ERA.

Ono, who no-hit Hanshin on Sept. 14, saw his ERA against the Tigers this season improve to 1.35. Ono is 3-0 against the Tigers, 6-8 with a 2.94 ERA against everyone else. Ono got a big ovation from the Tigers fans, although some of them may have been cheering the fact that his exit gave their team a better chance to win.

And as if on cue, his replacement, Takuya Mitsuma (2-2), surrendered an infield single and a walk.

Yusuke Oyama put a good compact swing on a 2-2 shoot inside with good run on it that caught too much of the plate. He smashed it up the middle to break the scoreless deadlock. A two-out wild pitch made it 2-0 Tigers.

Here’s Oyama’s RBI single.

Tigers side-armer Koyo Aoyagi (9-9) struck out five over five scoreless innings. He was pulled for pinch-hitter Hiroki Uemoto in the bottom of the fifth and Uemoto singled in an insurance run.

With a three-run lead, the Tigers began honoring their players. A day after Randy Messenger faced one batter in the final career game of his 10-year Tigers career, reliever Akifumi Takahashi faced one batter in his final regular season game. He received flowers from Ono and teammate Kosuke Fukudome, who had been his teammate with Chunichi as well.

Takashi Toritani, who will leave the Tigers at the end of the season, pinch-hit in the seventh and played the last two innings at his old position.

Here’s Toritani’s reception as pinch-hitter.

Kyuji Fujikawa, who at season’s start appeared like he was on that same road for disappearing veterans, continued his remarkable turnaround as closer. The 39-year-old converted his 16th-straight save opportunity since the club began using him in that role on July 26.

The Tigers’ win eliminated the Hiroshima Carp from the postseason for the first time since 2015. Hanshin’s next job will be the first stage of the CL Climax Series. The best-of-three series begins on Saturday at Yokohama.

By winning six-straight elimination games to reach the playoffs, the Tigers surpassed the feat of the 2010 Lotte Marines, who had to win their final three regular season games. They went on to become the first NPB team to win the Japan Series after finishing third in their league. Hanshin’s path was considerably more difficult, however, since they would not even have gotten to the elimination games had they not won their three games before it became do or die. Those wins, coupled with Hiroshima’s loss

The game highlights are HERE.

Tigers return all-star fire at Koshien

Koji Chikamoto had a night for the record books on Saturday. The Hanshin Tigers rookie became the second player to hit for an all-star cycle and was named the MVP of All-Star Game series Game 2, an 11-3 blowout by the Central League that ended the Pacific League’s five-game winning streak.

Chikamoto became the first rookie to lead off the first inning of an all-star game when he went deep off Orix Buffaloes pitcher Taisuke Yamaoka in the CL’s two-run first.

After Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano’s two scoreless innings, the CL hitters got to face Seibu Lions right-hander Kona Takahashi. To say they schooled him or took him to the woodshed would be an understatement. They went to the lumber yard and gave him a beating with some serious clubs.

Two Tigers catchers went deep back to back to open the inning. Fumihito Haraguchi, who homered in the ninth inning of Friday’s game as a pinch hitter led off. His catching partner Ryutaro Umeno, an early favorite for the CL’s Best Nine Award, followed. Chikamoto doubled and scored on the first of two doubles by the Chunichi Dragons’ Shuhei Takahashi.

After a Tetsuto Yamada singled, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo crushed a line drive out to left center, which takes a tremendous poke at Koshien, which boasts Japan’s deepest power alleys thanks to its original design as a multipurpose stadium.

“I felt my pitches just weren’t good enough to face the best CL hitters.” said Takahashi, who was added to his first PL all-star roster by his skipper, Hatsuhiko Tsuji of the Lions.

“I think I’ll be happy to avoid the all-star game from now on.”

After one win and one loss, Tsuji said.

Chikamoto became the first player with four extra-base hits in an all-star game and the second to have five hits, the other being Yakult’s Roberto Petagine in 2001.

The series, at Japan’s two biggest parks, set a two-tame attendance record of 90,008 spectators.

The two home run derby finalists, each homered in the game. Seiya Suzuki of the Hiroshima Carp won this year’s derby, beating Friday’s finalist Masataka Yoshida of Orix 4-3.

Suzuki beat Tomoya Mori of the Lions 4-3 in his first round and then knocked off Tsutsugo 5-4 in their semifinal. Tsutsugo advanced past Japan home run leader Hotaka Yamakawa on a tie-breaker.

The real Hunger Games

For those unfamiliar with Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy or its cinematic offshoots, the story revolves around a world where 24 teenagers are selected each year to battle to the death for the entertainment of a wealthy capital that the 12 poorer outlying districts support with their labor once tried to overthrow.

Every part of the tournament is marketed nationwide, the selection of the candidates, the training, the details of their struggles and finally the deaths in the arena and the glorification of the winners. Collins has said part of the idea came from the Roman practice of having gladiators fight for popular entertainment.

Japan’s arena

Collins could also have drawn inspiration from Japan’s summer national high school baseball tournament, creating her dystopian arena as a stand in for Koshien Stadium, Japan’s high school baseball mecca.

There, a sport officially recognized place in the national education system, is showcased, not as education but as mass entertainment.

In Collins’ world the real tragedy is not in the visible arena, but in the less visible system of brutality and authoritarianism that supports it, and the same is true in Japanese baseball. People are riveted to Koshien’s spectacle and care about the winners and losers. To a lesser degree, this is also true for prefectural tournaments, whose champions advance to that national arena.

Behind the scenes

Japan’s tragedy is in the system that supports the arena. At the elementary and junior high levels, competition mimics the Koshien model in the form of knockout tournaments in which a single loss equals heartbreak. Through endless, mind-numbing practice and abuse of pitchers’ arms, boys learn from a young age that the cost of victory is high and the bill often comes due in the form of broken bodies.

At the summer nationals, small adjustments have been made for the potential hazard of playing day after day in sweltering heat, rest days have been added in the final stages and international tiebreak rules were introduced in 2018 from the 13th inning to prevent overlong games. With that, the rule that forced games from 2000 to 2017 to be replayed from the start after 15-inning ties was abandoned.

The challenge

But the Koshien ideal that demands maximum effort and commitment remains ingrained and serves as a beacon informing an entire baseball culture that losing is hateful and mistakes therefore unacceptable in practice or in games from the moment a young child puts on a glove for the first time.

In December, Niigata Prefecture’s high school baseball federation, knowing that too many children were staying away from their sport when there are safer and less burdensome alternatives to baseball, acted to set an example.

For Niigata’s 2019 spring high school tournament, no player would be able to take the mound in a new inning after he’d already thrown 100 pitches in that game. The rule didn’t address practice time, pitching on consecutive days or affect any competition outside of Niigata, but it was a challenge to the status quo and to the idea that high school baseball is some kind of sacred temple that must not be fiddled with.

Niigata’s modest plan generated a tremendous backlash, with almost all of the responses falling into three categories:

  1. Forcing a team to take its best pitcher out of the game will make public schools with fewer good pitchers uncompetitive, making the spectacle less interesting.
  2. Batters will train to foul off more pitches to get the opposing starter out of the game, making games boring.
  3. It would eliminate marathon pitching feats that are a staple of tournament’s lore, crushing — for most pitchers – their lone chance at glory, further reducing the quality of the spectacle.

Some in the public supported the Niigata initiative, but they were drowned out by the chorus – including some from the national federation – that don’t want anyone messing with the ritual human sacrifice.

Japan’s High School Baseball Association authorities didn’t appreciate a local body overstepping its bounds and announcing rules without consulting their betters. In February, the national association instructed Niigata to “reconsider,” and the plan was withdrawn. After Niigata’s bold move drew praise from Japan Sports Agency chief Daichi Suzuki, the national association announced a blue-ribbon panel to study reform and health countermeasures.

A reporter who covered the proceedings told a Tokyo symposium on April 23 about an exchange he had with a national association executive at the time.

“He told me, ‘How do you know throwing more than 100 pitches is harmful? What evidence do you have? We are instituting a day off between games,’” the reporter said. “Is having a rest day between two 150-pitch games really OK? How can we possibly allow that?”

The Cambio Meeting symposium was the third annual meeting of a group dedicated to reinvigorating baseball in Japan from at its lowest levels by promoting education and rules to limit abuses. This year’s principle speaker, Dr. Kozo Furushima, has performed more than 1,200 surgeries on elbows and shoulders – mostly belonging to youth baseball.

Furushima told of a patient in junior high school, who had pitched his youth team to the semifinals of Saitama’s prefectural tournament, and about how his right elbow was deformed with three different injuries in comparison with his normal left elbow.

“Because his team couldn’t win if he didn’t pitch, he pitched every game and had been doing so for four years,” Furushima said. “His pain had started one week earlier. We needed him to extend his arm as far as he could for the X-Ray and he couldn’t. Some with the same injuries can’t bend their elbow.”

“Those injuries did not occur one week before. It was obviously not something that occurred suddenly because he was pitching in pain. The lesson from that is that just because you’re not in pain doesn’t mean you’re not hurt and not vulnerable.”

“This young man dreamed of being a pro, and now when I look at these (pictures of his arm), it makes my head hurt.”

Furushima presented research results that indicated, in declining order, four factors for increased injury among young pitchers.

  1. Pitching competitively for eight or more months a year, 5.05 times normal
  2. Frequently pitching with arm fatigue, 4.04 times
  3. 80-plus pitches per game, 3.83 times
  4. Throwing fastballs over 85 miles per hour, 2.58 times

One inspiration for the symposium has been regular travel by Furushima and others to the Dominican Republic, a country with a population of less than 11 million that has produced roughly 150 active players in North America with major league experience. Japan, with a population of nearly 127 million, currently has less than 1,000 players playing professionally around the world.

During his time as Lotte Marines manager, Bobby Valentine was puzzled about why a nation as large as Japan that is so passionate about baseball and has such high levels of economic and educational achievement and public safety does not produce more of the world’s best players. Why, he asked, should America or the Dominican Republic be better at producing baseball players than Japan?

Furushima, who has performed ultrasound examinations on youth players in Japan as well as Japan’s Under-12 team, found one reason: injuries to young players. He examined youngsters in the Dominican and found far fewer injuries than among Japanese players the same age.

What Furushima and his fellow travelers discovered in the Dominican Republic was a youth baseball environment far removed from the highly pressurized Japanese norm.

Future MLB Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, asked in March about his baseball training in the Dominican, contradicted one of Furushima’s assertions that coaches there never yell at players.

“Oh, I got yelled at,” he told Japanese media in Tempe, Arizona. “But the job of the coach is to not give the kids reason to give up on sports. They have to treat the boys as individuals, help them grow, encourage their love for the game.”

Ryunosuke Seno, one of the symposium’s leaders, won national “Boys League” championships in 1999 and 2000 as manager of Osaka’s Sakai Big Boys baseball club. Since then, however, he has gone from an old-school hard-ass coach to reform advocate.

“As manager, I had hard practices, I’d get angry, sometimes use physical punishment. We won a championship and celebrated. It was an exceptionally strong team, and what happened to the players on such a strong team? One would expect players like that to…go on to play pro ball, be good ballplayers. But that wasn’t the case. They quit baseball or got hurt. They were saying, ‘I’m done with baseball. I’m full of it. I’m tired of it.’ Guys were burned out, a lot of them.”

“I thought I’d been coaching correctly. But was carrying out my duties like that right? A lot of the kids on the championship team quit playing in high school. When I looked at kids playing on other teams, this guy hurt his elbow, that guy had surgery or quit. There were an amazing number of those kids. I began to question the purpose of what I was doing.”

Seno and his colleagues are now advocating rules that will, among other things, limit pitches in games and the amount of time teams are allowed to practice and take those decisions out of the hands of coaches who simply don’t know any other way than the old way.

“If you’re limited to two hours practice, that’s the rule, not the coach’s fault,” Seno said. “Tomorrow is the final, but because players can’t pitch on consecutive days, today’s pitcher can’t pitch again. That’s the fault of the rule, not the manager. But if there are no rules, the managers are thinking, ‘We want to win, he can pitch.’ And the child will say, ‘OK.’”

“It’s going to take a real long time before coaches realize you can’t force kids to practice so much. That’s because coaches don’t think what they’re doing is wrong. If a player is fatigued or in pain, the coach will ask if they’re OK. But the boys are trained to tough it out. So asking a player if he’s OK is akin to ordering a soldier in battle to charge.”

Although Niigata’s initiative failed to make concrete headway, it helped push the conversation. In January, the Japan Rubber Baseball Association, which oversees school tournaments for elementary, junior high and girls teams, announced a 70-pitch limit for this year’s national elementary school tourney.

“That is 100 times more important than the Niigata proposal,” Seno said.

That’s because while high school ball is the tip of Japan’s abusive baseball coaching iceberg, and the number of elementary and junior high school players is shrinking more rapidly than the nation’s declining birth rate, and eroding the base that high school and pro ball depend on.

“You’d think playing baseball is cheap for kids, but it isn’t,” a long-time youth coach said. “There is a huge burden on parents to come and provide lunches for the long practices, and the medical bills can be extravagant.”

One of the nation’s more progressive teams is the Tokyo Aoyama Club, which has one national little senior hardball championships for junior high school boys. Tokyo Aoyama leases its own grounds with a dormitory an hour drive from Tokyo, where kids practice virtually every day they aren’t in school. But when they play in tournaments, game experience rather than victory at all costs is the focus. Pitchers are not allowed to pitch on consecutive days and their pitch counts are monitored.

Still, the training is Spartan, with lots of running and strength training and the rules strict.

“They had a 1-kilogram bento rule,” said a woman whose son played with the club five years earlier. “The wanted you to eat so they could grow stronger. They would weigh the lunch boxes and if they weren’t heavy enough, the kids would get sent home.”

“Everyone was forced to eat that huge meal. My son was big, so it was no problem. But you’d see smaller boys crying because they couldn’t and then throwing up when they tried.”

At the Cambio Meeting symposium, one speaker who works for an NPB team, cited rapidly falling numbers of elementary and junior high school players across the country and predicted that even more high schools would soon find it difficult to field teams.

“One problem is that Japanese youth baseball is not fun,” he said. “Grounds are hard to secure, so little time is actually spent playing. Mostly kids are running. It is demanding and considered hard, and there are lots of hurdles to entry at the lowest level.”

“It needs to be made something the kids will want to come back and do more of. It needs to be fun.”

Dr. Furushima, however, said fun is not the old-school Japanese way.

“The old way is to shout at the boys and even hit them when they don’t do something the right way. But little boys who’ve never really played aren’t good at it when they start, so of course they make lots of mistakes, so many coaches who think they’re helping and doing the right thing will yell at them.”

“In high schools, if a pitcher gives up a lot of hits, there are cases where he is sent to the sidelines to throw a 250-pitch bullpen as punishment.”

“It really drives home the idea of how little hold the concept of human rights has in Japan.”

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.”