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Monday, March 26, 2012
2012 BASEBALL PREVIEW
Murton ready to give his all for Tigers
A potentially life-changing decision awaited Matt Murton at the end of his second season with the Hanshin Tigers, and in late October he still hadn't made it.
He could either remain with the team, or try his luck back in the States. On some level, both choices were appealing.
Murton had enjoyed his time in Japan and made friendships that may well outlast his playing days. The Tigers and their fans made his family feel welcome, and his wife and kids liked life in Osaka.
On the other hand, there's no place like home.
Playing in the major leagues is the goal of many ballplayers around the globe. Murton had been there. In fact, coming to Japan in the first place was partly fueled by a desire to return there.
"I definitely had interest in going home," Murton said. "When I came over here two years ago, my goal was to help this team win and ultimately put myself in a better circumstance to go home. That was my thought process coming over here."
A record-setting first year in Japan put Murton back on the MLB radar and he followed it up with another solid season in 2011. As the end of the year approached, some wondered if Murton would follow in the footsteps of Colby Lewis and Ryan Vogelsong, former NPB players who made successful returns to the majors in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
He still may one day, but not this year.
"There was some interest, and the point being is that as much as I like it here, there was an element of going home that was enticing," Murton said. "What it came down to was I felt God was leading us (he and his family) back here. Besides the fact that God was leading us back, it came down to the security that I would receive in Japan in terms of being a little bit more established.
"You still have to go out and play the game. You have to play well ... but there were more guarantees here. More certainty in a game that is completely uncertain."
That sense of security appealed to Murton and his wife, who have three young children.
"There was going to be a chance to go home for sure," Murton said. "Bottom line, there was more certainty here than there was at home. Therefore, for my family, at the point in my career that I'm at, I had to take that."
Murton has been one of Japan's most consistent players over the past two seasons. In 2010 he posted a .349 average and recorded 214 hits to break Ichiro Suzuki's all-time single-season record. He was voted to the Central League Best Nine that season and finished third in the MVP voting.
He followed that up by hitting .311 with 13 home runs and 60 RBIs the next year, a season that saw offensive numbers fall across the board after the introduction of NPB's newly mandated baseball. He again led the CL in hits (180) and finished second the race for the batting title to the Yomiuri Giants' Hisayoshi Chono, who hit .316.
Murton is appreciative of his success, but mindful of not resting on his laurels. He spent the offseason training — weight training, running, and later doing baseball activities such as hitting and throwing — and re-evaluating his game in order to eliminate things he felt he didn't do well.
"Individually as a person, and I think this is true of a lot of guys, there's a level of play that you want to become accustomed to, and you want to hold yourself to that higher standard," Murton said.
"The other people around you, they expect the same. As a ballplayer, you never want to go out and fail. It's frustrating to go out and fail. What drives you, I think, is your passion for the game, your competitive nature, and wanting to hold yourself to a certain standard that doesn't allow yourself room for slacking off. You always want to set the bar one step higher, or believe in your heart that there's something more you can get out of yourself. I think if you can continue to do that until the end of your career, you'll be able to sustain yourself."
Murton is a man of strong conviction and faith and places great importance on doing everything he can to not waste his God-given talents.
"Sometimes I talk about, 'Oh I want to do A, B, C and D to get better,' " Murton said. "Maybe in some ways it makes you a little bit better, but if anything, it keeps you par for the course. Because if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. So if you don't find a way to continue to work and push yourself, you're going to start to fall behind. Then, the next thing you know, you're going to lose that edge that you had."
Something that will keep him on his toes is adjusting to a new manager. After two seasons under Akinobu Mayumi, the Tigers will have Yutaka Wada, last season's hitting coach, calling the shots.
"I think the biggest change is just the change itself," Murton said. "It's a different perspective now. It's a new person who maybe has a new concept or new idea.
"You can kind of sense on some level the changing of the guard. There's somebody now who's managing the team who has a different perspective than the man who was managing before. That doesn't make it right, wrong or indifferent. I think that would be true anytime you see a managerial change."
Murton is pleased with his decision to stay in Japan. Much of his career had been spent bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, despite making the most of his one real MLB opportunity by hitting .297 with 13 homers and 62 RBIs in 144 games for the Chicago Cubs in 2006.
So he understands success can be fleeting and that not everything can be controlled or accounted for.
"Everything in life happens for a specific purpose," Murton said. "I really believe that the time was right. There were definitely things I went through in my career. Having a chance to play at the major league level for close to three years, I had experience against some high-level competition. I think that better prepares you for coming over here and facing what you have to face."
2012 Japanese baseball preview