- Anna Katherine Clemmons
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The day of Oct. 5, 2010, was a quiet one for the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. They'd finished their regular season on Oct. 3 with a win over the San Diego Padres and were two days away from beginning the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves.
But over 5,000 miles away across the Pacific Ocean, 28,000 baseball fans stood inside Tokyo's Jingu Stadium, cheering and watching as they waited for the crowning of a new champion. Some fans waved signs of Japanese characters and English letters reading "Good Job!" and "Break the Japanese record!"; others held yellow and black (the Hanshin Tigers' team colors) noisemakers that they clapped together.
With two outs in the bottom of the second inning, the visiting Tigers had loaded the bases against the Yakult Swallows. The cheers and the claps, however, were for 29-year-old Tigers outfielder Matt Murton as he stepped to the plate.
Murton, a U.S. Major League Baseball journeyman playing in his first Japanese League season, watched the first pitch by rookie Masato Nakazawa whiz by, bouncing into the dirt. The second pitch, a changeup, sailed high, and Murton again held back his swing. Ball two.
In Japanese baseball, each player typically has his own, individual cheer designed by the fans. In this case, the crowd's collective voice blended into a sing-song crescendo of "Mur-ton!" and "Get a hit!" in Japanese.
Before the third pitch, Murton exited the box for two practice swings. He stepped back in, adjusted his grip, reaffixed his right batting glove, tapped his bat on the plate and leaned back and then forward in his stance. The 6-foot-1 redhead motioned through one more swing and then stood, poised and ready, as a high fastball came toward him.
The sound of his bat connecting (a ground ball single into center field) was barely heard before the crowd erupted into a deafening cheer that lasted several minutes. The hit was Murton's 211th and set a new single-season hits record in Japan, a title perhaps more important because of its reigning champion. Ichiro Suzuki had set the single-season mark of 210 hits in 1994; Murton had now replaced Ichiro.
The Tigers' mascot ran toward first base holding a bouquet of yellow roses. He bowed to Murton, who returned the bow before accepting the flowers. Murton tipped his helmet to the still-standing crowd, offered a wave of appreciation, handed the flowers to the Tigers first-base coach and stood at the bag, ready for the next play.
Murton would earn two more hits that night. When asked after the game about passing Ichiro, the humble, Georgia native offered deference to the Mariners superstar. ''It's an honor; I have a lot of respect for this league," Murton said. "One difference -- he [Ichiro] did it in 130 games [as opposed to Murton's 141], so you know he is one of the best players in baseball. I'm just so thankful for the opportunity."
It was an opportunity that arose after a surprising turn in Murton's professional career. Since being drafted by the Red Sox in the 2003 amateur draft, the former Georgia Tech outfielder had played for three major league organizations in five seasons and spent the majority of those years, particularly since 2006, either on a major league bench or moving around the minors. Murton said he'd always felt that if he could secure an everyday starting spot, he'd perform at his best. He just didn't realize he'd have to travel overseas to prove it.
When the idea of playing baseball in Japan first surfaced in December of 2009, "I didn't want any part of it," Murton said. "But I was out of options for the first time in major league baseball, and I was arbitration eligible. I realized that if I was put back in a situation of very limited at-bats, it'd be hard to be as successful as I wanted to." He also acknowledged that, at 28 years old, competing against younger players in the minors would be difficult. So the Hanshin Tigers acquired Murton from the Colorado Rockies, where he'd spent most of the 2009 season with Triple-A Colorado Springs.
"I handle circumstances a lot better when I have a chance to settle in," Murton said. "So for me, this past year was the chance to develop and move forward."
Murton equated Japanese baseball to AAAA, if such a level existed, and said that many of the pitchers he faced are of major-league caliber. Indeed, several major league players have spent time in Japan, such as current free agent Gabe Kapler, who, after winning a World Series with the Red Sox in 2004, signed with Japan's Yomiuri Giants (also the former team of A's outfielder Hideki Matsui) in 2005.
Going [to Japan] was 100 percent the best decision I made. It was the best opportunity I could've asked for.
”-- Matt Murton
A strong Christian, Murton felt that God wanted him to be in Japan. So he, his wife, Stefani, and their son, Micah (now 20 months old), moved overseas. They rented an apartment on Rokko Island, between Kobe and Osaka, in a building that housed several other U.S.-born players and their families. The players' wives quickly bonded and many had young children (Murton's second child, daughter Macie, was born last April).
Despite a slow start in spring training, during which he struggled adjusting to a new style of play, Murton's first preseason game with the Tigers offered a foreshadowing glimpse of the months ahead. In a win over the Orix Buffaloes, Murton went 2-for-3, including a home run.
As the season progressed, he often collected two or three hits a night. Teammate Jason Standridge, an Alabama native playing in his second Japanese season and his first with the Tigers, became one of Murton's closest friends. "You'd just think, 'How many hits is he going to get today?'" Standridge said. "It was so much fun to watch."
Murton often watched U.S. baseball, studying various major-league hitters, after purchasing a MLB TV package. Because of the 14-hour time difference from Eastern Standard Time, Murton was able to watch most U.S. night games on Japanese mornings. "I saw more MLB this past season than I have in years," Murton said.
Still, Murton loved the Japanese baseball environs and said his strong performances were inspired, in part, by the dedicated fans. Playing in front of 50,000 cheering people, he said, offered a different kind of inspiration than Triple-A baseball in the U.S., which may entertain a game crowd of 8,000 or 9,000 and, for many players, is about working individually toward earning a spot in the majors rather than the collective competition.
"They love the game of baseball there," Murton said of Japan. "It goes back to the late 1800s, when an English professor introduced the game. Even though it's our national past time in the U.S., it really embodies a lot of what Japanese culture stands for, like giving yourself for the good of the team."
As Standridge noted, "It's never quiet at a baseball game in Japan."
Murton adapted to Japanese culture well, learning nuanced differences such as bowing rather than shaking hands when greeting others and relying on his translator for assistance in speaking with his coaches.
Murton credited his consistency at the plate not to facing different pitchers but rather to his opportunity to hit every day. Mechanics are essential to the self-described "swing junkie." Former teammate and good friend Ryan Spilborghs, an outfielder for the Colorado Rockies, said the two players first bonded over swing-talk sessions in 2009. The pairing could've been uncomfortable, given that both were vying for the fourth outfielder roster spot with Colorado, but their commonalities have kept them close.
"We just love the mechanics of the swing, and it's something we could sit and talk about," Spilborghs said. "Matt is one of the few guys who wants to make sure he knows how to repeat that ability -- to see the ball and hit it well -- over and over again."
Steve Tamborra is the strength and conditioning coach for the Georgia Tech baseball team and has worked with Murton for years. "He's always done that extra work," Tamborra said. "Most people don't touch a bat for the first month or two after the season ends, but he understands what makes him successful. His approach would paralyze 90 percent of the people out there -- how much he hits. And if most people thought about [hitting] that much, it'd be overthinking. But it's something he's done since the beginning."
As he drew closer to tying the record, which happened on his 29th birthday, Murton said the fans' excitement grew more intense. He tried to ignore the record's pressure and the attention around it (Standridge said Murton "didn't like knowing" his batting average or his total hits) and focus instead on solid hits, playing good defense and pushing his team toward an eventual championship.
Though the Tigers lost in the first round of the mid-October playoffs, Murton finished his season with 214 hits in 144 games, a .349 batting average, 17 home runs and 91 RBIs. Even before setting the record, he became only the fourth player in Nippon Professional Baseball history to have a 200-hit season.
"[Setting the record] was a culmination of not just 2010 but all the years previous," Murton said. "How I had to deal with things in the States: not truly having the full opportunity to go out and play every day [the record] meant so much on so many different levels. I had 600 at-bats this year, which I've never had in one place at one time, and played 144 out of 144 games."
While he may not need to focus on improving his hits total, Murton has worked this offseason on waiting for pitches, as he said he has a tendency to be a bit quick at the plate. His goals lie in other numbers: 20 home runs as opposed to 17, 100 RBIs instead of 91.
Since returning to the U.S., Murton has worked out near his home in McDonough, Ga. He lifts weights four to five times a week at a local L.A. Fitness and hits three to four days a week. On several occasions, Murton has worked out alongside his younger brother, Luke, a first baseman in the Yankees organization (last year, Luke played for the Class A Charleston Riverdogs).
Most of Murton's mornings begin at the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. Of the many aspects of U.S. culture absent in Japan, Murton said he missed the Southern fast-food chain the most.
"That was the only complaint I heard from him all year, about what he wouldn't give for some Chick-fil-A," Luke Murton said, laughing. "But if you're hitting .340, I guess you don't have much else to complain about."
Murton will return to Japan to begin spring training in Okinawa on Feb. 1 before starting his 2011 season with the Tigers in the final year of his contract. Murton said that after that he'd love another opportunity to play major league baseball in the U.S., perhaps for another five or six years. But for now, unlike a year ago, he's looking forward to another season halfway around the world.
"Going there was 100 percent the best decision I made," Murton said. "I went from not wanting any part of it to accepting the fact that this was what I was going to do. Now, looking back, I'm so thankful for it, and I think how silly all the kicking and screaming I did at the beginning was. It was the best opportunity I could've asked for."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com