Remember those days when you'd be sitting on the couch with your dad in the den watching some game on TV and he would start ranting about "the good old days?"
Those moments usually followed a few too many beers and some kind of incident where a guy didn't run out an infield grounder or a player "lolly-gagged" it after a ball had skipped past him. Maybe an outfielder pulled up and took a ball on the hop.
"Back in my day, everybody played hard," dad would bark. "If you hit the ball, you busted your butt out of the batter's box, no matter where it was hit. You didn't see these high-priced prima donnas coasting out there."
A Pete Rose reference usually followed.
Well, Matt Murton is the kind of player dads would love. The Hanshin Tigers' leadoff hitter is batting .365 in his first season in Japanese baseball. He hustles out of the box every time and goes for any ball he can possibly get to in the center field--even during BP.
One of the first guys to hit the field for practice, he's also usually one of the last to leave. This attitude has served Murton and his team well so far this year as the Tigers are nipping at the heels of the first-place Yomiuri Giants.
As we head into interleague play Wednesday night, the 28-year-old Florida native, a career .286 hitter in MLB who spent time with the Cubs, A's and Rockies after being drafted in the first round by the Red Sox in 2003, was boasting a .568 slugging percentage with seven homers. Through 35 games, he has driven in 23 runs, scored 30 times and his on-base percentage is .416.
Recently, the IHT/ Asahi had a chance to talk to Matt before a game at Tokyo Dome.
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What's it like playing in front of all those rabid Hanshin Tigers fans, definitely among the most passionate and committed fans in Japanese baseball?
That's the biggest difference. I've played in front of a lot of large crowds, but to be in front of people who are so passionate about the game from the first pitch to the end is pretty unique. Honestly, the best way I could describe it is feeling like you're in a big spotlight in a game back home, but it starts in inning No. 1, so it's pretty cool.
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What do you think of Koshien Stadium? Some people say it's a treasured part of Japanese baseball history, others say take a bulldozer to it and put up a new venue.
I've actually enjoyed it for the short time that I've been there. I enjoy playing there, it's nice to be outside, the playing surface is actually a nice surface to play on, although it did get beat up a little bit with the high school tournament going on. They've added a new part to the facility for the players that's actually pretty nice, so I've enjoyed it for the short time I've been here.
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You've got flaming red hair that really stands out in this country. Did you have any nicknames as a kid that you can tell us about? For example, snowboarder Shaun White is known as "The Flying Tomato."
Obviously back home anything referring to the hair was a nickname, whether it was "Big Red" or "Orange Guy" or whatever it may have been. "Ronald McDonald"--I heard it all, of course, anything referring to the red hair.
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Are you a big fan of Japanese food? If so, what are some of your favorite dishes?
I thought I was into sushi. At home, sushi as we know it is rolled up with a bunch of stuff inside, but that's not actually how it's served here. It's more of the sashimi, so that was a little bit different. I've really learned to like a lot of the different foods here, whether it be yakiniku or yakitori or teppanyaki, which is something we have at home, but the meat here is so much better. I've enjoyed the Japanese food.
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How about the language, have you picked up any Nihongo?
I've been trying--it's hard. With everything that we have going on, it's hard. I wish I could be in a class or something and learn a little bit. I lean on our interpreters. They taught me a little bit, my teammates taught me a little bit. I'm not even close to being able to carry on a conversation yet, but at least I can say a few words to get me by.
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What's the most bizarre thing you've seen here--to you, at least--either at the ballpark, on the train, or just wandering around?
I can't really think of anything too bizarre. Honestly, any time we're in a big metropolitan area, which we spend a lot of time in, whether it's in the States or here, you're always going to see some crazy stuff. I don't know that there's anything that would stick out in terms of something I hadn't seen at home. I guess baseball-wise, the thing that would stick out the most is the first day I showed up for spring training and there were three cages on the field for batting practice. That was definitely a little different.
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You're batting leadoff this season. Have you always been a leadoff hitter?
I've done it before, but not very much at all, to be honest with you. I'd had a very limited number of at-bats as a leadoff hitter before I got here. I'm taking to it. Anywhere they put you in the lineup and you're playing every day, then you're happy. You have to make the adjustments, find a way to be successful in that role. I think I'm starting to become accustomed to it. Whether I'll end up being a good leadoff hitter or not, only time will tell. I just try to think of myself as a baseball player that goes out and competes in every at-bat, and we'll see what happens.
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Some foreign players need time to adjust to the game over here, but you seem to have taken to it right away. What's the secret to your early success?
It's taken me some time, too. That's the beauty of having two months of spring training. As much as it can drag on at times, for me it was a chance to really start to learn. At the beginning of camp, it took me a little while to really become accustomed to how they did things, but it's getting better. Again, no matter where you're at--Japan or anywhere else--you have to learn to make adjustments, so that's the key, the name of the game.
Every pitcher presents their own challenges. You have to find a way to make it work, each and every time you go to the plate. They'll do things to get you out, keep you off balance and so on, but as a hitter you just have to find a way to continue to stay within yourself, look for the ball you're looking to hit, and then put a good swing on it.
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You seem to have a good work ethic, you're out on the field early working on things, one of the last to leave. Is that the way you've been your whole career or are you trying to make a good impression on your new bosses?
It's something you have to do. I mean if you want to be as well prepared for a contest as you can be, work is important and in order to continue to get better as a baseball player you have to continue to work. I don't think the work in the game ever ends. I think the best players in the world will push themselves, and if those guys can do it, heck, I surely can fall in line behind those guys and try to aspire to be more like them. I think even the best players until the last day they play are looking to find a way to have the edge and continue to work, so it's something I kind of take seriously.
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You're now playing for a team kind of like the Cubs of Japan--they haven't won for a while but still have a loyal following. From what you've seen so far, how do you like the Tigers' chances this season?
It would be unfair for me (to comment). First year in the league, I really don't know the other teams as well as other people do. I know one thing--obviously we've been competing and all I can tell you is that based on what we've done we've never given up in any of the games we've played in. We came back the other night here against the Giants, and that shows something. Offensively, I think we have a chance--the thing about offense is that it comes and it goes. We're going to have to pitch and play defense and we've done a pretty good job of that so far. Our record shows that we're over .500 and if we just keep going out there and continue to do what we've been doing, there's no reason why we can't sneak our way into the playoffs.