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THE HOT CORNER: When numbers get serious

by Jim Allen (Jan 13, 2011)

Baseball is not really about numbers, it just seems like it at times. Even ignoring the biblical flood of measures created by baseball's analytic revolution, winning and losing sometimes seems overshadowed by figures.

Last year, we had two great examples. Ichiro Suzuki set a major league record with his 10th straight 200-hit season, while the Hanshin Tigers' Matt Murton broke Suzuki's single-season hit record here.

Both feats were extremely newsworthy. Unfortunately, setting hit records is only remotely related to winning and losing.

Murton had 214 hits, including 35 doubles, three triples and 17 home runs. He also drew 47 walks. Those figures contributed about 115 runs to his team's offense. Had he rang up 198 hits but with five more doubles, eight more homers and 10 more walks, his contribution would have been even more valuable. But who would have been celebrating it?

Getting a record like Murton's or Suzuki's requires hitting for average and being extremely consistent. Murton managed to do both, but struggled as he approached the record of 210, he told The Hot Corner last autumn.

"It got tough down at the end," he said. "Because as much as I wanted to focus on my team and I was doing the best I could, I could sense what was coming with it, the anticipation of my teammates, the coaching staff, the media.

"I could feel it down the stretch. But I did the best I could to try and combat those emotions and go out and play the game."

Pressure is part of any sport, but Murton was caught unawares by this kind of crush.

"This was something completely different. It was pressure, but once I got to a certain point, it was more like if you don't do this, you're a failure," he said.

"It almost felt like this, because it got to the point where the number of hits required--as per the number of games--was more games than hits. So it was something like, 'If you don't do this, you've absolutely missed the boat.'"

Although he was participating in a team game in the most team-oriented of nations, the figures in Murton's hit column began to take on a meaning all their own. His dilemma brings to mind a Paul Simon song about being overwhelmed by digits. In it, Simon wrote: "Complicated life. Numbers swirling thick and curious. You can cut them with a knife."

Murton said he could rise above the unwanted complications and maintain his emotional balance, partly because of his team's battle for postseason position.

"We were in a pennant race, trying to win," he said. "That helped a lot. I kept trying to tell myself [that], but no doubt there was that extra added pressure in the terms of you trying to accomplish something as an individual.

"I just kept trying to put that behind me. I kept telling myself, 'God allowed the season to go so well, what are you so uptight about?'"

After putting the record behind him, Murton then put it into perspective.

"You're thankful for the number, but the number is what it is and baseball continues," Murton said.

"I don't feel any different. One-hundred percent, I am no different of a ballplayer whether I get to a certain number or whether I don't. My job is still going to be the same."

The job, of course, is winning games.

Numerical records are important only as long as they are accomplished as a result of pursuing that goal. In America, when a player puts himself before the team, his record loses something special.

One man who knows more than most about winning and about setting records is career home run king Sadaharu Oh.

Oh loves it when players set lofty numerical targets, thinking the concrete goals might motivate guys to surpass expectations for their own good, for the good of their teams and the good of the game.

A player shooting for a target, however, is not the same as someone playing for his own stats at the expense of the team.

Of course, that kind of thing does happen. In Japan, however, we have the perverse reverse: teams sacrificing for the sake of an individual's numbers.

Where else do players who are completely unfit or out of form get into games just so they can extend a consecutive-game streak? In Japan, it's a common sight.

OK. Perhaps the game is about numbers--or at least sometimes in Japan it is.


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