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THE HOT CORNER: Murton's opportunity knocks

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THE HOT CORNER: Murton's opportunity knocks

by Jim Allen (Dec 9, 2010)

For years, Matt Murton craved another opportunity to play ball. So, when the Hanshin Tigers offered it to him, Murton journeyed to Japan with his mind on reigniting a once-promising major league career.

"I had one thing in as well as I could to present a better opportunity for me to go back to the United States," the outfielder told the Hot Corner in October.

One result of playing as well as he could saw Murton rewrite Japan's single-season hit record with 214 base hits in 144 games, surpassing Ichiro Suzuki's 210 over 130 games in 1994.

"With the 210-hit thing, I had great respect for it. I don't want to make light of it, but it's a number," he said. "The game keeps going on. You just keep playing baseball, that never changes.

"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. I still have to go out and play baseball."

Murton finished first among outfielders in the Central League Best IX ballot, drawing more votes than league MVP Kazuhiro Wada, who had a considerably better season. Any way you look at it, the voters were more impressed with Murton's hit total than he was himself.

Bill James' Win Shares system credits Murton with 8-2/2 wins, placing him third among CL outfielders this season: Wada of the Dragons had 111/6, while the Swallows' Norichika Aoki had 9-1/3.

Murton's deserved honor made him the 28th foreigner to crown a debut season with a Best IX selection.

If his record year was not the most valuable in the CL, or even among the Tigers (shortstop Takashi Toritani created 10-1/2 wins), how does it compare with those of other first-year foreigners?

The answer is, pretty darn well.

Murton tied for the second-best season among foreign debutants since 1990. Roberto Petagine with 9-1/3 wins in 1999 is top of the class, while Leo Gomez in 1997 equaled Murton at 8-2/2. Just behind them with 8-1/3 are Tom O'Malley in 1991, Bobby Rose in 1993 and Alex Cabrera in 2001.

Neither Cabrera nor O'Malley was his league's best player at his position the first time around, but both quickly rectified that. In 2002, Cabrera was Pacific League MVP. O'Malley, CL MVP in 1995, deserved to win a Best IX Award at third base in 1992 with the Tigers. Rose was the CL's best player in 1999, but the MVP went to a player for the league champs.

That's some extreme company. One simply doesn't walk in, do what Murton did and fade away.

Yet, only two years ago, his career was in danger of evaporating.

"There were times, 2008, I was thinking, 'Do I still want to play baseball?'" Murton said. "It seemed as if it didn't matter how well I played in Triple-A, I was just kind of stuck. There were times when I just felt like quitting, as much as I loved the game, because I was sick of the business.

"To have a chance to put that behind me, to have a chance to come out and play baseball [this year], that's what's been so much fun, so special."

So does Murton stay or does he go when the Tigers' 2011 option on him expires?

When the Chicago Cubs gave him a full-fledged shot at an everyday job from the age of 23, Murton contributed and figures he can do it again.

"I had 613 at-bats here in my first year," Murton said. "My first 600 at-bats in the big leagues, which was '05 and '06, I hit .302 with 20 home runs. In my first full season, I led my team in batting. The question is always, are you going to get that opportunity.

"If they guarantee a contract and put [up] some decent money, that means they are committing to you, the one thing you always lacked in the States... Given the opportunity, things could work out.

"From that aspect, I'd say, 'Take your chance and go back to the States.' From the other aspect, you come to Japan, things go well and you're comfortable here and you can make a career out of it. Why not just stay?"

Foreign position players rarely earn major league contracts based simply on Japan performance, so the odds of such an offer are slim.

Yet, so were the chances of a first-year foreign player exploiting his opportunity here to the tune of 214 hits.

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