T-Ray (TR): How are you doing?
Matt Murton (MM): We’re good. We actually just got finished up with our AAA season a few weeks ago and we’re just settling back in at home and becoming dad, you know, getting the opportunity to drive the kids to school – I just got done dropping them off – and being able to be around the house a little more, which has been nice.
TR: I’m sure the kids are glad to have dad back for the offseason as they are every year, right?
MM: Yeah it’s fun, I mean, they enjoy the baseball aspect and getting to travel around to different places and watch dad play, but they’re always excited when dad’s home, because it just means I’m around a lot more and get to be part of their lives a little bit more than I can during the season, you know?
TR: How did your kids’ attendance at the games compare now that you’re back stateside as opposed to at Koshien?
MM: It’s a little different. When they went out to the first spring training game at Sloan Park (Cubs’ spring training facility), they looked at Stef and said, “Mommy, this is boring!” So it’s kinda funny. They got used to the atmosphere in Japan and that’s all they really knew. And so in regards to the fans interaction, the game was a little bit different coming back to the US, but over the summer they really started to enjoy it. In AAA baseball there’s stuff in between innings. They have different things that they do to entertain the kids and stuff. My oldest, Micah, was able to be a junior PA announcer for one inning, and Macy was able to do the bebop race and throw out some first pitches. So they had fun, they came in the clubhouse and got to know some of the players, which they enjoyed. So family involvement back in the US is a little bit more so than it is in Japan, but the atmosphere at the game itself obviously changes a lot coming back here, because you can’t really match what you get there at Koshien.
TR: So take us through your 2016 season. We’ve been able to follow you from a distance, but we don’t get to see the day-to-day. Tell us a little bit about the team you were with, and some of the highs and lows of your season.
MM: Coming back to the US this year, I thought that it was very fitting that I went back to the Chicago Cubs organization, where I got my start in major league baseball. But not only that, Theo Epstein, the general manager, is the one who originally drafted me with the Red Sox, so it just felt like it came full circle. I got the opportunity to get back out there and ultimately make it back to the major league level. When I came into camp I felt great, as I usually do. I had a good offseason, and there wasn’t anything that set me back. I got into camp, but unfortunately within a week of being there, I ended up having to get an appendectomy. They say there’s really no control over that. Could be the altitude or the dryness of being out in the desert, or something. It wasn’t Japan! I came back, and it’s funny because you get so used to being in Japan, you almost have to adjust to being back in the US! So I had the appendectomy, that knocked me out for a few weeks, the bulk of spring training, which was hard for me. I ended up with 9 at bats during the big league camp. I got some at bats on the back field though. Sure enough, I finally started getting going there, and the beginning of the season for AAA was coming up, and part of me rushed back from the appendectomy, so I could make the team with the ABs I could get. But then I had issues with my feet. I hadn’t really gotten underneath my legs. I had a few things creep up on me. One of them was my toe. So I started off the year on the DL because my toe had flared up, because of some of the different things I was doing to compensate. But it was a year that was very good in so many ways. I was able to prove to myself that I am still more than capable of hitting the high velocity pitchers in the United States. That was never really one of my issues. Coming back, I was still able to get in there and compete against against those guys and have quality at bats, even against some of the better pitching on back fields and stuff in spring training. I felt really good about that, it was just unfortunate that the timing of the injuries came at the worst times. A lot of it was crazy, freak things. I had the toe set me back, I got going for a few weeks, then I ended up having a strained oblique muscle. They say that could have had something to do with the appendectomy and the fact that I was in and out. So it was like the whole year, I was in rebuild mode instead of being able to really thrive the way I wanted to, whether in my at bats or my physical body or whatever it was. So I got back playing again, I finally got going again, and sure enough, I ran into the wall. I led with my knee as I ran into the wall. I was able to make the catch, which was nice. I’ve run into the wall a million times over the course of my career, but this particular one, I hit it with my knee. I thought I had a bone bruise at first, so I continued playing on it for about a week. Then I came to find out as it got worse that I had a strain on my quad muscle, so that basically put me out for the rest of the year. So it was just one of those years where I was on and off the DL. It was the first time in my career that I had ever been on the DL. I know there were a few hammy things that flared up while I was in Japan and I missed maybe the beginning portion of the 2012 season, but I was never officially on the DL, I don’t think. Some of the highs were just getting back out there and competing back in the US and proving to myself that I am more than capable of doing it, and just being part of a clubhouse and having teammates that I can really try to pour into. You know, there’s a lot of younger guys. I became the older guy in the clubhouse there at the AAA level, so it was fun in that way. Some of the lows were the way unfortunate things happened through the course of the year for my body just made it tough. The long and short of it was, I know I was exactly where I was meant to be for that particular season, and it will be interesting to see what God has for this upcoming year.
TR: Did you feel like the odds were stacked against you right from the start of the year because of how talented the Cubs are?
MM: You know, to some degree, but I never worry about that. For me, I’ve got to take care of what I can take care of, and control what I can control. As a believer, it’s in God’s hands. He’s going to work through the circumstances, no matter how favorable or unfavorable they look. As a competitor, I’ve always believed in my ability, and if I can get the most out of myself, I believe the rest takes care of itself. I’ve been very fortunate over the course of my career to compete at a very high level no matter where I’ve been, so I just have to continue to rely on those things to put my nose down and go to work. There’s a lot of good players in the game of baseball, but I’m aware of what abilities God has given me, and sometimes for me, the circumstances that look to be against the most odds turn out to be the best, and some of the ones that look like sure bets end up being nothing. I didn’t go into it with that mindset. I sort of went out there just competing, enjoying the competition, being around the guys, and just seeing where it was going to fall.
TR: Speaking of which, if I remember correctly, you once said that NPB was maybe somewhere between AAA ball and MLB highest level, so like 4A. Did you say that at some point?
MM: People were asking me to compare Japan (NPB) to AAA baseball, and there’s no doubt in my mind that NPB is higher than AAA baseball. The quality of the pitching is really where it’s at. It’s really hard to compare the two, because for the most part in AAA you’re talking about guys in their 20s who are still trying to find themselves, and in NPB you have more of a polished product. Guys really know how to pitch, they know how to work the corners and mix their pitches. There’s no doubt that in AAA baseball there’s guys who have really good arms. It’s not uncommon to see 95 mph (152 km/h). That’s very common. The difference is that they have not really learned how to pitch at the caliber, in regards to location, mixing pitches, controlling their secondary pitches for strikes, as the guys in Japan have. Overall, the quality of the defense in regards to consistently making the plays that need to be made, all of the things that go into playing the game of baseball, NPB is definitely in my estimation ahead of AAA baseball, and I really believe that the gap between the big leagues and the NPB is getting closer and closer. There’s no doubt about that, because you see all these pitchers like Seung-hwan (Oh)-san doing great for the Cardinals, Maeken (Kenta Maeda) has done a great job for the Dodgers. It translates. More than anything it’s opportunity, and it will translate when these guys come over here. So I definitely have a far deeper respect for the NPB after having gone and experienced it than I did prior to that 2010 season.
TR: Alright, let’s go back and look at your time with Hanshin a little bit. Are there any kind of specific fond memories that stick with you from your six years with the team?
MM: Oh yeah for sure. There’s so many. We could sit here all day and talk about them. Probably for me, one of the pinnacles was the 2014 season, when we were in Tokyo Dome. We went in there and won three consecutive games. And in the first inning, there were a couple of guys on base, and I was able to hit a 3-run home run. Fukudome ended up getting another one, and Nishioka too. Seung-hwan came in and closed it out… just from start to finish, just the way the game went was so much fun to be a part of. To see the fans and how excited they were. I just remember there was an overwhelming feeling during that season and especially there during that particular game and series, that was like, man this is what it’s all about. Since the inception of the new Climax Series, that series against Hiroshima at home was the first one Hanshin had ever won, and then to be able to go in to Tokyo and win that series against our arch rival on their field to take us to the Nippon Series was incredible. Obviously it was unfortunate the way that series ended up going, but again I felt like we were in most of those games. If I look back on it, other than two of the games, the game that we won and the game that they won pretty handily, which I think was the third game of the series (the first one in Fukuoka), every game almost came down to the last at bat. I remember we had multiple chances with runners in scoring position in Game 2, and I think I had one of them to be able to tie the game up late. Then you go into game 4 in Fukuoka, they won on a walkoff home run, which comes down to the last at bat. And then in game 5, the unfortunate way the whole thing ended… But we were right there in each of those games, so I that series was one of those series. SoftBank has had such a tremendous team for such a long time. They are very deserving of winning that series, but I think we had a club that year that was capable of winning the series. It just didn’t go our way for that particular series. But again, that was, to me, one of the greatest highlights of my time, and one of the memories I will take with me for a long time. To be out on that field on that fourth game (the fifth of the series), to win that in Tokyo and go on to the Nippon Series. Just seeing the fan reaction was one of the coolest moments I had there in Japan.
TR: Right after that you got to face your former teammates and good friend, Jason Standridge, in Game 1 of the Nippon series. How did that feel?
MM: It felt good, but the game’s a competition, and no matter if it’s your friend or not, you want to win. He was able to pitch tremendously well earlier that year. He had his cutter working at Koshien. He shut us down, I don’t know if he went 9 innings… 8 or 9 innings of shutout baseball, and he really had us. So to be able to come back and get him during the Nippon Series was a nice feeling. He got us once, we got him once. To be able to get it there in the Nippon Series was nice. He’s had a tremendous career out there, he’s a great player. It was a lot of fun to be able to face him in Koshien. Each and every day, you don’t know how the game is going to go, you throw it out there and see what happens. To be able to come back and score some runs off of him in Game 1 after he shut us out was a great feeling. After we won that game there, I think at that point throughout the playoffs, we had yet to lose a game. We went 1-0-1 in the first series, we were 4-0 there in the next series, so we were 5-0-1, then after that game we were 6-0-1. To be honest, I thought the Nippon Series was ours at that point. We felt really good about our chances, we had a really good team, but like I said, it just didn’t go our way. But that was a great series, it was a lot of fun, and being able to face Jason there in the first game at Koshien… just the atmosphere at Koshien… for as good as the atmosphere is throughout the year, that Nippon Series felt like another level, so it was a lot of fun to play in that environment.
TR: Well, speaking of facing former teammates… let’s go back to July 8, 2005. Might not ring a bell to you, but you were with the Cubs, and you were facing…
MM: Oh I know! I remember. Oh yeah, of course!
TR: Tell us what happened.
MM: Go ahead!
TR: You came in part way through the game I think, and then the reliever for the Marlins came in after the game was out of hand, and that was Randy Messenger. So you got to face him in MLB, and you were both in your first years, is that right?
MM: Yeah that’s right. It was July 8, 2005, two years to the exact date that I signed my first major league contract, which was July 8, 2003. Not only was it two years to the exact date, but I was being called up to play in Florida, which is where I saw my first major league game as a kid, because I grew up in South Florida. My friends and family were there. I remember getting the call. I was in AA in Knoxville, Tennessee when I found out. I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep at all, I got up early that morning, flew in, and I was so excited to be there. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be in the lineup, but in actuality, I was. I started that game against Dontrelle Willis, who at the time was one of the top left-handed pitchers in baseball, and I was very fortunate. I got a hit in my first at bat. I ended up 2-for-2 with a walk, a sac fly, and that second hit was off Randy Messenger. He came in, and he was in his first year, the same that I was. Randy obviously has continued to grow as a pitcher and has had a tremendous career, but at the time he was very much a four-seam fastball guy, down and away, which he still does. At the time he was throwing mid-to-upper nineties, so he really had a good arm. I got one of those fastballs away, and I was able to do what I do – shoot it inside the first base bag! At the time Carlos Delgado was playing first, and he was playing off the line a little bit, and I shot it down the line on a fastball away, and was able to get to second base on it. Those are the memories you’ll never forget in the game. It was a lot of fun. I remember getting to first base on my first hit, and Carlos Delgado goes, “Nice hit, kid. You got 2,999 more to go.” And he started laughing. So anyway, after that second one I had 2,998 to go. I didn’t quite get there, but I’ve been very fortunate to have had a good career thus far.
TR: Impressive memory. Did you ever talk to Randy about that once you guys were with Hanshin together?
MM: No, I kind of left it alone. You know, it’s not really my style, man. I love the game, I love having fun… but if Randy wasn’t bringing it up, I sure wasn’t. He might not even remember it. But anyway, again, I got him that one time. I could face him a million times over and you never know how it’s going to go, but on that particular day, I got that fastball away, and I found that hole, so it’s good.
TR: What would you say Randy’s strengths are as a pitcher and a teammate?
MM: I think more than anything, he wants to compete when he’s on that mound. He’s continued to grow, he’s added that split-finger. He’s created some depth to his pitches now that he didn’t have before. He was more of a flat four-seam slider, one-plane guy. He had other pitches but those pitches have really developed since being over there (in Japan). More than anything he takes the ball and he wants to go deep. He’s a workhorse, he competes, and there’s no doubt that when he’s on the mound, your expectation is that you can win that game. I think one of the best things you can say about a player is that they go out there and give you a chance to win every time they take the ball.
TR: You had a number of American or foreign teammates while you were with Hanshin. Are you still in touch with any of those guys?
MM: Yeah, I try to. I’ve been e-mailing or texting or LINE or whatever back and forth with the guys. Try to stay in touch with Ohki-san (team interpreter) and some of the people there as well, Mauro (Gomez) and Randy and stuff… we don’t talk on a regular basis, but I do check in with them throughout the year and see where they’re at, how they’re doing. Like I said, it’s really not a lot with anybody. I think we get caught in the pattern of wherever we are, we focus on the people we are with. It’s easy to lose touch. So I’ve tried to be more intentional about that. I’ve definitely touched base with them.
TR: As far as your Japanese teammates on the Tigers, who would you say was the most enjoyable to share the field with? Who was one of the Japanese guys that you got along with well?
MM: One of my favorites was definitely Toritani. The reason is because when I came over, we were the same age, we are dokyusei. Also, I believe Toritani and I were the only two regular starters remaining from that 2010 season that were still playing in ’15. So just to have been there with him each step along the way… his work ethic is tremendous. There’s not a guy that can outwork him. So I really appreciate that about him, how he went about his business. And that really was some of the things that drew me to him. There were many other guys. Ryota (Arai) was a lot of fun, he always had a good personality. Imanari-san, great personality. Off the field we were able to have some good times. I enjoyed all of my teammates. Those guys kind of stick out the most. Obviously when I first came up it was Kanemoto-san and older Arai (Takahiro)… (Kenji) Johjima was very instrumental to my success in Japan, because he had been in the US, and kind of knew what we did over here. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Johjima. He really kind of took me under his wing, asked me how I was doing, really engaged with me, maybe in a way that is not typical of the Japanese culture. And he was always looking out for me. So Johjima was a huge help to me when I first came over, to get me going. There were many players that I felt that way about, but over the years that kind of changed as some of the older guys started to leave, and it became some of the younger guys. Again, Toritani was one of those guys I was with the whole time, that’s why he kind of sticks out more than any of the others, I believe.
TR: Now, you said the word “dokyusei” just earlier, so obviously you have some of your Japanese still with you, but do you have any favorite Japanese expressions that have stuck with you since leaving Japan?
MM: Some of my favorites are just from Kansai-ben (dialect) like bochibochidenna and o-kini and maido and those type of things, but a lot of them I have tried to continue to use. I had (Munenori) Kawasaki-san with me this year, so I was able to speak as much Japanese as I could with him. I’ve been intentional in the Nashville area, actually, trying to stay involved with the Japanese community. Nissan is headquartered here, and there are a number of Japanese families, so we get together every so often. In fact today, my thought is that I’m going to join some of them for lunch. So I’m trying to continue to use as much Japanese as I can so I keep it with me and don’t completely forget it.
TR: Is that with the intention of perhaps returning to Japan at some point, or it just something you want to keep as a skill set?
MM: I think more than anything, Japan will always be a part of who we are. For my wife, Stefani and the kids, that’s never going to change. Now, our intention is always to stay connected to some degree to that community. And we don’t know exactly what that looks like. Whether that means that I end up coming back over there and playing at some point, whether that means that I end up coming back over there for different opportunities that may arise, or just trying to engage and love on the Japanese community here in the US, whatever it may be, Japan will always be a part of who we are, and that’s not something that we are going to soon forget. Again, as I said, it’s something that I have to remain intentional about, and something that we foresee being a part of, whether it’s here or over there, for the foreseeable future. So we just want to remain as connected as we can.
TR: I think as you were saying earlier, as a believer and believing that God uses all circumstances and skills, that surely your hanging onto the Japanese and maintaining it is for a reason that you may not know, and it’s going to come to fruition, but there’s probably something there beyond what you can see.
MM: Yeah, 100%. And that’s the thing is that I don’t know what that looks like, you know? Only God knows, so in time, I think that that will become more obvious to us. If for anything else, just to be able to love and engage with the Japanese community here. Having lived in Japan for six years, we know what it’s like to be a foreigner in another country. And as great as the United States is, and as great as Japan is, you’re still outside of your comfort zone in a lot of ways. Just to know where they’re coming from and to be able to engage with them in that way is very important to us.
TR: So what do you miss about Japan, having now been away for a whole year? What are some things that you wish that you could still have at your fingertips, or places you wish you could go?
MM: Yeah, the shoyu ramen, I miss a little bit. It became the mikkusu (mixed) there at the end… I did the shoyu and miso mikkusu, but the ramen, you can’t really get here. I found a ramen shop in downtown Nashville that I’ll need to try out, but I doubt that it’s going to be what Japan is. So the food, we miss the food. I got to develop a relationship with a guy here, Nobu-san, who owns a restaurant here in Nashville. Here’s actually from Osaka. He’s been in the US for about 8 years. Tremendous chef. Does sushi, and he actually makes some gyudon for me every once in awhile. So it’s been a really cool relationship to develop with him. So whenever I have the need to have something Japanese in regards to food, he does a really good job of putting that together. So that’s been nice. The food is probably what we miss the most. Excuse me, not the most. It’s one of the things. But the people, more than anything, obviously, is what we miss the most. The relationships that we were able to develop while we were there. I just wish the two countries were a lot closer together. But the people, the food, the culture. But again, I still feel like it’s part of who we are. In our home now, I still have my Yoshinoya bowls out, we still have our pepper shakers out, the spices… chotto karai desu ne. We still use those kind of things in our home. When we’re out to eat, we find restaurants where the kids can eat rice. Our kids are even privy to the food. Nobu-san gets his rice from outside the country, from Japan or sometimes California… most of the rice in the US is not as good as the rice in Japan… and it’s funny because when I first got to Japan, I couldn’t tell the difference between good rice and not-so-good rice. But after being there for six years, I started to figure it out a little bit. So when we came to Nobu-san’s place and ate the rice there, I was like, “Man, this is good rice!” And sure enough, we brought our kids back the next time, and Daniel, our youngest, he’s two years old, he eats the rice and he goes, “Mmmmm, Mama, this good rice!” So even our kids miss the food. The people, the culture, just being able to do those kind of things, are definitely the things that you miss.
TR: So tell us, what does the near future look like for Matt Murton? Are you still with the Cubs next season, or are you a free agent again? What’s the situation looking like for you?
MM: I’ll end up becoming a free agent. My agent has already spoken to the club to get a feel for where I’m at, in regards to my playing career. I’ll be 35 here in October. They were very positive in that conversation. It’s one of those things where as you get older, it becomes a matter of fitness. I know that I’m still capable of playing the game. At this point, we’re going to continue to pursue the game until the Lord tells us differently. So as of now, I’m expecting to play the 2017 season, but that could change very easily. But right now I’m preparing my body and my mind. Stefani and the kids are on board and we’re going to continue to pursue it until that door is closed.
TR: Well we wish you all the best in 2017, and we hope your body cooperates a little better than this past season. It should be a good year for you!
MM: Cool man, yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Just go out there and enjoy the game as long as I can, and when it’s time to be done, look forward to that next opportunity.
TR: One more thing before we leave. This episode of the podcast will be coming out on October 3rd, which would be your birthday, if I’m not mistaken. So happy birthday to you! The big 3-5!
MM: Watashi no tanjobi! O-kini, yeah!
TR: This will be your first birthday in America since maybe 2009, or something like that, right?
MM: Yeah, it’s been awhile! I think the only other year I was here was possibly 2012, and that’s the year that I just prefer not to think about. It was a tough year for me, for the team. You know, we had a good run there. I think 4 of my 6 years, we were in the playoffs. But that 2012 year was not particularly one of the best. But that’s life, that’s baseball. But yeah, I’ll enjoy being at home, being able to spend time with the family here in the US. It’s where I’m supposed to be right now. If next year, we end up over in Japan, and I am playing baseball and I’m not home for [October] third, that’ll be OK, too. If I’m playing major league baseball, and I’m not able to be home, that’s fine too. So we’ll just take it as it comes. But right now, I’m enjoying being home with the kiddos and the family.
TR: Awesome. Matt, thanks so much for taking the time with us today. We appreciate it so much. Wish you all the best. Have a great, happy birthday, a good offseason, and we’ll be rooting for you in 2017 as we have all this past year as well.
MM: Thanks a lot, Trevor, I appreciate it. And thanks to all the Tigers fans for the support over the years. Not only while I was in Japan, but the reception that I got even this year. People sent things, communicated back and forth… it means a lot to me. That time period, those six years, will never be forgotten, and the people and the team and everything, was an awesome experience. Not only a thank you to you, Trevor, but to all the Tigers fans who have been supportive over all the years.