“I was purposed to play…it was my calling, and I don’t think that’s by chance. Because of that, what I’ve been given with all of the experiences I’ve had in the game, I’ve been given the opportunity to really not only enjoy this game, but there is also an opportunity to give back. The biggest thing that I want to do when I am done, I want to invest in people. I’ll have an opportunity to invest in the next generation, and to be able to help lead kids, leading individuals and give them some of what was given to me.”
Speaking with Matt Murton is different than speaking with any other ballplayer I’ve ever met. Noticeably absent are the clichés and nervous flinches of players carefully avoiding saying the wrong thing. When you are exactly what you portray yourself to be, the fear of exposing personal weaknesses dissipates in a pile of humility and properly channeled self-confidence. In a society that painfully seeks to portray life in deceiving snapshots of perfection, Murton is, quite simply, what he appears to be: a principled man that values his family and faith before all, even baseball.
“I accepted Christ at a very young age, and— what it means to me is that in life, there’s going to be ups and downs, there’s going to be moments that necessarily don’t always go our way, but there’s a plan in place and there’s a reason that everything happens, and ultimately it’s not about me, but him, and serving him. Wherever that takes me…in the game and in life, sometimes things don’t always look like you’d want them to look. They don’t always stack up the way you’d want them to stack up. But, what I fully believe in is that even in the midst of moments where it doesn’t look possible, all things are possible. So you have to continue to rely on that, and continue to tap into that power, in the sense that knowing there is something greater and there is a plan and purpose for each of us…so faith is just as much a big part of my ability to take that next step—even when maybe it doesn’t seem possible—somebody has gone before you and paid the price.”
For something lacking the weight of eternal consequence, baseball runs deeply through the blood of ballplayers, fans and analysts alike. The game is a common thread that engenders community between races and cultures, while transcending generations with a commitment to simplicity and continuity of play. It pulls us in year after year, promising hope with every spring, despite the stark reality of disappointment for 29 fan bases each season. Separating himself from the game upon retirement won’t be easy for Murton, either. Beyond an obvious desire to pursue missions work, you can feel the gentle pull of the diamond in his eyes when he discusses what may lie beyond his playing career.
“For the longest time, I said no, I wouldn’t want to coach. It was always more—I hate to say it—maybe a pride thing. It was I’m not going to be cliché, I’m not going to go open the cage, or go coach, I am going to make it for myself…but I don’t think I’ll ever decide that I am done. I think as a believer, God will let me know when, and I think it’ll be very apparent based on circumstance. If that job opportunity arises, it’s like in life, I don’t think you ever close the door on anything, I love the game. It’s been a big part of my life since I was little…and I’ve really enjoyed it, and that’s why you see me trying to finish hard, to finish strong, because it has been such a big part of who I am, and I think that’ll never change.”
Baseball has not followed a linear path for Murton. Perhaps in another time, with another decade of statistical understanding under our belt, a player with a career .352 on-base percentage would have been given more opportunity to succeed at the big-league level before the reality of playing in Japan settled in as his best option. He was, after all, a player that Theo Epstein once singled out as the toughest player he traded, despite the presence of a certain all-time Red Sox great in the deal. It may seem mysterious and thrilling—and maybe it is—but moving around the world with your pregnant wife and young son for a profession is a daunting task.
“Going back to 2009, I was with the Rockies at the time, and (Rockies General Manager) Dan O’ Dowd called me during the offseason and said that there was a team over in Japan that was interested in bringing me on. I was kicking and screaming about it, but my wife and I felt led to go to Japan. We spent six years there, which we look back on and are so thankful for…It was definitely an adjustment. The biggest thing I remember is I had never been on a plane for that long. Getting off the plane and seeing all the symbols and everyone speaking what seemed to be extremely fast because I had no idea what they were saying. To see the Japanese flag flying, it was like man, I am really here. Culturally, there are a lot of differences, but there are a lot of similarities as well, so you try and focus on those and enjoy people. There were a lot of differences, but I felt it was an adjustment we were able to make, just by being open-minded.”
Murton didn’t just land in Tokyo and succumb to the dizzying lights of transition. He picked up his lumber and did what he’d always done best. In his rookie season with the Hanshin Tigers, he collected 214 hits, breaking the Nippon Professional League’s hits record for a rookie. His noticeable stature and trademark red hair helped him instantly become a fan favorite among the rabid baseball fans in Hanshin.
“It was pretty incredible. You go over there, baseball is really their main sport, and the country treats it as such. There is a lot of fanfare that comes with being a baseball player over there, beyond just the baseball field. So whenever you have an opportunity to play—and I was playing for one of the more visible teams in Japan—some people try to say it’s like playing for the Red Sox, where the Giants are more like the Yankees. There is a big fan following, a lot of media attention, so whenever you get a chance to perform as an individual on the field, it’s magnified because of the environment you’re in. It was well received and I was thankful for that. They put me on a pedestal, probably too high. It gave them an opportunity to knock me down, but it was good…it was a lot of fun.”
It’s not going to be easy for Murton to break back into the big leagues. A recent uninvited meeting with the left field wall landed him on the disabled list, and at 34 years old, he acknowledged his body simply didn’t react the same way it did when he was in his twenties. His 65 games with the Iowa Cubs have gone well; he’s hitting .322 and getting on at a .354 clip. When you watch him take batting practice, the contact to all fields is loud. The power is still easy. It isn’t hard for him to imagine him delivering a key late inning knock in Wrigley Field; as strange as that suggestion may have sounded a year ago. For Murton’s part, whatever his path with the Cubs may take, he’s taking nothing for granted.
“The age I am at and the perspective I have, I am just fortunate to still be playing the game. I came back with the idea of getting back to playing the game the way I am capable of playing it. If I take care of that I can’t worry about the rest. I think there is an understanding; they gave me an opportunity to come back because of the track record and because of the possible value that I could bring to the organization. I haven’t been here in six years, so you’ve got to get back and see where you’re at, [because] the game has changed a little bit. You hope that if you do that–you know that you’re an asset–that at some point between now and the end you can be a part of something special. That was one of the really cool things about playing for the Cubs, the long history, the tradition. It would be awesome to get a chance to go back to Wrigley Field. That’d be a lot of fun.”
The Cubs have perhaps the most loaded 25-man roster they’ve ever had. The path back to Wrigley Field is not clearly spelled out for Murton. However, you can be certain that this will in no way dissuade him. Whatever happens from here, Murton will forever view his career in baseball as a gift. He will look back without regret or bitterness, thankful for the talent he was given and the platform it created to fulfill his life’s greatest calling.
“I am extremely blessed to be able to play the game. I’ve said all along the biggest thing for me is the drive within myself and the battle within myself to finish the race, and just wanting to play the game the way I am capable of playing it.”
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.