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Matt Murton hopes to complete rare return trip from Japan to majors

MESA, Ariz. -- After a successful six-year run in Japan, Matt Murton arrived at Chicago Cubs' camp this spring with a goal of returning to the major leagues and putting a punctuation mark on an eventful career.

He was ready to pour his heart and soul into the endeavor. But his appendix had other ideas.

In late February, Murton was gearing up for a run at an outfield spot as a non-roster invitee when he began to feel a pain in his side. He gritted his teeth through a practice and tried to quell the nausea with Tums and Pepto-Bismol, only to find his discomfort increasing by the hour. Shortly after being checked out by the Cubs' medical staff, he was in a Phoenix-area hospital having his appendix removed.

Two weeks later, he's behind the other outfielders in camp and trying to make up for lost time. While teammates hone their swings in Cactus League games, he jogs around the back field and is easing his way back into baseball activities. The Cubs have Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Shane Victorino and Matt Szczur in camp (with Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez also capable of playing the outfield), so the odds were going to be daunting even if Murton weren't losing internal organs.

Murton's unrelenting optimism in the face of long odds is a tribute to his Christian faith and can-do mindset. He has seen enough surprising things happen, on multiple continents, to understand that baseball has a coy side.

Who could have envisioned Murton would leave Boston for the Cubs with Nomar Garciaparra by trade barely a year after the Red Sox chose him in the first round of the 2003 draft out of Georgia Tech? He played for Dusty Baker in 2006 and Lou Piniella in 2007, went to Oakland with a young catcher named Josh Donaldson in a trade for Rich Harden in 2008, and enjoyed a cameo in Colorado before Japan beckoned as a possibility.

When the Rockies sold Murton's contract to the Hanshin Tigers in Osaka, Japan, in 2009, he figured the adventure might last a year. It lasted six, and as the hits kept falling like rain, he ingrained his name in Japanese lore as an elite gaijin, or foreigner.

In his first season with Hanshin, Murton broke Ichiro Suzuki's single-season Japanese record with 214 hits. He hit .338 to win the Central League batting title in 2014 and was reportedly the fifth-highest-paid player in Japan with a salary of 460 million yen (or roughly $3.8 million) in 2015. He had set himself up for a nice, comfortable retirement with his wife, Stephanie, and their four children.

So why return stateside at age 34 and tilt at roster windmills, rather than take it easy and sit on his Nippon Baseball earnings? Murton's quest says something about closure, personal fulfillment and the inherent desire in professional athletes to see if they can compete against the very best.

"I reached a point where if I stayed there too much longer, this window was going to close,'' Murton says. "My goal right now is living in the moment, competing today. I really do think I have something left. I think I can be an asset. But that's all talk. I've got to get out there and do it.''

Comeback kid?

Nippon Baseball history is replete with hitters who put up numbers that wildly surpassed what their Major League Baseball portfolios heralded. Karl "Tuffy'' Rhodes, Wladimir Balentien, Tom O'Malley, Randy Bass, Greg "Boomer'' Wells, Alonzo Powell and Ralph Bryant attained a level of stardom in Japan out of all proportion to their careers in the U.S.

That list is balanced by some more prominent names who had minimal impact because of injury or an inability to adapt to Japanese baseball or culture. Mike Greenwell, Bob Horner, Matt Stairs, Gabe Kapler, Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Mench are among the big leaguers whose Far East forays were brief or nondescript.

It's the rare player who tears it up in Japan and returns to MLB for a successful final act. Cecil Fielder hit 38 homers for Hanshin at age 25 before coming home and crushing it with the Detroit Tigers, and Lee Stevens had a nice run with the Texas Rangers and Montreal Expos after two seasons with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. On the current landscape, pitcher Colby Lewis is the best role model for Murton. He enjoyed two productive seasons with the Hiroshima Carp in 2008 and 2009 before signing with Texas and becoming a solid 200-inning starter and a member of two American League pennant winners.

Unlike the prototypical, boom-or-bust sluggers who have gravitated to Japan with hopes of reviving their careers, Murton has always been a polished hitter with a good eye, sound mechanics and the discipline to manage at-bats and use the entire field. Those attributes served him well in Japan, where the menu is heavy on breaking balls and a lot of pitchers take the Bronson Arroyo approach and throw any pitch in any count.

Murton was able to thrive in Japan because he obeyed the cardinal rule for imports: Get off to a fast start. But he was also respectful of the Japanese culture and open-minded about adapting off the field. He heeded the advice of a favorite uncle who had traveled internationally and told him it was OK to shed a little of his "American-ness'' and find avenues for common ground. Murton made an effort to speak Japanese, and he established a good-natured bonding ritual with fans in the outfield by raising fingers in the air and counting down the outs every inning.

He even stretched the boundaries with his dietary habits. The only time he took a pass was when he ordered soup and it came back with live fish swimming around in the bowl.

"The Japanese call us pretty boring eaters over here in the United States,'' Murton says. "My thing was, I would always try something once. Eating a pig or a chicken heart -- that was definitely interesting. I remember one of the first times I went to get some raw fish. Here's this fish staring me back in the eyes and I'm eating its belly. That was a new experience, and one I wasn't necessarily comfortable with.''

Murton was destined to stand out from the crowd as an "akage,'' or redhead, and he displayed a colorful and occasionally feisty side between the lines. In one game, he pulled a Larry Walker, forgot how many outs there were and flipped the ball into the stands before the inning was complete. During the 2012 season, he bowled over Yakult Swallows catcher Ryoji Aikawa, who had dropped to his knee and blocked the plate in a way that gave Murton no other path to score. The resultant bench-clearing incident was memorialized on Youtube.

Murton encountered his biggest test in Japan during that trying 2012 season. He was struggling offensively and thought he had been unfairly targeted for criticism by both his team and the Japanese media. After he made a poor throw to the plate and reporters questioned his effort level, Murton jokingly replied that he didn't like starting pitcher Atsushi Nomi and had intentionally allowed the runner to score. The sarcasm failed to translate, and he was castigated in the media and benched for several days until the furor subsided.

"I learned my lesson the hard way,'' Murton says.

By the end of last season, the relationship had run its course. Murton was approaching his mid-30s, expectations were becoming harder to meet because of his salary and he knew time was running short if he wanted to give the majors one more shot. He thanked the fans, wrote letters to his teammates thanking them and bid Hanshin a heartfelt and grateful goodbye.

"Honestly, he deserved to be a bigger star than he was, given his contributions on the field,'' says John E. Gibson, a veteran baseball journalist in Japan. "But Japanese society makes it difficult to fully assimilate and become part of the community. I'm sure that part of the experience was a challenge for him.''

Renewing old ties

On a recent, blindingly sunny morning in Mesa, former Cubs outfielder Cliff Floyd was touring the Cactus League for MLB Network Radio when he came across Murton in camp. Floyd was surprised to see that Murton's once-bountiful mop of red hair had given way to a buzz cut.

"I saw the shaved head, and said, 'Is that damn Matt Murton?''' Floyd says. "He used to have a full head of red.''

Murton posted a solid .809 OPS as Chicago's Opening Day left fielder in 2006, but his playing time gradually decreased, and he failed to meet the expectations of Cubs fans who dubbed him "Thunder Matt.'' He faced an additional challenge playing for Baker and Piniella, veteran managers who were in perpetual "win now'' mode.

"In Chicago, they were always thirsty and waiting for that guy to take us to the promised land,'' Floyd says. "He was a big guy for the team and a top prospect. But when you come to an organization and you're playing for Lou Piniella, if you go 0-for-10, your ass is sitting. You're a platoon player.''

Flash forward a decade, and Murton has some skills that could make him a useful piece in a complementary role. "He can hit,'' says a big league talent evaluator who watched him in Japan. But Murton lacks the prototypical corner outfield power, and he has a below-average arm in the outfield. One scout in the Cactus League refers to him as a "tweener.'' Another regards him as a Triple-A depth piece who might come in handy during a long season.

"In a parallel universe, he would have had a real nice career over here, too. But he liked it in Japan and they loved him. He made a good living to support his family and now he wants to come back. It would be nice for him to go out as a big leaguer."

Cubs president Theo Epstein on Matt Murton

Would Murton consent to a minor league assignment if he fails to make the Cubs' roster out of camp? Without answering the question directly, he replies that he's ready to "do what's necessary'' to return to playing at the highest level. If a road to Wrigley Field fails to materialize, maybe he can show enough in Arizona to pique another team's interest.

Theo Epstein, Chicago's president of baseball operations, was with Boston when the Red sox gave Murton a $1.01 million bonus out of Georgia Tech in June 2003, and Epstein warmed to the prospect of a reunion. If Murton were truly committed to coming back, Epstein thought, it was only fitting that the Cubs would be the team to provide him with the opportunity.

"In a parallel universe, he would have had a real nice career over here, too,'' Epstein said. "But he liked it in Japan and they loved him. He made a good living to support his family and now he wants to come back. It would be nice for him to go out as a big leaguer.''

In the 2016 Arizona spring training universe, Murton has the luxury of blending in quietly on a Cubs roster filled with the likes of Jason Heyward, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kris Bryant. He's just an earnest, fan-friendly baseball striver, with a fresh appendix scar to add to an improbable array of tales.

"I've always prided myself on being different,'' Murton says, when asked if he can buck the odds and return to a major league roster. What's the point in stopping now?