(Picture by Kenta HARADA)
There is a video of a young Lars Nootbaar saying: "Konnichiwa, I'm Lars Nootbaar and I'm Japanese and I want to represent my country Japan."
Now, that long-held, seemingly unlikely, dream of the St Louis Cardinals outfielder has come true at the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
Seemingly unlikely because until this year, the Samurai Japan national baseball team had never selected a player born outside of Japan. Nootbaar was born and raised in El Segundo, California, near the Los Angeles International Airport.
But when Nootbaar received the call asking him if he would be interested in breaking that barrier and representing Japan, the answer was an immediate yes.
Wait, you might say, Lars Nootbaar isn't a particularly Japanese-sounding name?
Lars Taylor-Tatsuji Nootbaar, to give him his full name (his Japanese name Tatsuji was for his grandfather), qualifies for the Japanese team through his mother Kumiko, who still holds Japanese citizenship.
That video of the young Nootbaar dates from his Little League playing days. "That was just the real, genuine, 10-year-old me speaking my heart," the now-25-year-old recently said on FOX Sports' Flippin' Bats Podcast.
"The fact that now we're here where we are and I'm able to actually do that, it's a pretty surreal moment, really."
Lars Nootbaar: From Team Japan ball-boy…
Nootbaar can remember, as an eight-year-old, players from Japan's national high school representative team coming to live with him and his family.
The team, which included future Olympic champion and New York Yankees pitcher Tanaka Masahiro, was playing in a tournament at the nearby University of Southern California – the school Nootbaar would later attend and be drafted out of into Major League Baseball – and the players were assigned host families.
"My mom, being bilingual, was like absolutely we're going to host them, so we hosted two of them," he recalled. "For me, these guys were like, pro – these guys were big leaguers. The closest thing I'd ever been to, seeing it in real life, how good these players are.
"For me, I was so pumped that my parents were willing to do it. They took my bed, I slept on the couch, but I didn't care. I got to hang out with these future potential baseball players, that was everything I ever wanted."
He also served as a ball-boy for the team during the tournament, and with three members of his family born in Japan – his brother and sister were in addition to his mother – the affinity and relationship with the Japanese national team is strong.
"My mom grew up a huge baseball fan. We watched the Koshien tournament (Japan's top high-school baseball tournament) whenever we could, she always knew about the young talent in Japan who was going to come over to the big leagues before anybody did," Nootbaar recalled.
…to Team Japan call-up
Still, a call-up for the Classic in 2023 seemed like a far stretch. As recently as 2020, Nootbaar was working in manual labour after the Minor League Baseball season was lost to Covid and he was left without a pay check.
However, once he received the call-up to the majors in 2021, the only way was up. Nootbaar hasn't looked back, establishing himself as a mainstay in the Cardinals outfield.
And yet, the first, casual, approaches were somewhat surprising – coming not through any official channels, but rather Mizuhara Ippei, more well-known in MLB circles as the translator for superstar two-way player (and Nootbaar's WBC teammate) Ohtani Shohei.
Nootbaar told Flippin' Bats: "Ippei, Shohei's interpreter, reached out to me when I was in Milwaukee, like 'hey, I want to gauge your interest'.
"It was a total random reach-out, it was awesome. I got a follow and a DM on Instagram, I was like man, I could not be happier about this right now, it was one of those things – it was awesome."
Lars Nootbaar hits a RBI single during a WBC exhibition game against Hanshin Tigers (Kenta HARADA / Getty Images 2023)
Nootbaar's first taste of Samurai Japan action – with him wearing the jersey as a player – came in an exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball ahead of the WBC, in which he registered two hits.
While Nootbaar's Japanese is, self-admittedly, basic, the language barrier does not seem to be stopping him.
Both Ohtani and Darvish Yu speak good English, having played in the majors and lived in the United States for years, while Nootbaar also has his mother for support.
He has been learning the words to Japan's anthem, Kimigayo, from her – and it's clear she is his inspiration in putting on the Japan uniform.
"I think there's a sense of pride being able to represent Team Japan and where she grew up," he said on the podcast. "It's a pretty cool moment because she sacrificed so much for me.
"I can't wait, it's a dream come true for me."
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