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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Grinding his way to international stardom

Lars Nootbaar celebrated hits in the World Baseball Classic by mimicking the use of a pepper mill. The gesture caught on in Japan.

By Brad Lefton

Five Japanese reporters accompanied by still and broadcast cameras covered baseball’s opening day in St. Louis. Curiously, the only player on either team who was born in Japan was pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Toronto Blue Jays, whose first start would not come until the next series.

Instead, the Japanese contingent was there to document the season debut of Lars Nootbaar, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder with a Dutch last name who was born in Southern California.

Nootbaar, who impressed many with his play for St. Louis last season, became an unlikely international star thanks to the World Baseball Classic. His mother is Japanese — she came to the United States for college and met her future husband here — and her passport qualified her son to represent Japan at the tournament. That made him the first player born outside Japan to be selected for the national team.

Nootbaar, 25, gave Japanese fans plenty of reasons to cheer. He led off and started in center field in each of Japan’s seven games. He reached base 14 times in 33 plate appearances, scored seven runs, and stole two bases. He also made a pair of highlight-reel catches in the early rounds before knocking in the run that put Japan ahead for good in its dramatic 3-2 win over the United States for the championship.

The performance did not surprise anyone back in St. Louis, where Nootbaar started slowly last season but came on strong as things heated up, batting .294 with power and patience in July and August before cooling down some in September. He came into this season as a versatile regular in the team’s outfield, though he was quickly put on the 10-day injured list with a bruised thumb. He is expected to return in the next week.

The Cardinals, who went 2-4 in their opening homestand, could use his energy and enthusiasm. Those were the traits, after all, that led to Nootbaar landing on Japan’s roster in the first place, according to manager Hideki Kuriyama.

“Center field was an area of need for us, and as I explored our options, I fell in love with this guy from the moment I first talked to him,” Kuriyama said in his first national appearance after returning to Tokyo following the tournament. “I knew right away he would be the right fit.”

Kuriyama said he believed that Nootbaar would help the team’s mood and that a language barrier would not be an issue.

“I think his overall demeanor moved fans and teammates alike,” Kuriyama said.

Japanese fans took to Nootbaar immediately. He embraced the nickname Tacchan, an affectionate play on the Japanese portion of his middle name, Taylor-Tatsuji. And he helped bring some American baseball style to the team by routinely celebrating hits with a move popular among Cardinals players where they mimic twisting a pepper mill after “grinding out a hit.” The pepper mill gesture became a surprising symbol of Japan’s championship run.

The move proved wildly popular among Japanese fans and amateur players, though it landed one high schooler who imitated it in trouble. After reaching first base on an error during Japan’s high school baseball tournament, the player did the gesture, drawing an official reprimand.

“We understand players’ desire to enjoy the game, but we ask you to enjoy it through your play,” the Japan High School Baseball Federation said in a statement.

For Nootbaar, joining Team Japan was an unlikely dream come true. When he was 9 years old, while playing Little League Baseball in El Segundo, California, he declared on video that he wanted to represent Japan someday.

Nootbaar, who speaks little Japanese and had not visited the country since he was 6, knew going into the tournament that one player held the key to a smooth transition: Yu Darvish.

At 36, Darvish was the team’s senior player, a significant detail in a hierarchical culture. Nootbaar admits he was nervous when he unexpectedly encountered Darvish a day before being introduced to the rest of the team.

“I had just arrived in Japan, and the idea was to take it easy, crash early and meet the team at the ballpark the next day,” Nootbaar said. “I was eating in the team food room at the hotel when the door opened, and in walked Yu Darvish. I was so nervous, like almost shaking. This isn’t how I expected to meet him, but he was so nice and put me at ease right away.”

He added of Darvish: “He said the goal was to make me comfortable so I could play my game and anything I needed, I should feel free to ask him.”

After three weeks under Darvish’s leadership, Nootbaar said he was convinced that their early meeting was no coincidence.

“I think he sought me out,” Nootbaar said while discussing Darvish and his role with the team compared to the one held by Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way superstar.

“So much attention is given to Shohei, and rightly so, because he’s such an incredible player,” Nootbaar said. “But Darvish deserves the credit for bringing us together and leading us. He understood his role and gave the younger pitchers so much confidence and taught them so much.”

Ohtani’s impact largely came on the field, where he was named the MVP of the tournament. Being around such a player was intimidating for Nootbaar, he said, even though he plays with superstars like Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt in St. Louis.

“We hit together in the indoor cage,” Nootbaar said of Ohtani. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like it.’”

Nootbaar found himself even more impressed with the dramatic way Ohtani closed out Japan’s championship. Having started the game at designated hitter, Ohtani came out of the bullpen as the closer in the ninth inning. After Ohtani recorded two quick outs, his teammate with the Angels, Mike Trout, stepped to the plate. Nootbaar looked on from left field as Ohtani fanned the three-time winner of the MVP award with a 2-2 slider.

“The movement was ridiculous,” Nootbaar said. “Obviously, you know, the fastball is fast, but the slider movement is ridiculous.

“He really is different from everybody else.”

When the team headed home after 20 days together spent on two different continents, Ohtani presented Nootbaar with a luxury watch from Japan. It came with one condition: Nootbaar has to give it back if he does not play for Japan at the next WBC in 2026.

“He won’t be getting the watch back because there’s no other team I would consider playing for,” Nootbaar said. “If they ask me again, I would absolutely love to play for Japan.”

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