• Baseball

History-Making Nootbaar Had Deep Ties to Japan before Making National Team

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Lars Nootbaar delivers a base hit during a WBC warm-up game at Kyocera Dome Osaka on Monday.

All but unknown in Japan prior to his selection to the Samurai Japan team for the World Baseball Classic, major leaguer Lars Nootbaar is aiming to make a name for himself in the country of his roots by helping the squad in its quest for global supremacy.

Nootbaar is the first-ever Japanese-American player to be named to a Japanese national team, and family on both sides of the Pacific look for him to serve as a “bridge between Japanese and American baseball” in the tournament, in which the Tokyo Pool will start on Thursday evening.

An outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Nootbaar, was born and raised in a Los Angeles suburb by an American father, Charlie, and Japanese mother, Kumiko, who is from Higashi-Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture. He speaks little Japanese, but can handle chopsticks well enough to eat the traditional Japanese dishes of natto (fermented soybeans) and miso soup. Among his favorite foods is gyoza (steamed or fried dumplings).

His father and older brother both played baseball and nudged him into starting the sport at the age of 5. Every day after school, he would run into the backyard and take batting practice with his mother, who played softball through her high school years. He would endlessly throw a ball against a wall of his driveway.

While the WBC marks his first appearance in a Japanese uniform, he played on a regional all-star team in the U.S. when he was 10. He surprised his mother back then when he introduced himself by saying, “I am Japanese. I am here representing Japan.”

“Maybe he thought that because I am Japanese, he would be, too,” Kumiko said. “At that time, I never imagined he would actually become a member of the Japanese national team.”

Nootbaar also excelled at American football through high school and was recruited by a number of colleges in that sport. But he eventually concentrated solely on baseball at the University of Southern California, and was drafted by the Cardinals in the eighth round in 2018. He has made his mark as a left-handed hitting outfielder with a strong arm and good speed, and hit 14 home runs last season.

His mother’s ethnicity made Nootbaar eligible for selection to Japan’s team at the WBC, and he pays homage to his roots on his glove. His middle name is Taylor-Tatsuji, in honor of his maternal grandfather Tatsuji Enokida, and Nootbaar has “Tatsuji” sewn onto his game glove.

Courtesy of Kumiko Nootbaar
Nootbaar is embraced by his grandfather Tatsuji Enokida during a trip to Japan as a child.

That led to a nice surprise for Nootbaar. When he joined up with the Japan team at the pre-tournament camp, his teammates welcomed him by donning T-shirts at practice with “Tacchan” written in Japanese, a friendly derivation of Tatsuji. Nootbaar was overjoyed by the gesture.

The 84-year-old Enokida, who still lives in Higashi-Matsuyama, says he will never forget the days when his grandson, then a child, and would be brought over for a visit, and would end up crying, “I don’t want to go home.”

“I am proud to see Lars wearing the Japanese uniform,” Enokida said. “I hope he hits many home runs and helps Samurai Japan win the championship. I will be very happy if he plays a role in strengthening ties between Japan and the U.S. through baseball.”