Lars Nootbaar brings ‘grind-it-out spirit’ to Japan and WBC
TOKYO (AP) — Most Japanese people couldn’t recognize Lars Nutbar a few weeks ago, before the opening of the World Baseball Classic. Few could even pronounce his name or write it in English or Japanese.
He’s become a household name in Japan, with fans praising the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder at the Tokyo Dome, where he went 5-of-11 with two RBIs in Team Japan’s 3-0 start.
In the song’s impromptu lyrics, Nutbaar was called a samurai and mentions his middle name, Tatsuji, which is his grandfather’s name. He plays for Japan due to his mother’s roots, he is the first non-Japanese player to be selected for the national team by origin.
Hundreds now come to the Dome with the pepper mills that have become his trademark with the Cardinals. Fans hold up signs that refer to Nutbaar as the “American Samurai” while his teammates refer to him by the Japanese nickname “Tachan”.
Cardinals teammate Tommy Edman plays in Tokyo with South Korea also because of his mother’s roots. They have a similar experience, except that Japan wins. South Korea lost the first two games.
“It’s definitely different to wear the letters of an entire nation on your chest,” Edman said.
Double-sided Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Otani is still Japan’s most famous baseball player, but he called Nutbar “a great talent and personality, so I don’t worry about him. The more fans applaud, the more energy you will get.”
Nutbaar says he was smitten by Otani, and repeated this theme endlessly.
“I’m just like you guys,” Nutbar said. “I think I’m just like a fan who can watch him. I was just lucky that I got a front row seat.”
Fans have taken up the “Nut-Nut-Nut” chant and he’s already one of the favorites of the all-star Japanese team that includes Yu Darivsh and Rocky Sasaki, Pitcher’s Best Prospect in Japanese baseball.
“Being in Tokyo Dome for the first time representing Japan is quite a surreal experience,” Nootbaar said.
He said he was first contacted on Instagram about playing in the WBC by translator Otani Ippei Mizuhara, who works with Nutbaar in Tokyo.
“It started on Instagram, like many relationships now. That’s how it all starts,” Nutbaar said.
Nutbaar’s popularity began to skyrocket when he made a couple of dives in the first two games and got two hits in each win.
His flippant manner is also catching on with his teammates, who emulate the two-fisted “thresher” gesture he debuted in St. Louis. That means just grinding those badass bats.
He looked at the pitcher when he was stabbed in the back during Japan’s 13-4 victory over South Korea on Friday. The Korean players did not like this, but the Japanese fans immediately came to his defense.
If Otani was the perfect Japanese child as a child, Nutbar seems to be the more mischievous type. In an interview, his Japanese-born mother Kumiko recalled gently scolding him with the phrase “totto obaka” as a child.
This is difficult to translate literally, but it is assumed that he was not a saint, not a perfect child and made several joking mistakes.
“Two things at once – walking and chewing gum is hard for me,” Nutbar said, hinting that he was easily distracted.
He called playing as Japan “pure joy” for his extended Japanese family and for himself.
“They are proud,” he said. “It’s great for me to be able to do that for them too. I don’t talk to them often, I see them often. To be able to connect me and my family together from opposite sides of the world. It’s a pretty special moment for me.”
Raised in California with a Japanese mother and an American father, his Japanese is limited but not zero. He endeared himself to the nation by singing the national anthem, Kimigayo, whose words are derived from an ancient poem.
He also joked about marketing opportunities for him in Japan, as well as the chances of MLB and the Cardinals selling more jerseys and caps. And to get some approval.
“I’m trying to make some deals here to say, ‘Hi, my name is Lars,'” he explained. “And then whatever brand wants me, then I can name the brand.”
Associated Press contributor Yuri Kageyama contributed to this report.
Follow AP Japan Sportswriter Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP
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