St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar barely speaks Japanese but may feel a wave of childhood nostalgia when he joins his Samurai Japan teammates ahead of March's World Baseball Classic.
The 25-year-old Nootbaar grew up in California, the youngest son of a Dutch father and a Japanese mother. He will be the first Japan player who qualified to compete for the team in the WBC through his ancestry.
Manager Hideki Kuriyama expects Nootbaar to enrich the team by virtue of his having grown up playing a different style of baseball. Yet, Nootbaar already has a connection to Japanese baseball from when he was a boy growing up in California.
Seventeen years ago, players from a Japan national youth team that included former New York Yankee Masahiro Tanaka and his high school rival Yuki Saito stayed with Nootbaar's family.
One player who remembers Nootbaar well is Yu Funabashi.
"He was a handful of a boy who was good at getting close to people," Funabashi said.
The visitors remembered the nine-year-old Nootbaar serving as a batboy, helping the players stretch and playing catch with them. Funabashi posted the news of Nootbaar's joining the WBC team on the social media group he is part of with his former Japan youth teammates.
"That kid?" Saito, who retired from pro ball last year, posted. "I remember him."
Another former teammate, Yuta Shiozawa, remembers telling Nootbaar over and over, "Eat your rice if you want to be a pro baseball player," and received a Christmas card from the boy saying how much he liked eating lots of white rice.
"When I see how big and strong he is, I'm touched," Shiozawa said with a laugh, recalling how that skinny boy is now a 190-centimeter MLB outfielder.
At a recent Cardinals team event, Nootbaar was asked if he could speak Japanese.
"I am going to try a little bit," he said, The Associated Press reported.
"Obviously it's going to be tough to learn a language in a month. I'm going to try my best. My mom is singing the Japanese national anthem in the house. I'm repeating it. We're just doing little stuff like that."
Shiozawa said, "He's a sparkplug who will overcome the language barrier."
Kuriyama said Nootbaar is going to be a hit with his Japan teammates.
"Everyone is going to like him, 100 percent," Kuriyama said recently.
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