Ex-star regains love for the sport through reunion with Nootbaars

Yuta Shiozawa was perhaps the person most surprised by Samurai Japan’s selection of Lars Nootbaar for the World Baseball Classic.

His reaction to the news was: “Lars? That little kid is a major league? And he’s in the Japan national team now?”

Shiozawa, now 34, was a star player in high school when he met then-9-year-old Nootbaar and his family in the United States in 2006.

But after that pleasant experience, Shiozawa had a painful breakup with the sport he loved so much.

For about a decade, he refused to attend baseball games or even watch one on television.

On March 11, however, he found himself in the Tokyo Dome, sitting with Nootbaar’s Japanese mother, Kumiko, and watching her 25-year-old son take the lead for Samurai Japan.

For the first time in years, baseball brought a smile to Shiozawa’s face.

“I forgot watching baseball was so much fun,” he said.


Shiozawa was an outfielder on the Teikyo Senior High School baseball team that reached the quarterfinals of the summer 2006 high school national baseball tournament known as “Koshien”.

After the tournament, Shiozawa was named to a national team of high schoolers for a summer tour of the United States.

His host family in Southern California were the Nootbaars. Shiozawa and teammate Yu Funabashi stayed at the Nootbaars’ home for a week.

Kumiko and Nootbaar’s American father, Charlie, drove the two Japanese to a stadium every day. On weekends, the family took the students to Hollywood for sightseeing.

Lars Nootbaar was a very friendly boy who always had a smile on his face, Shiozawa recalled.

Nootbaar loved being with the Japanese players and took on the role of the team’s Batboy.

He stretched and played tag with team members including Masahiro Tanaka, a future star with the Rakuten Golden Eagles and New York Yankees, and Yuki Saito, the “Handkerchief Prince” who later fielded for the Nippon Ham Fighters.


After the team returned to Japan, Shiozawa kept in touch with the Nootbaars through holiday greeting cards and emails.

But a series of injuries ruined Shiozawa’s chances of becoming a professional baseball player.

So painful was his shattered dream that he not only retired from baseball after college, but severed all ties with the sport as well.

“I couldn’t even watch (games) in my right mind,” he said.

However, he couldn’t escape the news of his former teammates like Tanaka thriving as professional ball players. Such reports filled him with mixed feelings.

While Shiozawa went on with his life as a Tokyo Gas Co. employee with no interest in baseball, in January Kumiko approached him and told him that Lars, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, had been selected for Samurai Japan.

“I was so surprised,” Shiozawa said.


As the opening of the WBC drew near, Kumiko and Shiozawa began exchanging more messages.

Kumiko told him that she had been interviewed by the news media and that she came to Japan for the WBC games at the Tokyo Dome.

The exchange gave Shiozawa a sudden desire to go to a baseball game.

“For the first time I have a player I really want to cheer for,” he said.

On March 11, both Shiozawa and Funabashi were reunited with their US host family – Nootbaar’s parents and sister – at the Tokyo Dome.


In the fourth inning of the game, with an out, a runner on second base and a full count, Nootbaar hit the middle.

After some heads-up runs that got him to second base, Nootbaar made the now-familiar gesture of grinding the pepper, which drew further applause from the crowd.

Seeing Nootbaar, the former little “Batboy”, give it his all on the big stage in front of a packed stadium was a profound experience for Shiozawa.

“He’s quick on target in defense and the balls he hits go fast,” he said of Nootbaar. “I also like the look on his face when he hits bases and rounds.

“He’s full of charm as a baseball player. I am impressed that he has become such a great player.”

Japan beat the Czech Republic 10-2.

For Shiozawa, who avoided watching baseball for years, the WBC game fell short.

“I was looking forward to Lars getting another at-bat,” he said. “It was a pleasure to see him score a base strike and a goal.”

After returning home and watching highlights of the game, Shiozawa realized that he was on TV every time the broadcast camera zoomed in on the Nootbaar family in the stands.

“I looked so happy watching baseball,” Shiozawa said. “I couldn’t have imagined that before.”

Now he has a new dream.

“I want to travel to the United States one day and watch a major league game. Then when I meet Lars I would love to play catch with him for the first time in a long time.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *