This time three years ago, I was literally working a 9-to-5 job.
Actually, it was more like a 5-to-3. Five in the morning to three in the afternoon.
This was in 2020, after the minor league season was canceled. I had moved back home from spring training in Jupiter, Florida, to my parents’ place in El Segundo. And at first it was sick. I’d wake up, throw on some sweats, and head over to USC with my buddies, Angelo and Chips (real name John). We’d park near campus and then sneak into SC’s batting cages. We’d wait until the security guard wasn’t looking and then it’d be like … Go Go Go! Jumping fences, sliding between gaps in walls. Fun stuff.
But then one night, I got home from a hitting session and my parents sat me down: “Son, we love you. But you can’t just hit all day and then do nothing. You need to get a job.”
So I started working as a contractor doing manual labor at an aerospace engineering place called Northrop Grumman. (My buddy Angelo, another pro ballplayer, took a job bagging groceries at a supermarket.) Six days a week, I’d set my alarm for four in the morning. I’d clock in around 4:45 and spend all day screwing ducts together, or sanding machine parts. Then, at 2:57, I’d clock out.
It was exhausting. But it definitely taught me a lot about myself.
I love all the guys I worked with — they’re truly great people. I still keep in touch with some of them. (Shoutout to OG, “Original Greg,” for getting me that job.) But what they do every day … it is not easy. I have the utmost respect for anyone who can make it work. But me? It was like: I’ll take baseball any day.
Driving over to the plant in the pitch black, tired as shit, I remember saying to myself: Here’s the rest of your life if you don’t invest your all into this baseball thing and make it happen. You have one shot at this. If baseball really is your dream, you need to go out and make it come true….
I’d set my alarm for four in the morning, clock in around 4:45, and spend all day screwing ducts together, or sanding machine parts.- Lars Nootbaar
You gotta understand: I was born into a baseball family, a family of athletes. My dad played at Cal Poly SLO. My mom talks like she’s the greatest athlete Japan’s ever seen. (She’s actually nasty, I can’t lie.) And she’s been a diehard baseball fan since she was little. My older brother, Nigel, played in the Orioles organization, and he has been my role model my entire life — always someone I’ve wanted to be better than. My sister was a volleyball player and is now an athletic trainer. She ran varsity track as a freshman!
And then there’s me.
One of my very first memories in life is walking down our street with my mom to the tee-ball field near our house to play a game for the Braves, and her telling me to put my hand over my heart during the national anthem and the Little League pledge. That same year, I also remember I lined out to Brian Guerrero at third base to end our season. That stuck with me. Still does, actually.
Because even back then, as a five-year-old, winning and losing … it mattered to me.
It wasn’t just with baseball, either. It was with everything — king of the hill, mush ball, football, Wiffle ball, pickle, pick-up basketball, on and on. Anything that involved competition with my boys … we treated it like life or death.
I’d wake up on the weekends and be the first one down at the Rec Park courts. I’d take an extra sweatshirt to the checkout stand and give it to the lady there in exchange for a basketball and then shoot hoops until one of my buddies showed up. Then it’d be one-on-one, two-on-two, four-on-four, until we had 10 kids to run it full-court. A few hours later, I’d take the basketball back to that checkout stand and … trade it in for a football. When it got dark, I’d go home, sleep, and wake up and do it all over again.
And it really was all about winning. Or at least about not losing to each other. Nothing mattered more to me than beating them. There’d be shouting matches, fistfights, you name it. And if I lost — it didn’t happen much against them … haha — I was pissed. I hated it. And I was kind of a dick when we played. It didn’t matter how many games we’d play … with me, any single loss would outweigh any amount of wins.
As I got older, that hatred for losing didn’t go away. But I feel like a driving force that had always been inside of me became an even bigger motivator. And it’s something I still feel at times to this day. It involves people underestimating me or thinking I’m nothing special, if that makes sense.
I guess the best way to put it is: I have a chip on my shoulder.
It started back in high school. At El Segundo, in Southern California. I felt like I was one of the best baseball and football players in the area. But no one was really paying much attention to me.
Back then, I knew about all the big-name high school players around L.A. — who this guy was, and that guy was. Private high school dudes were getting offers every other day. I saw the articles. I heard the buzz. Me, though? Nah. None of that. Accolades, sure. Colleges? A couple. Pro scouts … not even close. Dudes doing half of what I was doing were getting crazy love. I just didn’t get it.
And it pissed me off! I was never one of those players where it’s like, “Oh, hold on a sec. Wait … Lars Nootbaar is coming up to bat now,” and you see all the scouts pulling out their notepads. That never happened.
I absolutely felt disrespected. But … it was good for me.
Every game I’d go out and try to show everyone that I was better than the guys getting all the press. I was the public school kid from El Segundo High who no one was watching.
And that feeling, that disrespect, it made me wanna prove more people wrong. But like I said … it was good for me.
When I got drafted in the eighth round a few years later, after three seasons at SC, in some ways that felt like vindication. But at the same time, I remember thinking I was going to be picked higher. I played like shit my junior year, so I didn’t deserve to go any earlier than I did. But I still wanted to get drafted higher. So as more and more rounds were completed, it was kind of the same old story for me. No one sees it. What are they thinking? I was pissed off … again.
And then something really cool happened: I got selected by the St. Louis Cardinals.
I felt so fortunate because … you never know, right? It’s a draft. They’re picking you, it’s not the other way around. And this wasn’t some random team in MLB selecting me. It was like: This is a truly great organization. This is a blueblood. They’re winners.
All of a sudden it didn’t matter what round I was drafted in. I came in and signed under-slot. It was like, St. Louis picked me because that’s where I was meant to be. I couldn’t wait to get going. I was so excited. And then….
I was far away from home. No family or friends around. Making no money. Riding buses. All of it. It was the first time I’d ever really gotten kicked in the teeth in sports.- Lars Nootbaar
Oh man, did I suck. I went to Short-Season ball in 2018 — State College, Pennsylvania — and I was absolutely horrible. Just terrible. Hit .227. Two times more strikeouts than walks. Doubt basically overtook me. There were lots of sleepless nights. Struggles, man. Shit I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I was far away from home. No family or friends around. Making no money. Riding buses. All of it. It was the first time I’d ever really gotten kicked in the teeth in sports, all of 2018. And at that point, you’re young, you don’t really know how to handle that adversity. Or at least I didn’t. So things just kind of snowballed on me. I distinctly remember sitting up at night and talking to myself like….
What are you going to do?
And eventually I realized there were two potential paths. I could pretend everything was fine, continue on as I was, and be O.K. with those results. If I did that, I’d likely play a couple more seasons and call it a career. I’d go home and live this life where I sat around and told stories to buddies about how I got drafted and played pro ball and basically live off that. Or, the scarier option, put everything I have into baseball and see where I land. See if what I have could actually get me to the show. No excuses, play like a champion (S/O Vince Vaughn).
I went home that off-season and worked out like I hadn’t before — lost 20 pounds that off-season, hit almost every day, worked on my defense. Getting away from the game for an extended period of time gave me some perspective. The work gave me confidence. By the end of 2019, I’d made it to Double-A. Everything was looking up again. I was back on track, major leagues kind of in sight. It was like: 2020 … this is where I really make a name for myself. Big year. I worked hard again in the off-season. Let’s Fucking Go.
Then Covid hit.
I had to put everything I had into baseball and see where I landed. No excuses, play like a champion.- Lars Nootbaar
That’s when everything shut down and I moved back home. And at the time it felt like the worst thing that could happen for my career. But looking back on it now, I’m convinced that the shutdown, that time away from the field, was critical in molding myself into the player I am today. Because those four weeks before I took that job at the aerospace engineering place, those initial weeks after the game was taken away, I basically learned more about dissecting and improving my swing up at the SC cages than ever before.
My buddy Chips had a K-Vest connected to his laptop that he’d hook me up to. He was like, “You do some good things offensively, but there’s a lot you can improve. A lot. And you may never get better if you don’t specifically work on those things in a focused manner.”
So from there it was all work. Data-driven work. He’d sit there with his laptop open, and I’d take a round of swings and we’d analyze all the readouts for hours and hours every day. We were monitoring everything — launch angle, exit velocity, sequencing, bat speed — and then using trial and error to come up with different training methods to improve any weak spots.
Even after I took that Northrop job, I kept up with the training and the technical work after I clocked out. (Angelo would sometimes show up to our hitting sessions in his work gear, nametag and all.) Three months of that and I was a totally transformed player. There were Covid restrictions everywhere, but I basically worked on my game as much as I could.
It was like: I will never set my alarm for 4 a.m. again.
Fast-forward a few years and … here we are. And, honestly, it really is like: Can you believe this right now?
Playing for a historic franchise, in front of the best fans in the league, with guys like Nolan and Goldy and Waino? I couldn’t imagine anything better.
And that doesn’t even take into account the whole WBC experience.
The funny thing with that is, going in, I was actually kind of worried about how it might go. My mom, she’d been in my ear for years about what playing baseball is like in Japan. She has such vivid memories of the Japanese game from when she lived there more than 30 years ago. So she’s telling me, “You just wait, Lars. Just you wait!” It’s like: “You’re going to be training constantly. Bunting practice for four straight hours, you’ll have to bow to the field. Baseball is like a religion over there. Everyone will be watching.”
Mom had me nervous. My five-foot-nothing Japanese mom was scaring the shit outta me.
Then I get there, and the coaches are super nice and constantly asking me if I’m all good, and if my body is doing alright, or if I need rest at any point. It wasn’t much like what she said. At least in terms of practice and on-the-field stuff. When it came to the fans and the crowds, though, she was absolutely correct. It was wild.
As soon as my plane landed, there were cameras and reporters and fans, everywhere you turned. And traveling to our games was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
From the very first time we left Nagoya for a game at the Tokyo Dome, it was like I was part of a national news event. You’d look out the bus window and all you’d see was people waving signs, yelling, going nuts. Sitting there with Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, two of the most popular people in the country, it hit me that … Dude, it’s basically like you’re riding around in a bus with the Beatles in the ’60s or something.
And once I started getting a few hits, I couldn’t go anywhere without getting swarmed. I don’t know if I’m officially allowed to mention this or whatever, but at one point Shohei, Yu, Shohei’s interpreter Ippei, and me … they told us we couldn’t take the team bus to one of the bullet train stations, because of the crowds. They had to sneak us into these black security vans, and then some guy in a suit comes up and tells us, “O.K., so after we let you out, you’re going to be using the prime minister’s secret underground tunnel rather than walking on the street.” (I’m getting this all translated of course. lol)
It was like something out of a movie. It was Show.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. The last thing I was gonna do was pretend like I was too cool for any of it.- Lars Nootbaar
And of course, me … I’m doing all this with my phone out, taking videos, photos, total tourist stuff. Absolutely wide-eyed. The whole team is shaking their heads and laughing at me like, “Look at this guy over here.”
But I wasn’t ashamed of it. It was badass!
It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. The last thing I was gonna do was pretend like I was too cool for any of it. I wasn’t used to it like some of those guys were. Me? Lars? The kid from Rec Park in El Segundo? Fuck no. I was like a kid in a candy store the entire time. I was so honored, so proud … I wasn’t about to hide that.
I mean, put yourself in my shoes. First time up to bat, leading off that initial game, not knowing what to expect. I step into the box and … the entire outfield, the whole crowd, 50,000 people in unison, start chanting this fight song they created for me that mixes in my middle name, Tatsuji — my grandpa’s name. I get emotional just thinking about it now.
Before the tournament started, my mom was telling me about those songs, and how special they are. She kept saying … “I wonder if they’ll do you that honor. You’re not in the NPB. But I wonder if they might still do it….”
And then … they did. Immediately! First AB. With my mom and my grandpa — the original Tatsuji — up in the stands.
I was hacking first pitch like … let’s see if this magic ride is gonna start well. And then … base hit. Let’s. Fucking. Go!!!
But really … it was one of the great honors of my life. I’ll never forget it.
And then, along with everything else, as if that stuff wasn’t enough … there was Shohei.
Look, I know you’ve read and heard a lot about Shohei by this point. You’ve seen him play. You know what he can do. You get it. I get it.
But I’m here to tell you that Shohei Ohtani is an even better person than he is a baseball player. And I’ve never met anyone who is as comfortable in his own skin as Shohei. None of it is a show, either. You can absolutely tell.
The first time I met him I was in the clubhouse, feeling a bit on my own — didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language, nerves all over the place. I’m fumbling around trying to put stuff away in my locker, and I turn around and … Shohei and Ippei are standing there looking at me. And I’m not too proud to say that I was starstruck right then. But Shohei, he just gives me this huge smile, and, in English, he says: “Hey, Lars. How’s your family?” It immediately put me at ease.
And all throughout the tournament, he was just one of the boys. In Japan, age and respect are everything. But with Shohei, even though he was a little older than some of the players on that team, he was always telling us: “Treat me like I’m the same age as you! Talk to me as an equal!” He was always wanting to just be one of the guys.
So to be that talented, and then, at the same time, that humble and kind? It really was inspiring to me. I can’t say enough good things about him. And now, I’m so proud to call him my friend.
The WBC was fun for sure. Winning the whole thing with Japan, making my family proud, experiencing a country and culture that I love, for an extended period of time? Incredible.
To all our Japanese fans reading this: I hope we made you all proud.
But now that I’m back in the States, my focus has completely shifted. I’m all-in on having the best possible season I can for the Cardinals and helping this team get back to the World Series.
I feel so fortunate to be playing in this town. For these fans. It’s gonna maybe sound weird, but in a lot of ways St. Louis reminds me of where I grew up, El Segundo. Baseball town through and through. Great people. People who go out of their way to take care of one another. But also a place where it’s like … we’re not the biggest town in the world. We’re not New York or L.A. And we’re happy about that. But we also have a bit of a chip on our shoulder, or whatever you want to call it, because we prefer what we have to what those bigger towns have going on. We wouldn’t trade what we have for anything, and yet … all anyone on the outside seems to want to do is focus on the big cities, how great they are, and all the rest of it.
And it’s like, No, thank you. I’m good here. I’ll take what I’ve got, thank you very much.
I wouldn’t trade playing in St. Louis for anything.
There’s an amazing buzz around town during baseball season. To me, this place … it’s like baseball heaven. And the people I get to work with and interact with every day, whether it’s the players, coaching staff, training staff, strength staff, the PR team, fans, you name it, everyone, they’re just second to none. I really am a very lucky man.
And that’s something I think about a lot. Like on a daily basis. Just how fortunate I am.
I mean, I make it to the big leagues in ’21, only a year after I was living with my parents and working a 5-to-3 job, and I show up and … my catcher's Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester are a few lockers down from me in the clubhouse, my third baseman is Nolan Arenado, we’ve got Paul Goldschmidt at first. Like, are you kidding me?
Then, the next year, I get to play with the legend, the Machine, Albert Pujols, and get to watch him hit his 700th. I’m like: Is this a dream? Am I dreaming right now?
People always come up to me and tell me: “It seems like you’re having fun playing the game. We always see you smiling. You seem like you’re enjoying yourself.” And I’m like….
Cuz I am! This is my dream. It always has been! Are you kidding me?
I’m having the time of my life right now.