With a noon-hour temperature of 27 degrees and snow covering Hammons Field, it was the absolutely perfect time to talk baseball.
And if you don’t believe it, a conversation with St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar was enough to get fired up and long for those hot summer nights that really aren’t that far away.
Springfield was his favorite minor league stop
Nootbaar returned to Springfield, where he once played for the Double-A Cardinals, as part of the Cardinals Caravan on Friday. Several hundred fans lined up to get an autograph or picture from Nootbaar and pitchers Zack Thompson and Gordon Graceffo inside the Bill Rowe Training Facility at Hammons Field.
“I love this place. This was my favorite stop,” Nootbaar said of his minor-league memories, during a conversation in the dining area adjacent to the Springfield Cardinals’ clubhouse. While he spent only part of the 2019 season here, Nootbaar called it a special time in his development as a player and person.
“I was kind of the young guy on that team,” he said, noting older teammates such as Dylan Carlson and Randy Arozarena were the stars on that team. “It was fun. While it was Double-A, it felt like the big leagues. Obviously, perspective changes with time, but I had a lot of good teammates and made a lot of good friends here.”
Becoming a fan favorite in St. Louis
Nootbaar, 25, has become one of the most-popular St. Louis Cardinals since arriving at the big-league level. He played in 108 games in 2022, starting 79, and wound up with 14 home runs while finishing the year hitting leadoff for the National League Central champs.
But it was the enthusiasm, hustle and infectious smile that endeared Nootbaar to Cardinal Nation. This is a guy who truly loves the game and seems to want everyone who sees him play to know it.
Fans at Busch Stadium shouted “Noooooot” whenever he had a big hit — such as a 452-foot home run Sept. 14 against Milwaukee, the longest by a Cardinal at Busch Stadium in 2022. Pretty impressive when teammates included Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and Albert Pujols.
“The first time I was ever called ‘Noot’ was in ’21,” Nootbar recalled, of his first call-up to the big leagues. “It’s pretty cool. I’m not gonna lie, I’m like a kid. It gets me fired up every time I hear it. I don’t take this family for granted.
“It’s awesome, the city of St. Louis and all the Cardinals fans, it’s great. For them to do that, I always get super excited about it.”
Ready to ‘fight and compete’ for a job
Nootbaar has been mentioned as having an inside track on an everyday job in 2023, either in right or center field. But asked if he feels differently headed to spring training than in past years, he shook his head an emphatic no.
This is a guy who, during the minor-league shutdown in 2020 due to COVID-19 worked manual labor at an aerospace engineering company in his native southern California. He lifted and moved heavy equipment and drilled holes and did other duties for maintenance on fighter jets.
Nootbaar takes nothing for granted. You might say he heads to spring training in a few weeks with a fighter jet pilot’s mentality, with a mission to be accomplished.
“I just want to go into spring and fight and compete for a job,” he said. “I hope I never lose that. That’s my mindset. I’m just going in there with a fire under my butt and hopefully win a job.”
Learning from his superstar teammates
Nootbaar has used his time with superstar teammates like a kid in the proverbial candy shop, ready to sample all he can. He picked Pujols’ brain last season as the future first-ballot Hall of Famer rode into retirement. This offseason, he often works out with Arenado.
“All something different,” Nootbaar said of what he gleaned from Arenado, Goldschmidt and Pujols. “Nolan is the ultimate competitor. Anything he does, he wants to win. He works super hard. All three of them do. That’s the consistency between all of them.
“Albert was always in the cage and he had a plan. Goldy is more of that methodical guy. He’s not taking as many swings, but he’s working on his body or he’s watching film. He knows pitchers better than they know themselves.
“The common denominator from all of them is that hard work. It’s pretty incredible picking up things from those guys.”
Nootbaar to represent Japan in World Baseball Classic
This spring, Nootbaar hopes to be in the unique position of playing against Arenado, Goldschmidt and Cardinals pitchers Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas. That would be in the World Baseball Classic, as a member of Team Japan. Nootbaar’s mother is a native of Japan and he readily accepted an invitation to play for the team.
Qualifying rounds are set for early March with Japan playing host to a portion of the bracket in the Tokyo Dome.
“Obviously the favorites look like the Dominican and the United States. They have loaded rosters,” Nootbaar said. “Japan, I think we’re gonna be pretty good, too. I’m super excited to play in the Tokyo Dome. It’s gonna be loud, rocking and crazy — a playoff-type environment in March.
“I’m ready to get back to baseball and represent the country of Japan. My mom is super proud and excited. As a family, my family in Japan is pumped up, too.”
The final rounds would be in Miami, just before the start of the major league season. “Noot” would like nothing better than to battle his buddies.
“It seems like half their roster is Cardinals,” Nootbaar said of Team USA. “It would be fun to play against them. Any time you get to play a loaded roster like that, you want to see how you match up,” he said.
“I’m ready to get back to baseball. I have that itch.”