By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
It was a good three hours before game time, but the visitors’ dugout was a scrum of activity. A battalion of microphones, TV cameras and reporters’ ears were trained on the man of the moment, Albert Pujols, who sat on the precipice of baseball immortality.
Seated in relative calm near the bat rack, Lars Nootbaar watched with a mix of pride and awe.
“What he’s doing, it’s unbelievable,” said Nootbaar, the alumn of El Segundo High School and USC who is now in his second season in the majors. “He’s a great teammate, a better man. He handles it all so well, and it’s hard to imagine to do it for 22 years the way he has. It’s impressive, hard to believe, but that’s Albert.”
The day grew more impressive, as Pujols hit two home runs in the game, becoming only the fourth player in history to reach 700 in a career.
For the 25-year-old Nootbaar, it is the latest amazing event in what has been a thrilling couple of seasons. He now finds himself among the most popular players on the Cardinals, as they head into the postseason.
“This is the dream, this is what you always want as a kid,” he said.
It hasn’t been all applause and star moments, not by a long shot. After his call-up in July of last year, Nootbaar has had his struggles as he acclimates himself to big-league pitching. There have been several bounces between Triple-A Memphis and the majors, and he’s learning every step of the way.
“It’s definitely tough,” he said, citing the guidance of teammates like Pujols, Yadier Molina, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt. “Those guys definitely make it easier. I can pick up on and learn from things they’ve done, and had a lot of success doing, so leaning on those guys is huge.”
Being very local to L.A. meant a healthy contingent of friends and family in the stands for the series at Dodger Stadium. His parents, Charlie and Kumi, as well as sister Nicole were beaming when Lars was announced and his face was shown on the huge stadium screens.
“All through his time in college and the minors, I never got nervous, but seeing him here, I got chills” said Charlie Nootbaar, who was a masterful batter in his playing days at Blair High in Pasadena. “It’s really tough, not only getting to the big leagues, but it’s so hard to stay up.
“Lars had a pretty terribly forst half of the season, so he was sent back to Memphis, but he’s made the adjustments, he got back here, and he’s really making the most of this opportunity.”
The young Nootbaar has certainly made an impact as the Cardinals raced toward the NL Central Division title and the postseason. Heading into games Monday, he’s batting .227 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI. During the recent three matchups against the Dodgers, he had five hits, including a home run.
One of the early Nootbaar legends that has taken flight concerns a certain spice utensil. When the team is rallying or someone hits a home run, it’s normally Nootbaar who leads the cheer, rubbing his fists atop one another in a “pepper grinder” motion.
Nootbaar explained to a local St. Louis TV station that the whole pepper show began with teammate Andrew Kizner talking about how the hot mid-summer weather can make the daily work of a baseball a real grind.
“He was talking about griding out good at-bats, team at-bats, stuff like that, and it’s kind of run off and taken a life of its own,” he said.
The gesture has become so popular that someone sent an actual wooden pepper grinder to the team that can be seen in their dugout, and it’s usually Nootbaar who manages to grab it immediately following a Cardinals home run.
At least one online auction has popped up, offering Nootbaar-signed pepper grinders.
The playoffs got underway Friday, with the Cardinals hosting the Philadelphia Phillies, and the San Diego Padres taking on the Mets in New York.
Once the season ends, Nootbaar will be able to devote a bit of brain power to a few other topics. If he chooses to join next year’s World Baseball Classic tournament, he would eligible to play for either the U.S. or Japan, his mother’s home country.
Another project on the possible horizon is a marketing plan the likes of which baseball hasn’t seen in decades – a player-themed candy bar.
Given the syntax of his name – home fans join in the call of “Nooooot” when he takes the field – it’s kind of a no-brainer, but nothing has been finalized on that front.
“We’ll see,” he said with broad grin, “There’s some stuff in the works, but nothing official just yet.”
Rafu Shimpo photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS