Photo/Illutration Kumiko Enokida, Lars Nootbaar’s mother, is flanked by Yuta Shiozawa, right, and Yu Funabashi at Tokyo Dome on March 11 for Japan’s game against the Czech Republic in the World Baseball Classic. (Provided by Yuta Shiozawa)

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

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

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

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

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

However, on March 11, he found himself at Tokyo Dome sitting along with Nootbaar’s Japanese mother, Kumiko, and watching her 25-year-old son batting lead-off for Samurai Japan.

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

“I had forgotten that watching baseball was this much fun,” he said.


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

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

His host family in Southern California was 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 players to a stadium every day. On the weekend, the family took the students to Hollywood for sightseeing.

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

Nootbaar loved hanging around the Japanese players and took on the role of the team’s batboy.

He stretched and played catch 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 pitched 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.

His dashed dream was so painful that he not only retired from baseball after university, but he also severed all ties to the sport.

“I couldn’t even watch (games) with a clear mind,” he said.

However, he could not escape news about his former teammates, such as Tanaka, flourishing as professional ballplayers. Such reports filled him with mixed emotions.

While Shiozawa was continuing his life as a Tokyo Gas Co. employee with no interest in baseball, Kumiko reached out to him in January and told him about Lars, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, being picked for Samurai Japan.

“I was so surprised,” Shiozawa said.


As the opening of the WBC neared, Kumiko and Shiozawa started exchanging more messages.

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

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

“For the first time, I’ve got a player whom I genuinely want to root for,” he said.

On March 11, both Shiozawa and Funabashi were reunited with their U.S. host family—Nootbaar’s parents and sister—at Tokyo Dome.


In the fourth inning of the game, with one out, a runner on second base and facing a full count, Nootbaar singled up the middle.

After some heads-up running put him on second base, Nootbaar made the now-familiar pepper-grinding gesture, drawing further applause from the crowd.

Watching Nootbaar, the former little “batboy,” giving it his all on the big stage in front of a sold-out stadium was a profound experience for Shiozawa.

“He is quick off the mark on defense, and the balls he hits go fast,” he said of Nootbaar. “I like the look on his face, too, when he hits and rounds the bases.

“He is 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 for years avoided watching baseball, the WBC game was too short.

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

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

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

He now has a new dream.

“I want to visit the United States someday and watch a major league game. If I get to meet Lars then, I would love to play catch with him for the first time in a really long time.”