The Nootbaar brand is strong in Japan

May 8th, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- Lars Nootbaar’s first indication that life would change forever in terms of his baseball popularity came in March, when he tried being a tourist while out briefly in Tokyo, looking to quench a curiosity.

Nootbaar, then a member of the Japanese national baseball team that was preparing to play in the World Baseball Classic, had read in a travel guide that 7-Eleven convenience stores in Japan serve full meals. The happy-go-lucky, 25-year-old Nootbaar had to see it for himself to believe it, so he tried making the short walk to the store that was just across the street from the hotel.

What followed was shocking to Nootbaar, someone who can easily visit his boyhood home of El Segundo, Calif., and his adopted baseball home of St. Louis without being recognized very often. Nootbaar had played just two exhibition games in Japan, but already his celebrity status had reached mega-star levels.

“After the first couple of exhibition games, there wasn’t much walking around,” recalled Nootbaar, who had a popular ramen restaurant in Japan name a noodle order after him. “I tried to go to that 7-Eleven, and it just didn’t work out too well. It was a half-hour ordeal just to walk across the street. Autographs, pictures, selfies -- there were fans everywhere. I had no real reason to go over there, and I just wanted to be a tourist for a little bit. It ended up being a much longer trip than I ever expected.”

Nootbaar, a promising young player with the Cardinals but otherwise a relatively anonymous pro athlete, is hoping to cash in on his newfound fame in Japan after helping the baseball-crazed nation go undefeated en route to winning the Classic title. Not only did Nootbaar drive in a run in the title game victory over the U.S. and become friends quickly with megastar Shohei Ohtani, but he also introduced his “pepper grinder” celebration to the squad, and the craze quickly swept the nation.

Since the Classic victory, Nootbar’s agent, Nick Chanock, has been flooded with offers to have the fresh-faced and smiling slugger promote a variety of Japanese-based goods. Also, there are dozens of speaking engagements and autograph-signing opportunities that will come over the winter, when Nootbaar is expected to visit Japan.

“I think it has the potential to get into seven figures,” said Chanock, the executive vice president of Wasserman’s baseball division. “[Paul Goldschmidt] was giving it to Lars in the clubhouse, saying, ‘Who is paying you more this season: the Cardinals or the Japanese marketing people?’

“There are two or three more [commercials] coming down the pike, but we’ve had to delay a lot of them because we didn’t want to inundate Lars. We’ve already taken up a few of his off-days with shoots. We have a couple of things on hold because he physically doesn’t have the time.”

Nootbaar’s first commercial, for Zoff eyewear, was filmed in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, and Nootbaar’s Japanese-born mother, Kumi, appeared in the ad. Nootbaar said his whole reason for playing in the Classic was to honor his mother’s heritage.

“To be able to add my mom in the commercial was really the coolest part, because at the end of the day, I’m still a mama’s boy,” said Nootbaar, who recently earned a social media follow from famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa.

While he is understandably leery of overexposing himself and potential distractions from his job as Cardinals outfielder and leadoff hitter, Nootbaar also has a line of signature protein bars named “In-Bar Daisuki” that recently hit Japanese stores. The confectionery company he partnered with, Morinaga, recently filmed a video game-based commercial airing now that allowed Nootbaar to show off his affable, silly side.

“That one is more of a fun shoot and a less serious commercial,” said Nootbaar, who is hitting .297 with two homers and nine RBIs entering Monday. “My acting isn’t real acting and it’s just me joking around. That makes it more natural for me.”

As for Nootbaar’s baseball future in Japan, he hopes to visit there in the offseason, potentially shoot more commercials and hopefully play for the country again in 2026, when it tries to defend its Classic title.

“Shohei gave me a little gift, and he said if I’m not back [with Japan] or I’m with any other country, then he’ll take the gift back,” Nootbaar said of the custom-made watch he received. “With that, I gave him a handshake agreement I’d play for Japan in 2026.”