'Surreal moment': Nootbaar elated after meeting Ichiro

April 22nd, 2023

SEATTLE -- As a young baseball prospect and MLB hopeful growing up in Southern California, remembers the days when both his Japanese-born mother and American father owned jerseys of Ichiro Suzuki and idolized the former Mariners legend.

If all goes well over the next couple of days, the Cardinals blossoming outfielder also will own an Ichiro jersey, and this version will be autographed by the future Hall of Famer.

Fresh off helping Japan win the World Baseball Classic in March, Nootbaar got what he called one of the biggest thrills of his baseball career on Friday when he met Ichiro, who now works as a special assistant to the chairman for the Mariners. The 2001 AL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player and owner of 10 straight 200-hit MLB seasons talked with the 25-year-old Nootbaar in the outfield at T-Mobile Park before the Cardinals took on the Mariners. Nootbaar’s mother, Kumiko, idolized Ichiro throughout his 19-year MLB career, during which he played for the Mariners, Marlins and Yankees.

“I was asking him questions and he was super open and honest,” Nootbaar said of the pregame chat with the legend. “[A mutual acquaintance] was telling me if you ask him, he’s willing to answer anything. Pretty cool moment for me to be able to do that.

“I just asked him about his WBC experience, and I told him what an honor it was for me to be able to play with Japan,” Nootbaar said of Ichiro, who was a two-time WBC champion with Japan. “I told him how I didn’t want to disappoint [Japan] or a great player like him. I was asking about baseball and hitting, and it was a really surreal moment, to be honest.”

Not long after the meeting, Nootbaar had one of the clubhouse attendants at T-Mobile Park buy an Ichiro jersey from the Mariners team store. Much to his delight, Nootbaar returned to the Cardinals' clubhouse following Friday’s 5-2 loss to the Mariners and had a signed jersey waiting for him from Ichiro, who is eligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2025.

Lars Nootbaar had a signed Ichiro jersey waiting for him after Friday's game.

Said Nootbaar: “I’ve got no shame! I’ve got no shame about something like that. It’s Ichiro Suzuki! I’m not going to pass up that opportunity.”

Nootbaar also didn’t miss a chance to pepper Ichiro -- a career .311 hitter with 3,089 career MLB hits and the winner of 10 Gold Glove Awards -- with questions as to the advice that might help him improve his own game. In addition to a memory of a lifetime, Nootbaar said he came away with some practical advice he plans to put into play right away. Nootbaar, who missed nearly three weeks with a thumb injury, came into Friday hitting .231 with a home run, three RBIs and an on-base percentage of .565 because of his high walk rate.

“I asked him stuff about defense and baserunning and about any other advice that he would give me,” he said. “He told me to always play with a still head and a still heartbeat. That’s the way he played, and he was always under control. He was telling me, ‘If you play under control, you will react better.’ I was just asking as many questions as I could and trying to soak in as much as I could in that short amount of time.”