Baseball: Cards' Edman, Nootbaar battle in WBC as friendly rivals

When Japan and South Korea renew their storied World Baseball Classic rivalry this week in Tokyo's Pool B, both teams will be sporting a new look with an American MLB player.

Although the WBC permits nations to select any player eligible by law to apply for citizenship, this is the first time Japan and South Korea, with deep pro baseball talent bases, have looked to Americans with Asian roots for talent.

South Korea took the plunge this year by selecting 27-year-old St. Louis Cardinals middle infielder Tommy Hyunsu Edman, while Japan opted for his MLB teammate, 25-year-old outfielder Lars Taylor-Tatsuji Nootbaar, and the two friends could not be happier to be on opposing teams by representing their mothers' homelands.

"It was like making a second (MLB) debut, basically," Nootbaar said Monday, the first day tournament rules permitted MLB players in Pool B to take the field with their teams.

"It was a pretty amazing feeling, being able to do something to represent -- and do something special for -- my mom's side of the family and my mom specifically and represent Japan means a lot."

"I got the (official) call first, but he unofficially knew he was playing for team Korea before I did."

The two have been texting back and forth since joining their respective teams, and hope to get together at some point during the upcoming days in Tokyo, when their teams will compete against Australia, China and the Czech Republic for the pool's two knockout quarterfinal berths.

Edman, too, was excited to finally get to play for South Korea.

"It's been a big honor to wear "Korea" across my chest for the past two games," Edman said Tuesday after South Korea's 7-4 win over the Hanshin Tigers in the team's final warm-up in Osaka.

"I've really been anticipating this moment for the past few months and I'm really excited to be a part of the national team and very honored that they chose me."

Nootbaar began practicing with Samurai Japan when the team was playing a pair of warm-up games in Nagoya, where he was handed a Japanese nickname, "Ta-chan," and saw the entire team dressed in T-shirts with "Japan" on the front and "Ta-chan" on the back in Japanese with crossed bats and crossed Japanese and American flags.

"It was really cool, and for me, a lot of my nerves really left my body, knowing that they accepted me. I was one of them as a teammate," he said,

Nootbaar made his Japan debut alongside Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani, and new Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida.

During his first pregame batting practice, he got a firsthand taste of the Ohtani experience. Hitting in the same BP group, Nootbaar exited the cage to a huge round of applause from the Kyocera Dome Osaka crowd.

"That wasn't for me," Nootbaar said. "It was for the other guy. If I were a fan....OK, I am a fan...but if I were a fan in the stands, I'd probably be clapping, too."

Edman, who won a National League Golden Glove at second base in 2021 and split his time last season between second and short with the Cardinals, has been playing second for South Korea, alongside San Diego Padres shortstop Kim Ha Seong.

"I've watched Ha Seong play for a couple of years now in the United States and I've always admired his game. He's a very good defensive player and makes a lot of great plays, and it's been fun to play with him," said Edman, who sounded just as pleased to be playing against Nootbaar.

"It will be fun to play against my friend and teammate Lars Nootbar...It sounds like he's enjoying his time in Japan, just as I'm enjoying my time with team Korea. It will be exciting to play against him."

Nootbaar was asked if it felt strange for the two to be in opposing dugouts.

"I'm alright with it," Nootbaar said. "I get to play with him for 162 games a year, so he can be my rival for a little bit."

© Kyodo News