On February 23, 2020, a group of friends and I attended the inaugural home game of the Xtreme Football League’s St. Louis BattleHawks. Some of us donned merchandise sporting the logo of the new team, while other, thriftier baseball bloggers instead taped “BattleHawks” and “TA’AMU” over an old Marc Bulger St. Louis Rams #10 jersey. We rode a shuttle to the game, barking the team’s signature “KA KAW!” chant and upon drop-off, walked past what felt like a receiving line of tailgaters grilling in preparation for St. Louis’s first professional football game in fifty months. As we walked through the turnstiles, I turned to my now-ex-girlfriend (to whom I am married) and put the over/under on “(Stan) Kroenke sucks!” chants at 1.5, a mark which was obliterated before we even got to our section.
Seventeen days later, professional sports were shut down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the major American leagues have resumed play, the XFL has to this date not returned to the field, despite the best efforts of a former Miami Hurricanes backup defensive lineman. Particularly in the most arduous days of early COVID-19 lockdowns, my friends and I would reminisce about the brief history of the BattleHawks, our last glorious sports memories before the world shut down, and asked ourselves a question we had been asking even before we knew what the novel coronavirus was–is this ironic?
It was a reasonable question to ask from the beginning, though the answers became a bit murkier as time went on. It was hard to deny some level of it in the early going was–prior to its 2020 reboot, the XFL was one of the most notorious flops in the history of North American professional sports, and although the league made (and largely kept) a promise to offer a non-gimmicky, minor league but still very much competitive football experience, giving a full tailgating, merchandise-buying, earnest-roster-examining experience was admittedly a bit overboard. The role of the Rams’ ugly departure from St. Louis was undeniable in placing a chip firmly on the shoulders of the area, but the passionate (and righteous) anger towards the National Football League was absolutely not ironic. Investing emotional bandwidth in cursing the name of a multi-billionaire who does not care one iota about the pain he inflicts upon others is almost certainly a futile gesture, but that does not make the emotions which fueled BattleHawks Mania any less real.
So was St. Louis’s passion for the BattleHawks ironic? To start, no question. But the emotions of those who embraced the team, even if for no other reason than that they needed someone to embrace, were real. The emotions that reverberated through The Dome at America’s Center when Joe Powell perfectly executed a trick play to score the XFL reboot’s first ever kickoff return touchdown were real. When, thanks to unbelievable strokes of luck, I got to fraternize with Michael Sam and drink Bud Selects with Chuck Long and managed to find my way onto the fifty-yard line after the game, the joy I felt was not artificial. And by that point, as silly as the path had been, everything felt very real.
June 5, 2018 was a monumental day for Lars Nootbaar, as the twenty year-old left fielder out of the University of Southern California was drafted in the eighth round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals, who later offered Nootbaar $150,000 to forego his final season of NCAA eligibility and sign with the organization. It was also a monumental day for St. Louis Cardinals fans, particularly those extremely into the team’s farm system and those who are extremely Online, as they largely became aware that the Cardinals drafted a player whose name is Lars Nootbaar.
“Lars” itself is not an especially common given name in the United States–probably the two most famous living men named Lars in the English-speaking world, film director von Trier and Metallica drummer Ulrich, were each born in Denmark. Prior to Nootbaar, only one Lars had ever played Major League Baseball–Anderson, who had cups of coffee in three consecutive seasons in the early 2010s with the Boston Red Sox. But more than the name Lars, the name “Nootbaar” was an instant attention-grabber. The two double-vowel pairs and the sheer aesthetic joy of saying it out loud (pronounced Nute, as in rhymes with “boot”, and “bar”) were intoxicating. There is one other famous-enough-to-have-a-Wikipedia-page Nootbaar–Lars’s great-grandfather Herbert, a former Ralston Purina vice-CEO and philanthropist who is the namesake of USC’s baseball Hall of Fame, but Herbert Nootbaar, while certainly an above-average named on the strength of its surname alone, is no Lars Nootbaar.
On the afternoon Lars Nootbaar was drafted by the Cardinals, the sheer volume of replies to the Cardinals’ Twitter account simply responding “Lars Nootbaar” could fill the Library of Congress. St. Louis Bullpen’s own Alex Turpin, who as of press time had tweeted out the name “Lars Nootbaar” forty-two times, thirty-five times of which have simply been stating “Lars Nootbaar”, noted that “‘Lars Nootbaar’ sounds like a drunk Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to buy a king-size Pay day but he can’t remember what it’s called.” While the handful of prospect-knowers who were not simply riffing on his name were noting that Nootbaar was a low-ceiling prospect with limited defensive range, likely relegated forever to first base, the rest of us were not worrying, because we were simply riffing on his name. For what it’s worth, Nootbaar seems to have a good sense of humor about it–when the Cardinals interviewed him about his Twitter cult status, he laughed off the jokes as something very familiar to a man who had spent twenty-four years with his name.
Lars Nootbaar is an interesting case partially because, in many ways, he isn’t all that interesting. He sounds like he should look like Daniel Vogelbach, the strapping lad who now plays first base for the Milwaukee Brewers, partially because I have continuously confused Nootbaar with the similarly named Luken Baker, also drafted in 2018 by the Cardinals, and partially because his name actually does sound like candy. But Nootbaar is just a kind of normal baseball player. He is somewhat tall, but at 6’3″ and 210 pounds, his dimensions are not particularly notable. He has played some first base and center field, but has largely stuck to the corner outfield spots. Despite the energy of his name, Nootbaar isn’t especially a power hitter, but he has demonstrated solid plate discipline.
Even entering the 2021 season, Lars Nootbaar was not regarded as a great prospect. At 23 on Opening Day, he was hardly old but was beyond any sort of “once in a generation prospect” youth threshold. FanGraphs did not list Nootbaar among their top thirty-five Cardinals prospects. Even the most generous of lists to Nootbaar slotted him in the high teens or low twenties among Cardinals. But Nootbaar did not miss a beat upon making his AAA Memphis Redbirds debut in 2021, despite (like everybody else) missing the 2020 minor league season–in 136 plate appearances, he walked one-eighth of the time, got on base at a .404 clip, and belted six home runs for good measure. With a 140 wRC+, Nootbaar, despite a relative lack of prospect pedigree, was too good for the outfield-desperate MLB club to overlook.
In 114 plate appearances–hardly a large sample size, but also far beyond a cup of MLB coffee, too–Nootbaar has been a well-rounded hitter. He has five home runs and a double-digit walk rate, and despite a relatively low batting average on balls in play of .257, Nootbaar has been 2% above league-average at the plate this season, with good base-running and, despite two errors in the outfield, favorable marks defensively (after all, the easiest way to commit errors is to show a good ability to get to the ball). His 0.6 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement is sixteenth on the Cardinals, right behind franchise face Yadier Molina and recent bullpen revelation Luís Garcia, despite not debuting until late June. With starting right fielder Dylan Carlson battling through injuries, the Cardinals trusted Nootbaar to start two games in a row against the Chicago Cubs last weekend at Wrigley Field, and he rewarded them with a .500 batting average and 1.250 slugging percentage, headlined by two home runs in Friday night’s victory. Over the Cardinals’ sixteen-game winning streak, Nootbaar has a 144 wRC+ and has been the team’s most valuable position player not named Paul Goldschmidt, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, or Nolan Arenado.
Barring injury or the all-time September collapse of all-time September collapses, Lars Nootbaar will almost certainly appear on the Cardinals’ postseason roster as the team’s fourth outfielder, and if he gets into a game, casual baseball fans across the country will get to enjoy the same sense of discovery and whimsy that Cardinals die-hards did three-plus years ago. As with Cardinals fans, that appreciation will be ironic. But as Nootbaar actualizes into a serviceable, Allen Craig-like bench player, the artifice may be shedded sooner rather than later. And as with the St. Louis BattleHawks, that we first enjoyed Lars Nootbaar ironically because we found his name amusing may prove to simply be a strange first step into true, honest-to-God appreciation.