Max Kepler, the German Baseball Player Who Spurned Soccer for MLB Dreams

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2015

FORT MYERS, FL- FEBRUARY 28: Max Kepler #67 of the Minnesota Twins looks on against the Boston Red Sox during a spring training game on February 28, 2014 at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

The most middling players in Europe's top soccer leagues are guaranteed transformational wealth, supermodel girlfriends and unrivaled celebrity.

A sea of people stacked five deep around the entrance to a nightclub will part ways for one of its soccer stars to enter. Restaurant reservations will be honored—so long as a player doesn't show up unannounced. It's a utopia for most European men that few get to enjoy and nearly all envy.

And most find out if they've won this genetic lottery before their teenage years.

While the offer of a scholarship to a prepubescent seventh-grader makes the college football faithful gasp in this country, European professional clubs already have snagged soccer phenoms by that age to play in their youth academies. So coveted is the opportunity to be selected into the youth academy of a known professional club that children around Europe move great distances for the chance.

Max Kepler was fortunate to be one of the few. And one of the fewer who didn't even have to move. In his hometown of Berlin, he was a goalie for the youth academy of Hertha BSC, one of the storied clubs in Germany's famed Bundesliga.

Hertha BSC is known for graduating youth talent to top leagues across Europe. Kepler was thought to be so athletic he even played some attacking positions as a reserve. In his early teens, Kepler was a prodigy. Then, suddenly, he veered off the path.

Photo credit: Mark Meeks and Todd Norris

If he lived in any number of other countries, the idea of abandoning soccer wouldn't inspire shock. Most would understand that a number of sports would suit someone as athletically gifted as Kepler.

But not in Europe. Especially not in Germany, where other athletic endeavors are barely given a passing glance. The move was as much a head-scratcher to his envious classmates as it was to his Polish-born father.

Kepler gave up his country's favorite pastime for that of another: At 15 years old, he ditched soccer for baseball.

"Soccer is the No. 1 sport in Germany," Kepler said. "Baseball was barely poking its head out the window at the time.

"Being one of the best [soccer players] in my school, people frowned about it and they were just surprised that I would take baseball which is kind of a long jump."

He has landed squarely, though, as one of the most promising players in the Minnesota Twins' minor league system. This past season, at 22, he won the Southern League MVP for the Twins' Double-A affiliate Chattanooga Lookouts, hitting .322 with an on-base percentage of .416 and slugging .531.

Kepler led the Lookouts to the Southern League Championship, beating the Biloxi Shuckers in the decisive fifth game on Monday. Shortly after that game, Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Kepler had been called up by the Twins—a move that has been expected for weeks.

FORT MYERS, FL- MARCH 05: Max Kepler #67 of the Minnesota Twins takes batting practice prior to the game against the Baltimore Orioles on March 5, 2014 at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

But unlike soccer, he wasn't destined for a career in baseball. Baseball didn't provide him the same clear-cut opportunities. He had to seek out a foggy, much less direct road to pursue his baseball dream. A lack of competition puts European baseball players at a predisposed disadvantage. Getting noticed by scouts would be a long shot.

Kepler's parents are both ballet dancers who moved to Germany to chase their own profession. His father successfully imparted his love for soccer onto his son.

But it didn't deter Kepler's passion for baseball, introduced to him by his American-born mother. With few leagues competitive enough to help Kepler develop as a high school player, his mother canvassed the country for better opportunities in the sport.

She found a league in Bavaria, a city far from Berlin in the southeastern part of the country. Playing in Bavaria meant having to attend a boarding school. It meant having to give up playing in the Hertha youth academy. But it also meant the opportunity to play in a league that had connections to the United States.

Kepler dominated. But the competition was substandard. In the United States, top high school players can face each other in the Area Code Games and AAU baseball. The top college talent has the wood bat Cape Cod League.

The best pitcher Kepler faced in Germany threw 85 miles per hour. But on a given weekend of games, it was more likely he would see 75.

If Kepler were to advance in the game, he would need to travel to the United States.

"People were telling me about going abroad and playing ball in the states, which I never heard of," Kepler said. "It kind of got me thinking: I want to go abroad and see what another country has to offer."

The signing wasn't some flyer by a Twins organization looking to bolster its minor league system. Kepler's raw ability was apparent to every scout who watched him. Soon, word of his prowess circulated among baseball evaluators.

His 6'4" frame was suited to play multiple positions in the field, but with his speed and range, the Twins cast him primarily as a center fielder. To top it all off, he's a lefty.

Kepler had offers from some 15 major league franchises, but he finally settled on the Twins—signing for a European-record bonus of $800,000. The windfall wouldn't secure his future in perpetuity, but the investment by the Twins meant one thing for sure: a chance. So, it appeared, by 17 years old, baseball hadn't led him entirely astray.

He moved to the United States and finished his final semester of high school before entering the Twins' minor league system. Bereft of an accent, Kepler speaks English with a Midwestern sensibility—humble, deliberate and honest. He also had spent time in Texas. So unlike other foreign-born baseball players, navigating rural America's minor league system wasn't a cultural challenge.

But the workmanlike nature of the minor leagues stood in stark contrast to the fast-tracked world of professional soccer. Had all gone according to plan, Kepler would have signed a professional contract by 17. Development in baseball is much more of a process.

Photo credit: Brian McLeod

Really, Kepler had no choice but to embrace it. Patience was paramount for both Kepler and the Twins. Current manager Paul Molitor, who was the Twins' minor league base running coach and infield coordinator during Kepler's first three seasons in the system, called him "raw." He wasn't looked upon as an immediate-impact guy even at the lowest levels.

The goal of any player is to react more and think less. Players in baseball-immersed countries enter the minors with a working knowledge of the game, allowing them to do just that. But growing up in Germany, Kepler couldn't turn on the television and watch baseball. He couldn't walk down the street and take fielding practice with friends. And finding a batting cage was a bit of a challenge. Kepler wasn't exposed to the myriad situations in this uber situational sport.

"It's been a little bit of a different developmental curve for him both in terms of his own and competing with players he probably never saw the likes of back home," Molitor said. "He's begun to figure it out."

An elbow injury in 2013 derailed his development and kept him out for about two months. The injury has caused some to believe long term he is a first baseman. But Molitor said his intentions are to play Kepler in the outfield, where his speed is a defensive asset.

Spending 2013 and 2014 in the Arizona Fall League helped Kepler's development tremendously, and this year he has hit for career highs in average, on-base percentage, slugging, RBI (21) and triples (13). He is a solid four-tool player, working on a fifth—his power.

Kepler hit only nine homers this season and said he is focused on rounding out his game by adding that element. For any wannabe slugger, that means pulling the ball early in the count.

But even without that slugger's mentality, Kepler has impressed the Twins brass and teammates alike. Molitor said he has a "major league sound to his bat."

Pitcher Tyler Duffey, a reliever with the Twins who played with Kepler in Minnesota's system, likened him to Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. Similarly, stories of profound athleticism followed Hamilton until his major league debut in 2007.

"He's really been blessed as an athlete in general but more so as a baseball player," Duffey said. "Everything is smooth too. It doesn't look like he's going balls to the wall even though he is.

"I think he could have played any sport he wanted to. I guess the Twins are lucky he played baseball."

Kepler may, in fact, have played his finals days of minor league baseball. He may leave spring training with the Twins in 2016, which very likely could be a one-way trip to the big leagues.

Performing well with the Twins amid a wild-card race would help Kepler's cause in 2016, when he is expected to compete for a spot on the major league roster. Kepler is well aware of the talk that surrounds his budding career.

"It's tempting to go on Twitter and look into it," Kepler said, amid the Lookouts' playoff run. "But most of the time I just try to focus on the stuff going on down here."

Kepler's popularity began growing in Minneapolis weeks ago. Ask around Target Field and many know the name, some even the face. It seems Kepler chose the sport that, all along, he was meant to play.

Seth Gruen recently spent four years at the Chicago Sun-Times covering a variety of sports, including baseball. Before that, he served as the Northwest Herald's Cubs and White Sox beat writer.

Feel free to follow and talk sports with Seth at his Twitter account, @SethGruen.


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