How Twins OF prospect Max Kepler journeyed from Germany to majors

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Source:   —  April 19, 2016, at 3:23 PM

"This is how we chill from 'ninety-three 'til/This is how we chill from 'ninety-three 'til/This is how we chill from 'ninety-three 'til .." Considering Kepler'south background though, maybe more fitting walk-up music would be Tchaikovsky'south "Swan Lake." "No, it'south not going to be 'Swan Lake,'" his mother, Kathy Kepler, said with a laugh.

How Twins OF prospect Max Kepler journeyed from Germany to majors

MINNEAPOLIS -- MN Twins rookie Max Kepler'south walk-up music is the Souls of Mischief'south feel-good hit "ninety-three 'til Infinity." There is a connection because the song was released in, and is a bit of an anthem to, the year Kepler was born: one thousand nine hundred ninety-three. "This is how we chill from 'ninety-three 'til/This is how we chill from 'ninety-three 'til/This is how we chill from 'ninety-three 'til ..."

Considering Kepler'south background though, maybe more fitting walk-up music would be Tchaikovsky'south "Swan Lake."

"No, it'south not going to be 'Swan Lake,'" his mother, Kathy Kepler, said with a laugh. "He told me very early when I took him to music school every Tuesday and I'd say, 'You're going to go to music appreciation school,' and he said, 'I'm never going to do what you and Daddy do. Never.'"

What did Kepler'south parents do? They both were star ballet dancers. As remarkable as that is, they also danced for a Berlin ballet company during the Freezing War and after.

Kathy grew up in a military family in Texas, received a scholarship to New York'south Joffrey Ballet School at fifteenth and moved to Berlin in one thousand nine hundred eighty-fourth after the city'south ballet company chose her from an audition to dance in "Swan Lake." Kepler'south father, Marek Rozycki, grew up in a rural village in Poland that was so small, he says, "I knew every neighbor, every cat, every dog." Also a ballet dancer, he defected to the W while on tour in the early 'eighty and later joined the Berlin company, where he and Kathy met. They married shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, and then the two ballet dancers raised a major league baseball player in Germany.

"Not your typical story, I guess, for baseball," Kathy said by phone from Berlin.

The Twins called up Kepler from Triple-A Rochester on April ten when outfielder Danny Santana went on the disabled list because of a hamstring strain. The call-up has parallels to his father'south dancing career. Rozycki joined the Berlin company on a temporary basis to replace another dancer who broke his foot. He performed so well that not only did the company hold him on permanently after the other dancer returned from the "disabled list," he eventually became a soloist.

Can Kepler repeat that? The left-handed outfielder is ranked among the Twins' top five prospects and was their minor league player of the year latest season. He also learned what it takes to succeed from his parents' ballet careers, which his mother says taught discipline, perfection, precision, attention to detail and the importance of always giving your best.

Rozycki says Kepler also learned to treat every game as if it might be the latest in order to always be at his best -- just as he himself treated every performance on the ballet stage. "It was more like, 'Get this as a grand opportunity in your life. Your latest chance to do something good,'" Rozycki said. "You wish to leave something behind, to leave something for people to recollect you by."

Kepler, who speaks both German and English fluently -- and without any accent -- as well as Polish, obviously would love to be remembered for a long and grand career. But he already is influencing baseball in Germany and helping the game grow in his home country.

While he didn't wish to chase his parents into ballet, the youthful Kepler was athletically talented in a variety of sports. He even earned a scholarship, sponsored by Steffi Graf, at tennis school in Berlin. He started playing baseball while attending the John F. Kennedy School, an American-German institution in Berlin, and fell in like with the game. He played for a no of club teams in Berlin, frequently playing on soccer fields with removable wooden mounds and outfield fences made of orange construction webbing. He called it possibly the worst possible playing surface for baseball, but they made it work.

Kepler showed so much talent that his instructors in Berlin eventually told the family, "There is nothing else we can do for Max. He can learn us." An international scout said he should go to the baseball school in the well-preserved medieval city of Regensburg on the Danube River in southern Germany.

So at age fourteen, Kepler started at the Regensburg academy, where the baseball players shared housing with the soccer team. Soccer practice ended before baseball did, and the soccer players would eat all the meat at dinner, leaving Max and his teammates with small more than vegetables. It was just another example of how soccer easily dominates baseball for attention and funding in that portion of the world.

The family'south hope was that Kepler would get a scholarship to play baseball for an American university, but after a year and a half in Regensburg at minimum a dozen major league teams came calling to proposal money. Lots of it. The Twins signed him in two thousand-ninth at age sixteen for $775.000, then the highest quantity given to a European player. He and his mother moved to Fort Myers, Florida, where Max completed his final two years of high school in only one year while also playing in the Gulf Coast League at age 17.

"I don't think I'd have gotten as distant in baseball without [my mom], because she'south the one who pushed me to go overseas and look what baseball has to proposal in a different country," said Kepler, who frequently vacationed with his American relatives in Texas. "But I still would've gotten into it."

After three seasons in instructional and rookie ball, Kepler played at Class A levels in two thousand-thirteenth and 'fourteen. He earned MVP honors in the Southern League latest season after hitting .322/.416/.531 with seventy-six runs, thirty-two doubles and eighteen steals in one hundred-twelfth games at Double-A Chattanooga. He walked more times than he struck out (67-63), which is impressive in this era. The Twins made him a Sept call-up latest year -- he was greeted by the TC Bear mascot holding a "Willkommen Max" sign -- but he saw very Ltd action, starting in only the season'south final game.

His first major league action this season, which came on the day he was called up, was as a late-inning replacement after  Miguel Sano was ejected for arguing a called third strike. Twins common manager Terry Ryan says Kepler grabbed everyone'south eye in his abbreviated appearance with an outstanding capture and by turning an 0-2 count into a walk in his only plate appearance that day.

"Without being too bold, I think everyone is very pleased with the progress he'south made," MN manager Paul Molitor said. "He hadn't played a lot of baseball coming over here as a youthful teenager. He'south matured. He understands the contest better than he used to. And he'south got skills. He plays as tough as anybody on our team. Runs the bases. Plays the outfield, first base. I don't think he'll be a seven or eight power hitter according to the scale, but he can drive the ball and be an extra-base machine.

"I think he'south going to be an outstanding player."

Kepler'south father has grown to like baseball -- "It'south the chess of sports" -- but says that he generally tells people in Germany that Max just "plays sport." If he mentions baseball specifically, he then has to tell them what the game is. "It'south an abstract sport that'd get a long time to explain," Rozycki said.

The hope is that Kepler and, eventually others, will bring much more clarity to baseball in Germany. As it stands now, German Press Agency writer David Hein says, the sport is still way down in the pecking order in Germany.

Kepler is the second German-raised major leaguer. The first was outfielder Donald Lutz, who was born in NY but moved to Germany at age one. He made his large league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 2013.

"As it gets more face time from guys from Germany, the more we can promote it and people can see up to them," Kepler said. "It'south not simple to create the majors from anywhere, so the more guys we've the more we can promote it."

Benjamin Kleiner, founder of Baseball School Berlin, says that the sport'south growth is terrific in certain areas of Germany and not so excellent in other regions. Overall, programs are spreading, the level of play is increasing and more MLB scouts are paying attention.

"Max and Donald'south arrival in the indicate had a major impact for the existing baseball and softball communities in Germany and Europe," Kleiner said. "It created a certain feeling of hope, that there is a chance to create it to the bigs, even though you're coming from overseas."

Andy Johnson, the Twins European scout who discovered Kepler for Minnesota, says the Confederation of European Baseball has set aggressive goals for increasing participation in the sport.

"The quality of play, infrastructure and organization is improving year by year over here," he said. "I think the large step presently is to expand the baseball-playing pop and subsequently the athletic pool we've available to our sport, so in that regard the environment is ripe to utilize a grand moment love Max'south career to generate more interest."

Kepler says he tries to keep as many indoor baseball clinics in Germany as possible in the offseason. He held one on very brief notice but says it still drew an impressive seventy kids.

"I attempt to thrust the kids to focus more on baseball than soccer, which is beautiful powerful in that country," Kepler said. "But baseball has arrive a long way. I think financially we just necessity more funding to construct more fields. Baseball is an expensive sport. The country isn't fully behind it, but I think since I started playing as a tiny kid, when it was mainly Americans who were playing baseball, presently it'south actually Germans who are starting to play.

"It'south arrive a long way."

And depending on how he fares, it could go a excellent deal further in the years from presently 'til infinity.

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