Not only is recent Minnesota Twins call-up Max Kepler believed to be the first person born and raised in Germany to reach the major leagues, the outfielder also is quite possibly the first major leaguer who is the son of two professional ballet dancers.
That's right -- ballet dancers. His mother, Kathy, who is from Texas, danced professionally in Berlin, where she met his father, Marek, a Polish ballet dancer. Kepler, who speaks German, Polish and English, says his parents never pushed him to follow in their footsteps (or toe shoes). For one thing, he says his height -- he is 6-foot-4 -- did not translate well into ballet.
"I'm always proud talking about my parents,'' said Kepler, 22. "[Ballet] is not easy. It was definitely something l Iooked up to them about. I wish I could dance for a living.''
Kepler may not dance -- "It's not really my sport," he says -- but he says his parents' vocation helped him in his sport anyway, partly by its focus on the importance of stretching and staying flexible, but also with perspective.
"My dad would say that in ballet the show always has to go on," he said. "And in baseball you can kind of relate to that when you have a bad day. If so, just do your best.''
Indeed, Twins European scout Andy Johnson said one of the reasons that the organization signed Kepler to an $800,000 contract -- the largest at the time for a European player -- in 2009 when he was 16, was knowing that Kepler "comes from a successful, supportive environment surrounded by people who understood how to support him and help him understand how to navigate this ultra-competitive world.''
Kepler started playing baseball as a 6 year old at John F. Kennedy School, a German-American school in Berlin. He enjoyed the way baseball was different from the other sports he played. He also gained interest in the game when he visited his relatives in the U.S. during the summer.
"My mom would push me to go to baseball games and just get out of the house,'' he said. "She wasn't pushing me to go pro and get serious about it -- she wanted me to enjoy America's national pastime.''
Of course, finding a place to enjoy and play baseball wasn't always easy in Germany. Consider the diamonds they played on. Or semi-diamonds.
"The majority of games are played on soccer fields,'' Kepler said. "We had little pitching mounds built out of wood. It was probably the worst possible playing surface, but we made it work. We had a fair share of errors because soccer fields are not meant for ground balls, but it was still fun. When I stepped on my first minor league field, it felt so different.''
So it's safe to say that Minnesota's Target Field is a step up from the fields back in Berlin.
"It's the creme de la creme. The best of the best,'' Kepler said. "Setting foot on the field for the first time, being on the field and taking batting practice and fielding ground balls, it's just amazing.''
Kepler batted .322/.416/.531 with nine home runs and 18 steals for Double-A Chattanooga this season to earn Southern League Player of the Year honors. After he helped lead the Lookouts to the league championship, the Twins called him up to the majors, though he may not play much while Minnesota fights for a wild-card spot.
Kepler isn't the first major leaguer who was raised in Germany. Donald Lutz, an outfielder in the Cincinnati Reds organization, was born in the United States but his mother moved him to Germany when he was a year old. He grew up there and began playing baseball as a teenager. Lutz, who was signed by the Reds as an amateur free agent in 2007, reached the big leagues in 2013 and became the first German-raised player to hit a home run in the majors -- but Tommy John surgery has sidelined him this year.
Kepler said baseball is growing in Germany and hopes that he and Lutz will inspire more Germans to play the game.
"I think it's got to give baseball quite a boost there,'' Kepler said, "especially if we pull through and keep making ourselves more established in the big leagues. Maybe a lot of kids will start dropping soccer and play baseball. Even though I'm a huge soccer fan -- I love it -- soccer runs that country and baseball is kind of overshadowed. I hope German kids will start picking up a baseball.''
Johnson said this is definitely a big moment for European baseball. "Anytime one of our EU boys or girls gets an opportunity like this we all feel proud,'' he said. "It takes a village, right? Why not give 'em a continent if we can?''