How Twins OF prospect Max Kepler journeyed from Germany to majors

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Twins rookie Max Kepler's walk-up music is the Souls of Mischief's feel-good hit "93 '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: 1993. "This is how we chill from '93 'til/This is how we chill from '93 'til/This is how we chill from '93 'til ..."

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

"No, it's 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 would 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's parents do? They both were star ballet dancers. As remarkable as that is, they also danced for a Berlin ballet company during the Cold War and after.

Kathy grew up in a military family in Texas, received a scholarship to New York's Joffrey Ballet School at 15 and moved to Berlin in 1984 after the city's ballet company chose her from an audition to dance in "Swan Lake." Kepler's 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 West while on tour in the early '80s 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 10 when outfielder Danny Santana went on the disabled list because of a hamstring strain. The call-up has parallels to his father's 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 keep 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 last 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 last in order to always be at his best -- just as he himself treated every performance on the ballet stage. "It was more like, 'Take this as a great opportunity in your life. Your last chance to do something good,'" Rozycki said. "You want to leave something behind, to leave something for people to remember you by."

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

While he didn't want to follow his parents into ballet, the young 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 love with the game. He played for a number of club teams in Berlin, often 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 teach us." An international scout said he should go to the baseball academy in the well-preserved medieval city of Regensburg on the Danube River in southern Germany.

So at age 14, 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 little more than vegetables. It was just another example of how soccer easily dominates baseball for attention and funding in that part of the world.

The family's hope was that Kepler would receive a scholarship to play baseball for an American university, but after a year and a half in Regensburg at least a dozen major league teams came calling to offer money. Lots of it. The Twins signed him in 2009 at age 16 for $775,000, then the highest amount 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 would have gotten as far in baseball without [my mom], because she's the one who pushed me to go abroad and see what baseball has to offer in a different country," said Kepler, who often vacationed with his American relatives in Texas. "But I still would have gotten into it."

After three seasons in instructional and rookie ball, Kepler played at Class A levels in 2013 and '14. He earned MVP honors in the Southern League last season after hitting .322/.416/.531 with 76 runs, 32 doubles and 18 steals in 112 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 September call-up last year -- he was greeted by the TC Bear mascot holding a "Willkommen Max" sign -- but he saw very limited action, starting in only the season's 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 general manager Terry Ryan says Kepler grabbed everyone's eye in his abbreviated appearance with an outstanding catch 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's made," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "He hadn't played a lot of baseball coming over here as a young teenager. He's matured. He understands the competition better than he used to. And he's got skills. He plays as hard as anybody on our team. Runs the bases. Plays the outfield, first base. I don't think he'll be a 7 or 8 power hitter according to the scale, but he can drive the ball and be an extra-base machine.

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

Kepler's father has grown to love baseball -- "It's the chess of sports" -- but says that he usually 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's an abstract sport that would take 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 New York but moved to Germany at age 1. He made his big 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 look up to them," Kepler said. "It's not easy to make the majors from anywhere, so the more guys we have the more we can promote it."

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

"Max and Donald's arrival in the show 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 make it to the bigs, even though you are 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 big step now is to increase the baseball-playing population and subsequently the athletic pool we have available to our sport, so in that regard the environment is ripe to use a great moment like Max's career to generate more interest."

Kepler says he tries to hold as many indoor baseball clinics in Germany as possible in the offseason. He held one on very short notice but says it still drew an impressive 70 kids.

"I try to push the kids to focus more on baseball than soccer, which is pretty strong in that country," Kepler said. "But baseball has come a long way. I think financially we just need more funding to build more fields. Baseball is an expensive sport. The country is not fully behind it, but I think since I started playing as a small kid, when it was mainly Americans who were playing baseball, now it's actually Germans who are starting to play.

"It's come a long way."

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