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Twins' Max Kepler leading baseball's charge into Europe

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Kepler, Cervenka leading charge to grow baseball in Europe (2:13)

European-born baseball players Max Kepler and Martin Cervenka share their unique journeys, with Kepler being the face of the game's latest expansion into Europe. (2:13)

It's a beautiful day for baseball.

A sellout crowd of 39,913 fills up Target Field on a late May Sunday to take advantage of the all-too-rare sunshine and watch the hometown, first-place Minnesota Twins play the Chicago White Sox. The vibes are particularly festive in Sections 134-136, which are a stone's throw away from a beer garden and a baseball toss away from the right fielder, Max Kepler.

"They love Max out here," an usher says. "He's been playing great, but most innings, he also throws balls into the stands at the end of his warm-ups. He's very good at spreading them out. I'm seeing more and more Kepler 26 jerseys. [pause] He's especially popular with the young girls."

Playing in the hometown of General Mills, the 26-year-old Kepler seems to have stepped off a box of Wheaties. But his popularity is not strictly based on his good looks and Adonis-like physique (6-foot-4, 220 pounds.). He's a complete ballplayer, fast and tenacious enough to bat leadoff, powerful enough to be among the team leaders in home runs and RBIs, and graceful enough to be considered one of the best right fielders in baseball. (As of this writing, he has 19 homers, 51 RBIs, an OBP of .351 and an OPS of .928. He just missed the cut for AL outfielders in the All-Star Game voting.)

"We drove all the way from Sioux Falls to see him," says Haley Beckstrand, 14, who's wearing her Kepler 26 shirt and sitting between her parents in the right-field seats after their four-hour drive from South Dakota. "He's a great player. And he has such a cool story. He's from Germany! And his parents were ballet dancers!"

She's right. Max's mother, Kathy Kepler, is from Texas, and his father, Marek Rozycki, is from Poland, and they met at a barre -- namely, the Berlin Ballet Company. Their son's given name is Max Kepler-Rozycki, but at the beginning of his odyssey to the major leagues, they realized the name wouldn't fit on the back of his jersey. So every time Kepler comes to bat at Target Field, the name under his profile on the center-field scoreboard reads ROZYCKI.

It's a tribute not only to his father's Polish heritage but also to the Twins, who took a chance on signing him 10 years ago, when he was playing baseball for a sports academy in Regensburg, Germany, and then patiently waited for him to catch up to his more experienced teammates from places such as Florida, Indiana, California, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

It's a subtle reminder that the game of baseball had its origins across the pond, to whence it will return on June 29 and 30 (Sunday at 10 AM ET, on ESPN), when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox play at London Stadium in the first MLB games played in Europe.

Max is not the first European to play for the Twins; Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven was born in Zeist, Holland. "Yes, but I left there when I was 2," says Blyleven, now an analyst on Twins telecasts. "I'm just glad we found him. He's a great German export."

Nor is Max the only European playing in the majors. Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius was born in Amsterdam, though he learned the game after moving to Curacao at the age of 5. Pirates reliever Dovydas Neverauskas, who bounces back and forth between Pittsburgh and its Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, is from Lithuania, a country whose claim to baseball fame has heretofore been confined to the story of Eddie Waitkus. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, Waitkus was a first baseman for the Chicago Cubs in 1949 when an obsessed admirer shot him. He not only survived but also inspired the novelist Bernard Malamud to write that great American novel, "The Natural."

There are more Europeans in the pipelines of the minors. Martin Cervenka, from Prague in the Czech Republic, is a rifle-armed catcher for the Orioles' Double-A affiliate, the Bowie BaySox. He occasionally runs into another European in the Eastern League, New Hampshire Fisher Cats catcher Alberto Mineo, who is from a small town near Gorizia, Italy, on the border with Slovenia. There is also a shortstop for the French national baseball team who has raised the eyebrows of European scouts: Melissa Mayeux of Le Barcares, France. She has been in the United States the past two years playing softball for Miami-Dade College and will continue to play softball for University of Louisiana-Lafayette next fall, but she hopes to resume her baseball career someday.

"The challenge is to create 'social permission' in countries where there are other, more ingrained sports like basketball or soccer. Max is doing that the way Yao Ming made basketball more popular in China." Jim Small, MLB's Senior VP for International

There are currently more than 20 Europeans under contract with major league teams, including players from Russia, Moldova, Spain, France, Germany, Lithuania, Italy and the Netherlands.

The exploration for talent in Europe and Africa, as well as other untapped regions, is particularly fascinating because it seems to combine the Old World wisdom of scouting with the New World emphasis on analytics. Baseball executives are unfolding their scouting maps the way they've been opening up their minds.

The game is moving quickly. When Kepler signed with the Twins back in 2009, shortstops always played on the left side of the infield, starters were expected to go at least five innings, if not the distance, and lineups were shaped by the time-honored tradition of speed on top of the order, power in the middle and hope at the bottom. The other day, Mike Mordecai, the manager of the Fisher Cats and a 12-year major league veteran infielder, pondered the changes while sitting in his office at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester, New Hampshire:

"If Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson came back today and saw the game, they might not recognize it. They would say, 'What the hell?' to the defensive shifts or the relievers starting games. But you know what? If you told them that there's a right fielder from Germany or a pitcher from Lithuania or a catcher who's from Italy, they might actually like that. They would see that the national pastime has gone global."

As part of the festivities for the Yankees-Red Sox series, MLB will be hosting the Elite European Development Tournament in Slough, England. "We've invited 91 players in all," says Bill Holmberg, MLB's pitching coordinator for Europe and Africa. "They come from places you would never associate with baseball: Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Belarus. ... Some of them are real prospects. We've got a few pitchers 6-foot-7 and above. If we put the best of them together, we might beat a very good American college team."

Baseball in Europe has become a major priority for MLB. It hosts an annual Arizona Classic showcase that brings European players to the attention of scouts and college coaches. There are numerous two-week Cadet Camps in Europe for promising younger players, as well as regular coaching development clinics. Across the Atlantic, fan interest in baseball is expanding along with the talent. Viewership of MLB games averages 200,000 per game -- double what it was five years ago, according to Jim Small, MLB's senior vice president for international.

"Having heroes like Max Kepler is huge for us. They're the fertilizer that will help us continue to grow the sport," Small said. "We're not where we want to be, but when you consider where we once were in Europe, we're definitely making progress. The challenge is to create 'social permission' in countries where there are other, more ingrained sports like basketball or soccer. Max is doing that the way Yao Ming made basketball more popular in China.

"What we also have over there are some fantastic ambassadors for the sport. There's a man in the Czech Republic named Jan Bagin, whom I first met in 1992, right after the Velvet Revolution. He was literally harassed for bringing an American sport to Prague. Policemen would pull him over, shatter his taillight and then ticket him for having a busted taillight. He took us to a garbage dump and declared, 'This is my "Field of Dreams."' We thought he was crazy. But you know what? There is now a beautiful cloverleaf of baseball diamonds on that land."

The fall of the Iron Curtain also provides a distant backdrop to the story of the Twins' surprising rise in the standings some 30 years later.

It all started when one dancer from the Berlin Ballet stopped to fix the bike of another. As chronicled in a delightful 2016 story by Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Marek came to Kathy's rescue, and she offered to fix him dinner in gratitude. The daughter of a U.S. Army intelligence officer stationed in Texas, Kathy left home at 15 to dance for the renowned Joffrey Ballet Company in New York, then moved to Berlin at 17. Marek, too, sacrificed for his art, defecting from Poland while on tour in Italy, then finding asylum in West Berlin. They married in 1990, one year before the Wall came down, and Max was born in 1993, two years before his sister, Emma.

It was while on vacation in Texas when he was 3 that Max learned to play baseball. "It was on my parents' front lawn that Opa [Max's grandfather] introduced Max to the game," Kathy says. "Three years later, they gave him a Derek Jeter Yankee uniform, and while he grew out of it pretty quickly, he insisted on wearing the pants as the elastic crept up his legs, going from the popular length to old school. Eventually, I had to sew on extensions."

His parents pretty quickly discovered that Max was an athlete, gifted at skiing, swimming, soccer, golf and tennis (he was invited to attend Steffi Graf's tennis academy when he was 7). Emma, too, had her parents' athletic genes, eventually gravitating toward golf. But the kids were also raised to appreciate the discipline and poise that go into performing before an audience. "I remember waiting in the wings for them," Max says. "It gave me a respect for their art."

"Did Max tell you that?" Kathy says when told that Max remembers waiting offstage for his parents. "I have to laugh. First of all, by the time he was old enough to remember something like that, I was no longer actively performing, and Marek was doing just character roles. Second of all, the only ballet Max really liked was "Romeo and Juliet" because there was sword fighting. He would get so bored during performances that he would pull the seat numbers off the backs of chairs. I found that out when I saw a bunch of them scattered in our car."

His parents enrolled Max in the John F. Kennedy School in Berlin and signed him up for club baseball teams above his age level. But even playing with older players wasn't challenging enough. "I'm afraid I got bored," he says, "and I started acting up. Nothing terrible -- just bratty behavior."

That's when Andy Johnson saw him. Johnson had been an infielder for Hamline University in St. Paul and a part-time groundskeeper at the Metrodome. He went overseas to play ball, married a Norwegian woman he met while playing in Australia and contacted the Twins to see if they might want a European scout. As it happened, they did. From his home base in Oslo, Norway, he traveled the world for scouting director Mike Radcliff.

Johnson now coaches the Norwegian national team when he isn't working for Schlumberger, an oil exploration company, or raising his two young sons ("Both bat left, throw right") with wife Hege. Thinking back on his days as a Twins scout, he says, "It wasn't a lot of money, but it was a great job. We took pride in being first to the park, and the last ones to leave ... and staying in the cheapest hotels."

One day, while scouting a tournament in Germany, Johnson noticed this tall 14-year-old sprinting to first base. "That was Max. He was playing for a team that wasn't very good, lower caliber than an American high school JV team. But you could see his athleticism right away. I made him what we call a 'follow' and tracked his progression."

On the advice of others and because of their instincts and experience, Kathy and Marek enrolled Max in the St. Emmeran Academy in Regensburg, a medieval city in the Bavarian Alps that happens to be the home of the Kepler Museum, named for astronomer Johannes Kepler. In other words, it was a poetic place to discover a star. "Very impressive place," Johnson says. "Indoor facilities, great fields, dorm along the third-base line."

Two other Twins scouts, Glen Godwin and international cross-checker Howard Norsetter, were also high on Kepler. "I'm a big believer in makeup," Norsetter says, "and the first time I saw him play, I was struck by how much fun he was having out there. The same kind of joy I saw in Cory Koskie and Justin Morneau and David Arias, who became better known as David Ortiz."

But other teams were after Kepler as well. The Reds, Indians, Red Sox and Yankees were among his pursuers. Imagine being 16 years old, playing baseball in Bavaria, and suddenly all these major league teams come a-courting, trying to outbid and undercut one another. Imagine being his parents. "Kathy and Marek understood the journey Max would be embarking on," Johnson says, "because they had left home at an early age to pursue their dreams. They were not going to let him fail without one helluva fight."

"Teams were offering a lot of money," Norsetter says, "but it came down to a matter of trust. They trusted Andy, he trusted them, and the Twins trusted our reports."

By then, the family had retained Paul Cobbe as Max's agent. "I had called his agency to get some advice on how to deal with scouts," Kathy says. "Paul flew out to Regensburg from California, and he's been there for us ever since."

On July 11, 2009, Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff signed the untested 16-year-old from Germany as an undrafted free agent for $775,000, the most money ever offered to a player from the continent. Says Johnson, "When I first heard the amount, I remember being shocked for about three seconds, and then I thought, 'I'm comfortable with that number.' It was the work we did early, the history we had on him and the understanding of his background that gave us the confidence to make that investment." That and the money the scouts had saved the team on lodging.

For their part, the Kepler-Rozyckis made their own investment. Kathy moved with Max to Fort Myers, Florida, where he began his apprenticeship at the Twins' baseball complex, while Marek stayed behind in Berlin with Emma. Because Max hadn't finished high school, Kathy first enrolled her A-student in a local private school, but the workload wasn't conducive to his day job, so she transferred him to South Fort Myers High, which was right across the street from the Twins' facilities. "After his schoolwork was done, he would ride over to the complex on his bike," Kathy says. "He was always a little late, so they would tease him. But they were really very nice to him."

It helped that Kathy often cooked meals for the players, a rookie class that included current Twins Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano and Kyle Gibson. (Nowadays, when Gibson is on the mound and Sano, Polanco and Kepler are all in the lineup, Kathy can claim that her lasagna helped sustain 40% of the team on the field.) She also worked part time for the Census Bureau on a schedule that allowed her to watch Max's games. "The only people in the stands were scouts and this mystery woman," she says. "Eventually, they warmed up to me." She wanted to make sure Max was happy with his decision -- and help him get his driver's license. After 18 months, she returned home to Berlin, knowing Max could handle himself.

Life is one thing; baseball is another. Without the depth of experience that his teammates had, Kepler struggled the first few years. He hit only one home run in his first two seasons in the Gulf Coast League and the Appalachian League. "I had my doubts early on," he says. "A lot of doubts. But I also had this great support system that kept reminding me to be positive, that told me not to quit." Included in that support system was his roommate and teammate, Polanco, who taught Kepler about the baseball he learned in the Dominican. Max helped Jorge with the English he had learned in Germany.

Slowly but surely, the numbers began to reflect what the scouts saw in Kepler. In 2015, after hitting .322 with 54 extra-base hits in 112 games for Chattanooga, he made his major league debut on Sept. 27, striking out in a pinch-hit appearance. After 30 games in Triple-A Rochester in 2016, he came up to stay, hitting 17 homers before season's end.

Now it's the family waiting in the wings for Max. They watch his games religiously on DAZN, no matter the hour. "You can tell when the Twins are on the West Coast by the shadows under our eyes," says Kathy, who became a physical therapist. Marek, who teaches ballet, is particularly good at waking just in time to catch Max's at-bats. The family also makes trips to the States to follow Max. "New York and Boston are very interesting," Kathy says. "The fans know everything about Max, and they can get a little nasty. At one point, Emma lunged at a guy, and I had to pull her back."

Also following along are Johnson and Norsetter, who is now the Pacific Rim cross-checker for the Phillies. "I feel two kinds of pride," he says. "One is internal: 'Yeah, we got it right.' The other is external, the kind you might feel for your kid: 'Way to go, Max.'"

The Twins finished a distant second to the Indians in the AL Central last year, and the brain trust decided to change managers, firing Paul Molitor and giving Rays coach Rocco Baldelli his first job as a major-league skipper. Kepler returned home to Berlin to be with family and serve as a baseball ambassador for German youth. When he came back to Minneapolis in January for FanFeast, Baldelli presented Max with an idea: make him the leadoff hitter.

"No, he's not the conventional hitter who steals bases," Baldelli says. "But I liked having a left-handed impact hitter at the top of the order, someone who would present a problem for pitchers right from the start. Plus, he hasn't yet reached his full potential. He was only going to get better, and so were we." The Twins also showed faith in Kepler by signing him to a five-year, $35 million contract with an option for a sixth year. As chance and family would have it, Emma will be moving to Minneapolis for the fall semester of the University of Minnesota's acting program. It looks like Kathy and Marek will have two children on stage in October.

Martin Cervenka is where Max Kepler was in 2015, which is to say Double-A. Behind the plate, Cervenka boasts size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and a strong arm that makes the 26-year-old an intriguing prospect for the Orioles. He made the Eastern League All-Star team for Bowie last year, hitting .258 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs, but this year, he has been scuffling and dealing with injury.

If Cervenka does happen to be called up, he will be the first from the current Czech Republic, though there have been a few from Czechoslovakia, most notably and recently outfielder Elmer Valo (1940-61).

Martin, who grew up in Prague, says, "My older brother, Marek, and I learned the game from my father, Filip, who learned it from his father. We just fell in love with baseball, and Marek was a pitcher, and I became the chytac, a catcher."

Peter Gahan, a part-time scout for the Indians who now coaches in Australia, first spotted Cervenka, as well as Kepler, in 2008 at the MLB Academy in Italy. "Besides size, he had intelligence, assertiveness, humility and a work ethic," Gahan says. "Later in the year, I met with his parents and was very impressed. I convinced them to let us take him to the Australian Academy to face better pitching and learn English. I came to regret the move, though, a few years later when Martin caught Marek for the Czech team that beat our U21 team."

The Indians released Cervenka after the 2017 season. But he was still an intriguing prospect. The Giants signed him, then lost him in the Rule V draft to the Orioles. BaySox hitting coach Keith Bodie is one of his biggest champions. "When I was managing against him in the Carolina League, I recommended we trade for him," Bodie says. "You just need a lot of patience with European players. His numbers last year are more indicative of what he's capable of."

He also calls a good game. But when the other catcher calls for a breaking ball, he has a problem. What's not subject to skepticism, though, is Cervenka's determination. He's now on the injured list with a broken rib sustained when he was hit by a pitch. Says Adam Pohl, the Baysox broadcaster and publicity manager, "He played a week before getting it X-rayed. Tough guy."

That's why Cervenka wasn't playing when he recently ran into his old friend, Alberto Mineo, when the BaySox visited the Fisher Cats the first week in June. "Oh, yes, we've played against each other many times," Mineo says, "in the European championships and the Midwest League."

At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, the 24-year-old Mineo is somewhat smaller than Cervenka. Other than being catchers in a strange land, they have two other things in common. They both love American baseball movies, which makes their "Bull Durham"-esque lives a little more familiar. And they both learned the game from their fathers.

"We lived in a little town outside of Gorizia called Ronchi Dei Legionari," Mineo says. "I'm not sure why, but baseball has been played in our town for generations. I started playing when I was 5, and by the time I was 8, I knew I wanted to be a catcher. I know all about the great Italian-American catchers like Yogi Berra and Joe Torre and Mike Piazza."

Bill Holmberg, a scout for the Cubs at the time, discovered Mineo when he was 15. "I liked the way he handled himself and his pitchers," Holmberg says. "He was both a leader and a good teammate. He was also a left-handed hitter, and teams are always looking for left-handed-[hitting] catchers."

Who knows? Maybe someday fans will see him in Toronto. "He's got a chance to make it," Holmberg says. "I let my catchers run the game, and I like what I see there. He's got a little pop. He's a little hard on himself, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It means he wants to get better."

"They might come from different countries, but what I see in Alberto and Cervenka and Kepler is a common character. They have what baseball people value most in players. They're hard workers. They're grinders."

Let's return for a moment to that last Sunday in May at Target Field. Max Kepler loves his ballet-dancing parents, but his walkup music is not exactly "The Dance of the Little Swans." It's "Yosemite," a track off rapper Travis Scott's "Astroland" album that starts with these lines:

Ice on my neck, flawless baguettes

Hop off a jet, barely get rest

Cash through the month, I get a check

Yves St. Laurent on my pants and my chest

That's what is playing when Kepler steps to the plate in the bottom of the third. He was feeling under the weather coming off a West Coast swing, so Baldelli decided to give him a rest the previous day. Thus refreshed, Kepler blasts a one-out double off Dylan Covey over the center fielder's head to bring home Byron Buxton with the first run of the game. Three batters later, Eddie Rosario hits a three-run homer to give the Twins a 4-0 lead.

Kepler isn't finished giving back to the fans. In the top of the seventh, he makes a nice play on a sinking line drive with two men on, then fires a laser to the plate to freeze the runner tagging up on third. In the bottom of the inning, with runners on first and second and two outs, he attacks Josh Osich's first pitch and hits a 429-foot bomb into the juniper bushes behind the center-field wall to give the Twins a 7-0 lead. It's his 12th homer of the year, and it gives him homers in three consecutive games. As he trots back out to right in the top of the eighth, he acknowledges the cheers of the fans. Then, after warm-ups, he soft-tosses another ball into the stands.

After the 7-0 victory, Kepler showers and takes some questions from reporters in front of his locker. When someone makes the observation that he had a pretty good game for someone who wasn't feeling well, he says, "Sometimes you see some of the best performers play at their best when they're sick. Michael Jordan, when he was sick in that playoff game, I don't know what it is. maybe just calmer. I don't know."

At that point, LaVelle Neal of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune proposes a headline for the next day: "Kepler Compares Himself To Michael Jordan."

"No, no, no," Kepler says amid the laughter. "No, no. I did not say that."

He doesn't have to be like Mike. But it'll be a beautiful day for baseball when youngsters in Europe decide they want to be like Max.