Making Max Kepler: Baseball in Germany

Max Kepler is already one of the first German-born players in MLB history. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Benji Kleiner first saw Max Kepler playing first base for the Berlin Sluggers U12 team on a converted field hockey pitch. “Bad throw in the dirt and this kid’s scooping it! I thought, ‘I’ve found my first baseman for the first league.’ Next pitch, a popup behind him, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, that’s a can of corn.’ Kid doesn’t even move and lets it fall. ‘Oh, don’t got my first baseman for the first league.’”

Kleiner, now the Athletic Director of Development for the rival Berlin Flamingos, smiles thinking about Kepler’s mom, Kathy, introducing herself, “Nowadays when you train youth, you’ve got the parents on the sideline watching. When I was 12-13 playing baseball, my mom didn’t know where I was or what I was doing.”

As World War II wound down, the American military was filled with professional and semi-professional baseball players. The armed forces confiscated many of the German public sports facilities in the American zone. Different units organized games against one another and even held tournaments for the entire European theater. The Mannheim Tornados, an all-black team, put on games for the German public and won the GI-World series in 1949.

Many German boys in Mannheim grew up idolizing the players and served as runners, bringing them hot dogs, hamburgers, and drinks. “It was an incredible atmosphere,” recollected Hans-Norbert Jäger, one of the elder statesmen of German baseball, “There were 6000 to 7000 spectators, and the military band played.” The boys nailed and taped together enough broken bats, collected enough foul balls, and were gifted enough gloves to eventually play on their own.

The U.S. military connection to the sport remains strong. Reiner Wöttke, the chair of the Flamingos, saw an advertisement for an ex-GI’s baseball camp during a school break. Since he had just seen Major League (German title: “The Indians from Cleveland”), he decided to go. Benji Kleiner had a similar experience. One of the umpires working Berlin games in the early ’90s organized a game against the kids of the McNair Barracks in south Berlin.

“I still remember it was a big happening.” said Kleiner. “They took our passports, we walked to the base, got completely searched. We were like, ‘Oh man, we’re on a base. I’m gonna bring some dollars, get some Dr. Pepper, some pizza…’ And then those American kids show up. This nerdy kid is pitching. Chubby, glasses like computer goggles. He looks like an absolute computer nerd. But I’m sitting on the sideline watching him warm up and I’m like, ‘We’re in trouble boys.’ First fastball is left-handed and has that tail to it…and I’m like, ‘My bat’s not going to see much action today.’ And it was fun. I loved it, I still remember it to this day.”

After that, things sped up for Kleiner. At age 15, he made the youth national team and was chosen by George Bull, a Mannheim product and German baseball pioneer, to play for the Sluggers in the top league. The fifteen year-old Kleiner was now toeing the rubber against American imports like Tony Florez, who three-peated as league MVP during the 1994-1996 stretch and ran a comical .610/.683/1.171 triple slash for the Hamburg Stealers in Kleiner’s first year. German teams are allowed to roster as many international players as they like, but no more than three players without a European passport are allowed in the lineup at a time.

The Bundesliga in its original form was founded in 1984 and was dominated for a decade by a Mannheim team named after their heroes the Tornados, whose fathers and coaches had grown up watching players like Ernie Banks in their back yard. After the European Championship of 1955, the brothers Claus and Jürgen Helmig had been the first Germans signed to minor league contracts, joining the Baltimore Orioles at ages 19 and 17, respectively. Claus’ son Martin would go on to become one of the most influential individuals in Bundesliga history.

After playing college ball in the U.S., Martin Helmig played in the Italian and Dutch leagues before receiving minor league spring training invites from the White Sox and Orioles. After unseating Mannheim from the championships as a player with the Trier Cardinals in 1995 and 1996, he was hired as director and coach of the Paderborn Untouchables in 1999.

He coached Kleiner from 2001 to ’05, and the Untouchables lived up to their name, winning the championship every year in that span. In 2008, Helmig took over for the Buchbinder Legionäre Regensburg (the Regensburg Bookbinding Legion), who would win five of the next six titles, due in no small part to the youth development program where Kepler spent his last two years before signing with Minnesota.

Don Freeman, a former MLB envoy coach, led the Mainz Athletics to the Bundesliga championship in 2016. He marveled at Helmig’s ability to bring in foreign talent. “When Martin was the GM [in Regensburg], he had a string of players from all over the world, and how he finds them with German or European passports to get them I have no idea.” Due to the three-international limit, German teams focus on the development of their own European players.

“[Mainz] had some real solid players,” Freeman said of the year prior to their championship, “but the difference between one year and the next was you had a solid group that was always competitive and then you add two or three players and it just clicks.” For Mainz those players were Belgian Thomas de Wolf, who topped out at Rookie ball in the Mets organization, and American pitcher Eric Massingham, who made it to Single-A with the Phillies.

Andy Johnson, who scouted Kepler for the Twins, spoke to the uniqueness of the Bundesliga. “The German league is odd in that it is a combo of nearly professional players in some instances coupled with local and developing talent in a very local grassroots kind of environment. It really is developing its own identity right before our eyes.” He suggests a combination of natural athleticism, with German teams’ discipline and pragmatism, leads to the development of good players from a dramatically smaller talent pool.

Kepler was a model of natural athleticism and no stranger to discipline and drive, having parents who were both professional dancers at the Berlin state ballet. His father would open up the dancer’s gym on Sundays so Kleiner could give Max extra coaching. “I would go to this gym and I would figure out, I need to test this kid,” Kleiner remembered, shaking his head. “So I would do a bunting exercise with him in that gym where I would set up cones so there was a little goal and I was like ‘Hey!…I want you to hit those goals.’ And this kid would hit those goals like crazy. Clank, clank, clank. And I’m like, okay…this kid is serious.”

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A significant cultural difference between the U.S. and Germany is that Germans tend to choose a hobby and stick to it to the exclusion of others. Freeman echoed this, saying, “If you’re a soccer player, you’re a soccer player; if you’re a volleyball player, you’re a volleyball player. It’s almost like you don’t have any choice. Once you choose something, you’re that.” It shows itself in the passion and commitment players show for their sport and their clubs.

All teams in the Bundesliga’s North Division have made the trip out to Dohren in the far northwest of Germany. From a village of 1200, their field literally surrounded by corn, the Dohren Wild Farmers have produced Daniel Thieben, who made it to Rookie ball with the Mariners, and Maik Ehmke, who signed with the Diamondbacks and now plays for Paderborn. “Dohren is the Field of Dreams,” Kleiner chuckles. “They only play baseball there.”

Even though each year brings a new group of U.S. college players desperate to continue their playing careers overseas, it is difficult to imagine an American traveling across the world to go live in a corn field as a player-coach. It’s not as though the pay is very attractive. Freeman suggests the language makes Germany extremely appealing. “Guys who come here to play and really succeed could play in Taiwan or Japan but would fall flat on their face because they can’t speak the language…I can’t speak German–I know some words–but everyone here speaks English so well they fit in so much easier.”

Kleiner, who is bilingual, shares the player perspective. “On your team there are five players who don’t speak English. And they are very important pieces to the team. So from my point of view, those [foreign] players that add depth value very well, for example, Matt Vance [Harvard alum] or back in my day Chris Gannon [Boston College], they would learn how to speak German.”

Family is a repeated theme for Kleiner when he references team culture. He grew up without his father, who was from Houston. When he started playing in the men’s league at age 15, he found multiple father figures in his teammates and coaches. “That was a big thing for me, just being around older men and picking up what they’re doing.”

Why was a Berlin kid immersing himself in baseball cards, scanning through abandoned copies of USA Today for box scores, and playing HardBall 5? “The heritage, definitely,” Kleiner emphasized. “As a young being, you know where you’re from. You’ve got a root. You do know that, ‘cause everything has a root. And you basically want to know what your root is.”

Some games in the first league feature such a disparity in talent that the game is decided before the two teams take the field. However, the variation allowed by a 24-game season leads even hardened stats lovers to allow for a bit of Cinderella magic. When reflecting on his underdog Mainz team that won the 2016 championship, Freeman admitted they were not even the most talented team in their division.

“We didn’t match up with the athletes of Heidenheim. And our guys didn’t feel like they did. We’d go in and think, ‘Can we take two out of three from Heidenheim? Well, if we don’t want the season to end we can.’ And they’d find themselves in the game, and they were depending on each other. And they grew up with each other. They saw each other fail a lot, they saw each other succeed a lot.”

Kleiner experienced the pressures of playing in a competitive league where players are making little to nothing and foreign talent cycles through from year to year. On great teams, players would be grateful to be in the lineup any given weekend. On worse teams, the lineup spot was assured, but you risked walking onto the field knowing your opponent outclassed you at every position. The secret of great coaches like Martin Helmig, and of tiny communities like Dohren, lies in attracting talented players and assimilating them into the culture, keeping a community of players together while bringing someone in, and making them a part of the family.

Max Kepler and Benji Kleiner. (Courtesy of FR-Fotografie, Baseball School Berlin)

So far, Kepler’s success has been an anomaly. Johnson and the Twins signed the 16-year-old, wisely recognizing he desperately needed a higher level of competition. Johnson was not surprised when the young Berliner made it to the big leagues, finding it hard to imagine another player of his caliber coming out of Europe. Kleiner emphasized Kepler’s drive.

When I coached Max from a young age, I would put him in competitive environments, doesn’t matter what sport. I put him in a race against two track girls who ran 400 meters on the regular. They were 16, he was 12, and we did a training regimen called the running pyramid where you run one minute, take a minute break, run two minutes, take a minute break, and we were all four doing it together.

And when the pyramid was going down? I was 28, and I was like, ‘I’m dying, I can’t do this anymore.’ And the girls were cruising. And Max was cruising alongside with me and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna see how competitive this kid is.’ And out of the blue I say, ‘Max, if you beat those two girls–who were already ahead of us, like 300 meters–‘If you beat those girls, I’ll give you my Roger Clemens rookie card.’ And the minute starts, and he takes off, beats them by a mile.”

The day Kleiner heard Kepler had signed his extension, he called his former coach and mentor Duane Phillips, who had also had a hand in Kepler’s development, and asked how he was doing. “Well,” the 30-year veteran answered, obviously considering the sheer magnitude of $35 million. “I could be better…”

Young players on German teams are culturally conditioned to be ambitious but realistic. Many of them play baseball because the game is fun and don’t pay attention to the game in its major league form. For them, the game may be about building family in a unique sport with a unique culture. For others, the game is about connecting with their roots, whether a foreign player battling homesickness on a third-league team or a young German discovering a part of his heritage.

But bring up Kepler in a Berlin youth practice, and you’ll see the heads of a couple kids swivel and the corners of their lips turn upward. Those few kids whose love of the game has gone beyond a hobby can’t help but show the joy in their hearts at the idea that, if they work hard enough, they could make it too.

Like many European sports leagues, the Baseball Bundesliga uses a relegation system. Freeman and Kleiner’s Berlin Flamingos were relegated last year to the second league after losing their import pitcher to an arm injury. This year, they have their sights set on promotion to the first league for a competitive 2020 season.

References and Resources


Reuben Walker is based in Berlin and uses baseball immersion to stay connected with the wonderful people he's met along the way. He has a degree in physics (but many more in music), teaches, performs, and coaches.
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fxb
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fxb

Kepler is the biggest star, for sure, but German baseball’s been enjoying quite a run of late. The good run began in 2013 when Donald Lutz, who also came through Regensburg system, made his MLB debut for the Reds. While he only managed 113 PA in 2013 and 2014, he did hit the first home-run by a German (excluding anything done by German immigrants in the late 19th century). Lutz’s debut produced plenty of headlines back home, and many thought Kai Gronauer, from Solingen in northern Germany, would be the next big-league German. The catcher played seven seasons in the… Read more »

Stefan
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Stefan

Thank you very much for this article. As a German who knows some of the older people named it was nice to read about them. Jürgen and Claus Helmig have quite a story worth a movie. They had just a short minor league career, but still wanted to play baseball. The ended up joining a team from the Negro Leagues, as the only white players they had, which was an awesome experience according to Jürgen. Martin Helmig may have had a shot at the Majors, as far as i remember he played very well at AA and was invited to… Read more »

hansdampf
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hansdampf

Great article, thanks a lot for this. One name to be added to the list of recent young German players/prospects discussed between you and fxb is Nadir Ljatifi who had been in the Reds’ minor league system since 2015 (and whom fxb may have had in mind when referencing the Reds). However, for the 2019 season he seems to be returning to Germany (Paderborn), unfortunately. And to add a trivial personal perspective to baseball in Germany: I, too, am one of those people who started playing baseball in Germany after watching Major League and after one or two local kids… Read more »

fxb
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fxb

Ljatifi was indeed the Reds signee I was referencing!

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

Coach and former rec player from germany here. German baseball quality at the top has improved a lot due to the installation of several academies which allows for better player development of kids. However this is unfortunately only one side of the coin. The overall number of players playing has been dropping for 20 years after peaking in the late 90s. The big clubs are still growing but many smaller clubs have been dying. My first club died because its field was converted into a soccer field and we couldn’t get a new one, many of the existing fields still… Read more »

fxb
Member
fxb

I agree with you on all your points! I have only been involved with baseball in Germany since 2013 (I’m one of those people who keep a club going), so I cannot comment on anything before then, but the academies can indeed only function properly if there is a large enough pool of talent to draw from. Whenever I go to schools to introduce the game to a class of students (which is quite often), the kids are initially skeptical, but after 15 minutes they’re having a great time. You can sell baseball in Germany, but the smaller clubs —… Read more »

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

I agree. The German baseball federation did a good job with the academies but I think they focussed a little too much on high performance development and didn’t support the rec level enough with things like school days or even just helping out small clubs to get a field. As you said it is easy to get kids exited but someone has to do it. I mean I can understand it, the German federation has only limited money and thus they tried to bundle it at the top like the junior national team but the rec level is important too… Read more »

fxb
Member
fxb

I just looked up Kepler’s Bundesliga stats. In 2009 as a 16-year-old playing against grown men and swinging a wood bat, he slashed .400/.480/.500 in 25 PA. Small sample size, sure, but still mighty impressive. (He debuted in the league a season earlier as a 15-year-old.) He played primarily however in the 2. Bundesliga, where his numbers were out of this world. Over two seasons in the second division (170 PA), he slashed .417/.515/.633. That’s the sort of performance that gets you a six-figure, MLB signing bonus! The stats can be found here, should anyone be interested: http://stats.baseball-softball.de/players/?f=43056