FORT MYERS, FLA. – Max Kepler couldn’t believe it. Everywhere he looked, he saw young, smiling faces eager to hear his message and tap into his knowledge.
The clinics were a big draw. He took part in one event in a mall in which the line snaked throughout the facility, making him wonder if there were more than 1,000 fans in attendance.
To Kepler, that’s a lot of fans in a soccer-mad country like Germany. But that was the reception he received back in November when he toured his native country to spread the word of baseball to children.
“It shows that the game is spreading,” Kepler said.
He spent a week in Germany, talking about his journey to the majors after signing with the Twins in 2009. Kepler is coming off a 2019 season in which he batted .252 with 36 home runs and 90 RBI in 134 games. He appears to be on the cusp of stardom.
Major League Baseball is all for growing the game globally and approached Kepler about the trip, and he was all in.
“I hope I can do the most I can for that country because they have given me so much,” Kepler said. “And the coaches at the time and the teammates I had at the time, they did everything I needed.
“I just want to give back to them and see more people come out of Europe, not just Germany, and play baseball at its highest level.”
Kepler was born in Berlin and played various sports before falling in love with baseball. At age 14, he attended an academy in the southeastern city of Regensburg, where his game flourished, and the Twins signed him two years later for $775,000, a record for a prospect from Europe.
Regensburg was one of the cities Kepler visited in November, in addition to Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt.
“I’m going to try to do it each offseason,” Kepler said. “Maybe a weekend in one city and just really get to know the kids and what they need and try to give them some advice.”
If he has his way, his next trip will take place after another big season while helping the Twins make a deeper playoff run.
Kepler walked 71 times in 2018 while batting .224 with 20 home runs and 58 RBI. Asked to be the leadoff hitter in 2019, he nearly maintained that aspect of his offensive game, walking 10.1% of the time compared with 11.6% in 2018. What changed was his aggressiveness. When he got a pitch he liked, he looked to drive it. In 13 fewer games, he had 12 more hits and 14 more extra-base hits. He was limited to 11 games over the final month of the season because of a sore shoulder and chest, or the difference would have been greater.
“I became mentally stronger, I believe,” Kepler said. “Physically, I’m happy with my health. I had that little injury at the end of the year, but mentally I think I was strong. All this came from people that we added. I think my approach changed from a lot from guys like Nelson [Cruz] telling me to be more aggressive at the plate and get your hacks in when you can.
“I used to look up to Joe [Mauer], but Joe is one of a kind. Not everyone can take a pitch and still put together quality at-bats. I learned to do damage with the pitches that I can, regardless of the count. I think that contributed to a lot of my success.”
Some have viewed Kepler, who turned 27 on Feb. 10, as a late bloomer because he didn’t grow up playing baseball in the United States, where there are more games and better competition. If the Twins are right in their assessment, Kepler is just starting to see his potential.
“You never really know where the limit is for some of these young players,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said, “and just because a guy goes out there and hits 30-some-odd home runs, adapts to the leadoff spot and plays a really good outfield for you, and all these things, I couldn’t tell you where his ceiling is. I have absolutely no idea.
“But I know that we’re probably just kind of catching the first part of this thing when it comes to Kep.”
While in Regensburg, Kepler noticed a few teenage players he described as “thoroughbreds” worth watching in the near future.
Jim Small, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president, International, said there are about 26,000 officially registered baseball players in Germany.
“Baseball has had a strong foothold in Germany for many years,” Small said, “and creating local heroes will help accelerate the game’s growth.”
Small said Kepler “has embraced his role as a hero that kids there can look up to. He understands the impact he can have on baseball in Germany, and we all got to see that in the way people responded to him on the trip last fall.”
Kepler will continue to work with MLB to expose the game to more kids in Europe. There have been preliminary discussions about a major league game being played in Germany within the next few years.
Guess which team would likely participate?
“It would be amazing,” Kepler said. “And I’ve heard some rumors here and there, so we will see. It’s not going to be next year, but down the road.”