There are a million different paths to the major leagues, it’s true, but there are an equal number of ways that the road can veer in a different direction, too. Max Kepler’s route to right field in Target Field, to sudden fame and surprising accomplishment at an early age, to what looks like a long future in a Twins uniform, is already among the most unique, since it involves ballet dancers and a broken bike, the Bavarian Alps and a European capital, parental sacrifice and imaginative scouts.
But that superhighway to success might easily have detoured into a German dead end a decade ago, had a 14-year-old Kepler not yawned his way through ballgames, acted up around coaches, and considered giving up the game.
“His coach came to me one day and said: ‘We cannot do anything else for him. He’s becoming belligerent on the field. He’s misbehaving,’ ” said Kathy Kepler, the rookie outfielder’s mother and chief promoter. “ ‘He’s not going after the baseball like we know he can. He’s not running [hard]. He’s not challenged by it.’ ”
Kepler loved challenge, enjoyed playing competitive golf, a variety of team sports, and even so excelled at tennis that he was offered a scholarship by Steffi Graf’s school. He learned to swim before he could speak; once he could, he became fluent in German, English, even Polish, the language of his father, Marek Rozycki.
Kepler was such an athletic prodigy, it seemed, even in a game he had not taken up until he enrolled at the American-supported John F. Kennedy School in Berlin, that the level of play on his various club teams was no longer interesting. “I got bored,” Kepler admits. “I loved the game, played it every day. But I loved soccer, too, and the players were better. I’m a competitive person.”
So competitive, in fact, that Kepler convinced his parents to take him to a baseball camp in the Czech Republic, where a scout spotted him and encouraged the family to enroll Max in a baseball academy in Regensburg, deep in the woods of Bavaria about 50 miles from Munich. And once there, it didn’t take long for Kepler, still barely a teenager, whose experience was mostly limited to playing on well-worn soccer fields or worse, to be noticed.
“My husband was with Max, and wrote us to say there’s ‘somebody from LMB or something like that’ who had taken an interest in him,” Kathy Kepler said. “He didn’t know what MLB was. It turned out to be a scout from the Cincinnati Reds. They were the first.”
But hardly the last. European camps aren’t a high priority for Major League Baseball scouts, given how few young athletes play a game that’s still largely unknown on the continent. Still, those who attend from the United States are trained to spot raw tools, evaluate attitude and work ethic and project forward by several years.
“It’s really a remarkable expertise,” Twins manager Paul Molitor says of the scouts he has encountered during his baseball life. “To pick out a kid among hundreds of players and try to picture how their skills will develop over a long period of time and through the most transformative years of a young man’s life — [age] 16 to 19 is a big jump, in terms of physical maturity — takes an imagination that not many [people] possess. It’s hard to do.”
Andy Johnson, who scouted Europe for the Twins, could imagine the lanky 6-footer using his fluid, balanced swing, reminiscent of a young David Justice, to develop into a big leaguer. Kepler’s parents had hopes that his play might earn him a scholarship to the University of Texas, near where his mother had grown up, or perhaps Georgia State, which was coached by German national team coach Greg Frady.
Those plans changed when, after a flurry of courtships with several other teams, Johnson outbid the competition by offering the 16-year-old a bonus of $775,000 to sign with the Twins.
“I wanted to go abroad, and baseball was that gateway. I wanted to play internationally,” Kepler said. “Nobody said the major leagues were a guarantee, but I wanted to take a risk, give myself a chance.”
His parents could hardly say no. After all, their entire history, the reason they were together in the first place, had been one of taking risks.
Family of performers
Kathy Kepler saw the world at an even younger age than her son. The daughter of a U.S. Army intelligence officer, she moved around the country and the world as her father received different postings, finally setting in Texas as a teenager. She coped with the constant travel by making ballet her passion, and by the time she was 14, she was clearly headed toward a professional career.
She took part in a workshop that was attended by Robert Joffrey, founder of the famed Joffrey Ballet company, and so captivated the impresario, she was offered a spot at the company’s school in New York. “My mother said no, I was too young,” Kathy Kepler said. “I had to wait a year, but when I was 15, they let me go.”
After two years of living in a dormitory in New York, she was hired by the Berlin Ballet, and headed for Europe, thrilled that her own dreams were coming true. One day in 1985, about a year into her residence in West Berlin, a city divided during that Cold War era, she was riding her bicycle home to her apartment when it broke down.
A colleague in the theater saw her and stopped. “He said, ‘Let me help you fix your bike.’ He did, and I said, “Let me fix you dinner,’ ” Kathy Kepler recalled. That colleague was Marek Rozycki, who had an intriguing story of his own. Rozycki grew up in a tiny Polish village but made a name for himself with his ballet grace. Eager to escape his communist homeland, he defected during a tour of Italy. He finally found asylum in West Germany, and was eventually hired in Berlin.
“I made him dinner, and that was the start of our courtship,” Kathy Kepler said. “We were married in 1990,” and soon had two children: Max, born in 1993, and Emma, three years later. They kept their own names, because by then they were both stars of the Berlin company.
“We did not want people to know we were married. My husband had a lot of fans — women would wait with roses after performances, or bottles of wine,” Kepler said. “He’d give them to me, we’d laugh, and then we’d go home.”
Now it’s Max who figures to have plenty of fans. After two brief, uneventful stints with the Twins, Kepler was called up in early June when Miguel Sano, then the right fielder, was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Kepler soon moved into Sano’s position — and appears intent upon making it permanent.
“He understands what he needs to do to hit the ball hard,” Molitor said, “and it’s translated into some power. He’s certainly big enough to do that, and when you get a little success, it kind of feeds off itself.”
But the Twins could hardly have expected this. Kepler, who had never hit more than 10 homers in a minor league season, collected hits in 18 of 25 games in June. He hit about a home run a week, then suddenly went on a roll in July like never before, clubbing eight home runs in the month. He already has piled up 52 RBI, second most on the team. And on Aug. 1 in Cleveland he hit three home runs in a game, only the sixth Twin ever to do so.
“It’s fun to watch,” Molitor said. “He does a really nice job, as far as his swing being a downward plane — that’s why he gets that backspin. Those balls are basically line drives that went really far.”
It’s almost hard to believe it’s the same kid that Molitor first saw as a 17-year-old, on one of his first days as a professional.
“I got a look at him when we signed him, and he was a frail-looking, tall-looking, not overly athletic-looking guy,” Molitor said. “He still had to grow into” his frame, now 6-4 and 205 pounds. “One spring maybe three years ago, all of a sudden, you looked at Max in the batting cage and he looked like a different guy. The sound [of his bat] started to change, the carry of the ball started to change.”
It took a while, though, not that it was a surprise. “Max is always very methodical. When he was a child, I would bring him to the playground, and there would be 15 toddlers sitting around with shovels and buckets,” Kathy Kepler said. “He would watch them build their sand things, and then he would build an empire. He’d have it all planned out.”
His baseball career has been like that, too. Kepler came to the U.S. in 2009 with a little more than a year remaining of high school, so his mother moved to Fort Myers, Fla., with him while his father stayed in Berlin with Emma. “He was so cute. He said, ‘Oh, Mom, just give me the key to the apartment, and I’ll be fine,’ ” Kathy said. “He had been to boarding school, but I knew I should be there to make sure he went to school.” Her son had always been an A student, so she initially enrolled him in a private school for high achievers, before discovering that was a bad idea.
“He’s practicing and playing games every day. He didn’t have time to write 3,000-word research papers,” she said. She transferred him to South Fort Myers High, across the street from the Twins’ camp, and began showing up every day to watch. Kepler spent her time renovating their condo and took a part-time job with the Census Bureau, but “I was on the field every day. I was the only female on the field,” she said. “The scouts looked at me really strange, but they warmed up as they got used to it.”
One of the first decisions to make: his name. He was Kepler-Rozycki as a child, but “teams told us it wouldn’t fit on the back of a jersey,” Kathy Kepler said. “We decided upon Kepler, though if he had signed with the Cubs, with all the Polish people in Chicago, he may have used Rozycki.”
Max and eventually Emma got used to the United States, too; Max’s sister, once offered several golf scholarships, completed a degree — “with straight A’s,” her mother interjects — at Tallahassee Community College. “Max and I always thought when we were growing up that we would end up living in the U.S. because we always liked the whole American dream, like it was this faraway fairy tale,” Emma Kepler-Rozycki said. “He was playing a lot of soccer when he was younger, and he had to make a decision about soccer or baseball and he went baseball. I think it was because it was a step closer to the U.S.”
Kepler’s parents still live in Berlin, retired from the ballet company but on to other professions. Kathy is a physical therapist, while Marek teaches ballet to a new generation. Emma is considering moving back to Germany until she decides what’s next, but the whole family keeps up with Max on a daily basis, and plans vacations so they can follow the Twins. The family has been in Minneapolis all week, with Marek watching his son play in the majors for the first time.
Their presence has made Max Kepler smile a lot, something he doesn’t always do during a game. “He has been tagged as serious, but he’s very mindful that he’s a rookie, that he’s new,” his mother said. “It’s like in the ballet, you don’t go into the studio and go right in front of the ballerina and say, ‘I’m here.’ You go in the back where you belong, and start at the bottom and work your way up to that status. He’s very respectful of that.”
And he’s not as unemotional as it sometimes seems, Molitor said. “He shows a lot of emotion and frustration down in the tunnels, more than you would imagine,” his manager said. “He expects a lot out of himself. He’s very smart and determined … but the fact that he contains the outward joy when he’s doing well is probably a good thing. … He’s got a long career ahead of him.”