Max Kepler stood at attention in the Twins’ lounge last week in Cleveland, hand over heart, as the German national anthem played on TV before Germany’s first World Cup match with Mexico. So yeah, Kepler may love baseball, but his loyalty is also halfway around the world these days.
“I love the World Cup,” Kepler said. “It’s sports. It unites people.”
Well, not everybody, of course. Second baseman Eduardo Escobar, born and raised in Venezuela, has taken to wearing a yellow Brazil jersey — with his own number, 5, and name of his hometown “El de la Pica,” on the back — around the clubhouse. And several other players, particularly those born in other countries, have their own favorites, too.
But none, that Kepler has noticed, is rooting for the defending champions, his homeland. Which is OK with him.
“It’s a good feeling, especially being from Germany, to watch them play,” he said. “Everyone is hoping for Germany to lose, because they’re the favorites. Favorites always get booed.”
Yes, but in a joking, support-your-teammate way. He’s heard plenty of good-natured teasing this week because Germany dropped that Cup opener to Mexico, a huge upset. And he’s heard about it from his friends and family back in Berlin.
“My dad sent me videos, telling me how depressed everyone in Berlin was after that match. It was a nice Sunday afternoon, and Berlin was dead. It was a ghost town,” he said. “I’m confident Germany is going to get out of the group. They lost that first one because they came out playing like they were full of themselves. I heard everyone on that pitch was surprised by Mexico. It was an embarrassing loss, but they’re going to come back.”
They did Saturday, bouncing back to beat Sweden in dramatic fashion. But the World Cup’s schedule, Kepler said, often conflicts with baseball. He was playing against the Indians when Germany lost to Mexico, and he was on the field, going 1-for-3 with a walk against the Rangers when German midfielder Toni Kroos kicked the extra-time goal to beat Sweden and save Germany’s chances of surviving the group stage. A clubhouse attendant kept Kepler informed between innings.
But he’s used to that. Kepler was in the lineup during the second game of a Class A doubleheader in Fort Myers four years ago during the 2014 World Cup final, when German beat Argentina 1-0 to win the Cup. He batted against Dunedin’s Frank Viola, son of the former Twins ace, and focused on baseball, not the world championship.
“I don’t think I got to celebrate,” Kepler said. “I was happy for my country. But it’s busy during the season — you can’t take time off to go watch.”
He wishes more Americans were caught up in the Cup the way he is, but after a decade in this country, he knows that time is still far off.
“Soccer just isn’t a big deal in this country like back home. I wish it was,” he said. “It’s like the U.S. is stubborn, like it doesn’t want to accept it’s the world’s sport. But once football dies down, which is going to happen in the future, soccer will take over.”