FORT MYERS, FLA. – Max Kepler considers himself a citizen of the world, and right now, that world is in pain.
Bombs are falling and civilians are dying just a seven-hour drive from his father's boyhood home in Poland, roughly the distance between the Twin Cities and Kansas City. His cousins in Poznan are spearheading an effort to collect donations of food and clothing and rush them to the border with Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of women, children and the elderly have fled their homeland and the violence being done to it by the Russian invasion.
"My friends in Europe are keeping me updated — it's practically right next door to them. I don't know if they're scared, but they're certainly disappointed with the way the world is going," said Kepler, whose parents and sister still live in Berlin, where he grew up, only three hours from Poznan. "I don't know why people choose war. I don't understand it."
Yet the 29-year-old Twins outfielder knows that while his heart may be with his friends and relatives in Poland — "It's such a beautiful country, but unfortunately it always seems to be stuck in the middle of some terrible events," he said — his mind must be here, focusing on a career that carries no such life-or-death peril.
"I wish I could" end the war, Kepler said. "I'm here to get ready for the season."
That's trickier this year, by circumstance and his own recent history. The MLB lockout means the seven-year veteran has only half as much time to prepare for a 162-game season as usual — and it's not easy to pinpoint what the status of his game is right now.
In his first three seasons, his career trajectory appeared headed toward stardom, or at least solid, reliable contributor, prompting the Twins to lock him up with a five-year, $35 million contract before 2019.
Kepler appeared a bigger bargain than Manhattan-for-beads that season, rocketing 36 pitches into the seats and defying the typical left-on-left disadvantage by slugging .524 against lefthanders. Even during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Kepler managed to homer once every five games, albeit none against lefties.
But last season was his most disappointing at the plate, and especially against the platoon disadvantage, where he posted a dismal .157/.248/.261.
What happened? Kepler seemingly isn't certain, and he clearly doesn't want to dwell on it.
"Last year is in the past. I put it behind me," he said. "I try and forget it and be positive about what's ahead. And I have a good feeling about that."
So does his manager, who said he admired Kepler's ability to find creative ways to victimize lefthanders in 2019, and believes that with the help of new hitting coach David Popkins and holdover coach Rudy Hernandez, can do so again.
"Kep showed that he could make some real adjustments on lefties. He could battle, could take some difficult pitches that a lot of lefties offer at," Rocco Baldelli said. "There's still a lot of untapped ability in there. I wouldn't be surprised at all if, with the help of our hitting guys, we can get him making those adjustments again."
It's happened before, in a different aspect of his game. "In 2019, I was thrown out stealing my first three tries, and I got the red light," he says. But he worked on his base-running — "I worked on being a better all-around baseball player," he interrupts to correct — and now has safely stolen 13 consecutive bases, the fifth-longest current streak in the majors.
Kepler made one important adjustment months ago, choosing to remain in southwest Florida over the winter to keep working out, with an eye on restoring that upward trajectory. It was an unusual concession for a vagabond ballplayer who says he has no permanent home.
"I'm nomadic. I'm all over the place," Kepler said. "I like it. Until I have a wife and kids, that's what I want to do."
He's wintered in Berlin, and still visited his hometown in Germany shortly after the 2021 season ended. He was invited to Blackhawk, Calif., just east of the Bay Area, one offseason, and lived in San Francisco for a couple more. He switched to southern California about four years ago, locating in Hermosa Beach one year and San Diego the next.
And after the 2020 offseason, he and a handful of other major leaguers, including the Nationals' Joe Ross, the Reds' Alex Blandino and the Giants' Austin Slater, rented a house together in Laguna Beach for the winter.
"That was a lot of fun, but those guys aren't single anymore," Kepler said. "That's in the past. I'm thinking about the future."