The Twins were conducting spring training in Orlando at the start of the 1980s and the Bay Hill Classic was being played at Arnold Palmer’s course nearby. The field included Bernhard Langer, a young golfer from West Germany who was starting to make a name for himself.
I decided there was a topic in that and finagled a media credential. The conversation was brief and lacking insight, which wasn’t enough to stop the column: “Bernhard Langer, German golf pioneer.’’
Years later, 2016 to be exact, Langer was a two-time Masters winner-turned-robotic moneymaker as a senior player. The Champions Tour was in Blaine for its annual Minnesota visit, and on Monday of that week, rookie Max Kepler hit three home runs for the Twins in Cleveland.
This was a layup: Langer, Germany’s golf pioneer, shares his thoughts on Kepler, German baseball pioneer.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a pioneer,’’ Langer said when the subject was broached. “I have a number of friends in Germany who have had sons playing baseball.’’
Yes, Bernhard, but have any of those young men hit three home runs in a major league game?
Slight nod. End of conversation.
We’re not talking about German-born here. We’re talking about German born, raised and discovered, and now making an impact in the big leagues.
We have ourselves a German baseball pioneer here, folks, whether Bernie the Money Machine wanted to admit it or not.
The belief in Kepler’s star potential waned a bit in 2018, his third season, when he went through a series of slumps that left his average at .224. The Twins’ brain trust insisted that number didn’t tell the story, that Kepler’s approach at the plate was getting better.
To confirm this view, the Twins gave Kepler a five-year contract for $35 million in February and unleashed a monster. Not every night, but on those nights when he’s on pitches — “my goodsness,’’ as Tony Oliva says.
Kepler hit three home runs in Cleveland on June 6. Seen that before. Ten days later, he had three clutch hits — two to tie, one to win in the 17th — vs. Boston. Tremendous.
Yet it was two days and four sizzling hits earlier vs. Kansas City when I started trying to find a number for Howie Norsetter in Melbourne, Australia. Norsetter, fired in 2017 by the Twins’ new front office, had been the team’s director of international scouting (everywhere but Latin America).
“Andy Johnson, our scout over there, was the main man on Max,’’ Norsetter said. “He saw him as a 14-year-old — in the German tournament. Andy saw a good athlete who moved like a baseball player.’’
Norsetter now has a lesser job scouting for the Phillies. He has a pending age discrimination lawsuit that the Twins are trying to get thrown out. That doesn’t change Norsetter’s hopes for Max Kepler.
“We have a baseball package here and see every game,’’ he said. “We always said, ‘It’s going to take time, with his background, but it’s there.’ And now people are seeing that, more than ever.’’
Johnson, Norsetter’s ace in Europe, is now home in Norway. A dozen years ago, he found Kepler as the best scouts often have found a player: with a glance on a crowded ball field.
He saw a tall 14-year-old sprinting down the first-base line. He paid close attention for the rest of that tournament and then gave the first Kepler report to Norsetter.
Kepler moved from Berlin to Regensburg, Germany, to work daily at Martin Brunner’s baseball camp. The exposure increased and it became evident that the Twins would have competition when Kepler became eligible to be signed as a 16-year-old on July 2, 2009.
Norsetter was worried about Cincinnati, with the extra-sharp scout Jim Stoeckel on the trail. Craig Shipley, an Aussie, was after Kepler for the Red Sox. Cleveland also sent in someone for a look at Kepler.
“Apparently, the Indians’ head of international scouting had a conflict, and they sent in this young guy to look at Kepler,’’ Norsetter said. “Max went hitless, and the young guy must not have been impressed, because the Indians didn’t really make an offer.’’
Johnson had developed a good relationship with the Kepler-Rozycki family, and finally Norsetter was able to give a number to Mike Radcliff, the Twins’ vice president for player personnel.
“I told him it was going to take $775,000,’’ Norsetter said. “Mike hadn’t seen him. They were taking our word on Max. Mike finally said, ‘OK, but I’m keeping score on this one.’”
The score on the 775 grand investment has worked out in the Twins’ favor. As for that young guy from Cleveland who saw Kepler’s 0-fer, he’s happy with the result, too.
That was Derek Falvey.