This is one big dude. That’s the first thought I have as 26-year old Minnesota Twins star Max Kepler walks into the room and shakes hands. It’s not a very original thought. He’s a 6’4 professional athlete. Those guys tend to look big.
I’m not friends with a ton of athletes though (unless you consider lazily critiquing The Apprentice candidates whilst prone on the sofa a sport) and Kepler looks every inch of the budding superstar role he plays so well. He smiles warmly, sits down, and begins to answer questions. It’s a perfectly normal interview with one of America’s bright young baseball stars.
Except, of course, it isn’t. Because we’re in a meeting room on the sixth floor of a swanky London office space. And Max Kepler is German. And he’s here to promote a baseball game he won’t even be playing in. None of this is normal.
Kepler has probably had to tell his extraordinary story hundreds of times but he indulges us anyway. Born in Berlin to an American mother and Polish father, he played near enough every sport as a child – and was seemingly pretty good at all of them – but ended up making the unimaginable (in Germany at least) decision to choose baseball in Regensburg over football for Hertha Berlin.
“It definitely wasn’t the decision most people in Germany would have leaned towards but as a kid it just felt right, I loved the game of baseball – I still do – and I just had a different relationship with it than I did with soccer. Soccer felt more like a job at the time and I was still a kid so it didn’t feel right.”
The summers in Texas no doubt helped. It was his granddad, who Kepler would visit stateside each summer, who sparked the passion for baseball in the youngster, rather than his mum (“I don’t think she was too much of a fan of the game but she just supported every move I made”).
Baseball in Germany – as in the United Kingdom – was rarely conventional during Kepler’s childhood. Games would be played with a construction fence to hit home runs over, and most of his friends treated the sport as a hobby, in stark contrast to the increasingly professionalised approach to youth baseball in the United States.
But even then, Major League Baseball was making a concerted effort to reach young players in Europe, and Kepler’s move to a boarding school in Regensburg gave him the chance to focus on the sport. Scouts quickly learned of the teenager’s precocious hitting talent and the Twins, who focused a lot of energy on Europe and Asia around that time, impressed him enough to earn his signature.
Moving half way round the world at the age of 16 to play professional baseball whilst finishing high school sounds absolutely terrifying to me but unsurprisingly Kepler took it in stride. The biggest challenge was going from two games a week in Germany to everyday baseball at a much more demanding pace stateside.
From there, his rise has been nothing short of meteoric. Playing in the minor leagues is an extraordinary achievement for a European-born baseball player alone – to have risen through the ranks, earned top-prospect status and now be delivering at the heart of a potent Twins lineup is utterly unfathomable. You can see that Kepler himself is probably not quite aware of the magnitude of his achievements, and he remains as humble and grounded as ever when we dare to suggest that he has become a figure to look up to for baseball-loving kids across Europe.
“I still talk to many kids in baseball, not just in Germany but throughout Europe. Now we have social media it’s easy, people reach out and you try and respond to as many as possible and give them your advice”
Major League Baseball – and indeed the Minnesota Twins – are obviously keen to utilise Max’s unexpected stardom to their advantage. A young, talented, eloquent – dare we say handsome – superstar born in Europe is a dream come true for their international marketing department, yet I get the impression that MLB still aren’t really sure what to do with him.
The purpose of his visit to London – besides watching some of the ATP Finals – seemed to be to promote next year’s London Series. But Kepler won’t be involved. This is obviously the nature of the sport, but it does make it hard to market a star when fans don’t get a chance to watch him. It also makes Kepler’s task as an ambassador quite difficult. Training camps to teach European kids the basics of baseball is very much in his wheelhouse but inspiring an entire continent from afar is a much tougher ask.
On the flip side, the opportunity here feels massive. Kepler is a genuine European. Just like the rest of us, he grew up enduring late nights in order to watch live baseball. The rule his parents imposed was one late night a week in order to stay up and watch the Yankees and his idol Derek Jeter. He played on gravel fields, he juggled baseball with his other sporting interests and against the odds he was identified, signed and developed successfully by a Major League team that is now bearing the fruit of its labour.
Few people throughout Major League Baseball are better testament to the potential of a long-term European vision and Kepler is conscious of how important his role as an inspiration to look up to is. He repeatedly refers to the youth as the route into Europe and jokes that baseball might have a chance if only football will give it an inch (he’s not wrong).
“I don’t think I would honestly tell kids to lean towards baseball, I would tell them to lean towards whatever they have the most fun with. Whatever draws their attention and locks them into a game or an element where they just completely forget about everything else around them. That’s the effect baseball had on me. That’s why I never really realised what other people thought about what I was doing outside the ordinary in Germany. I just got lost in the game pretty much. That’s easy to do as a kid. You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I’ll introduce the game to all these kids but it’s up to them if they actually fall in love with the game and get fully invested.”
So what next for the London Series? Expansion into mainland Europe seems logical. Kepler wisely points out that Holland and Italy represent the most fertile breeding grounds for baseball – at least for the time being – but you can tell that the idea of playing a game in his hometown of Berlin would be a dream come true.
As European fans, it feels like the least we owe ourselves is support for Kepler. The club official accompanying him on his trip explains to my surprise that Kepler is increasingly attracting interest from German press and fans back in Minnesota and that the club don’t quite know how to deal with it. I feel sad and a little guilty as I realise that the thought of buying a Kepler jersey had never crossed my mind. This is the way it often is with team sports when the guy doesn’t play for your team.
But without going all ‘NFL UK Jay Ajayi’ about it, why should it have to be that way? I have considerably closer links with Kepler than I’ll ever have with the stars of any other Major League team, and his success not only creates a legitimate pathway for kids in the UK and beyond to make it to the Majors in the future, it gives MLB a legitimate rationale for a long-term European project.
By the time the chat wraps up, I’m beaming. Major League Baseball face a tough challenge as they attempt to capitalise on Kepler’s stardom in a meaningful way and to ensure that the two year toe-in-the-water project in London doesn’t end up just a memory. Even after a 20 minute chat, it’s hard to imagine that a successful future for the sport on these shores won’t involve Kepler, whose love for the game is genuine and infectious.
As we stand up and say our goodbyes I decide to chance my arm.
“Fancy coming on our podcast Max?”
He pauses, smiles, and says he would love to. I get the sense this isn’t how his normal interviews finish.
But, then again. None of this is normal.
The St. Louis Cardinals will play the Chicago Cubs in the Mitel & MLB Present London Series 2020 on June 13 – 14 at London Stadium. General sale tickets are available from Thursday, 5 December. Visit ticketmaster.co.uk.