Born in Berlin to star ballet dancers not long after fall of communism in Germany, Minnesota Twins outfielder Max Kepler is having one of the better rookie seasons in the American League. Twins manager Paul Molitor has given Kepler a lot of responsibilities, from playing every day, including against left-handed pitching, to hitting in the middle of the lineup. So far, Kepler has been passing the tests with a .244/.321/.460 slash line.
After turning down a lucrative offer from the Yankees and signing as an international free agent at age 16, Kepler moved across the Atlantic with his mother to Fort Myers, Florida, to finish high school while playing as a professional in the Gulf Coast League. Now 23, Kepler speaks fluent English without a noticeable German accent; not only is his mom, Kathy Kepler, from the U.S. but Max attended the John F. Kennedy school in Berlin from a young age, surrounded by the kids of other American parents. Kepler also speaks Polish; his dad defected from Poland during the Cold War. There's simply no one else like Kepler in the majors. There never has been, really.
When the Twins visited Kauffman Stadium in late August, Kepler sat down to discuss where he's from and where he hopes to go as a major leaguer.
VICE Sports: Do your ballet genes help to give you grace in the outfield?
Max Kepler: I would say so. I'm not aware of it, it's not like it's taught, but I would say they did teach me a lot; how to treat my body the right way, how to prepare for sports, and yeah, I got some of the footwork from the genes.
Are you much of a dancer?
Not ballet, no.
But will you get out on the dance floor? Will the music that Trevor May (Twins relief pitcher and nascent EDM DJ) creates get you moving?
Oh, yeah, for sure. I like dancing. But not ballet. I mean, I've never really tried dancing ballet. But yeah, I like to move when there's good music playing. I'll listen to hip-hop, R&B, some deep house music. Electro. EDM is kind of a category of its own.
Do you think it's funny the Kepler spacecraft launched the same year you signed with the Twins?
It's a crazy coincidence. People ask me if I am related to Johannes Kepler. I wish I could say yes, but I doubt it. It is cool, though, and I hope they do a lot more discovery out there.
So you've kept up, like when they're reveal they've "found a thousand new exoplanets."
I've read articles, which unfortunately I don't remember much of because they're so in depth and I haven't really studied much astronomy.
So you can't regurgitate Kepler's Three Laws of Planetary Motion?
[Laughs.] No. I'm going to look it up though because it does make me curious.
Let's say there were Kepler's Three Laws of Swinging a Bat. Max's three laws. What would they be?
Three Laws of Swinging a Bat... One, focus mentally having on a good bat path through the zone. Two, keep the entire act simple and easy. I'd say the third one is balance. I have a little lunge-step leg kick. That has more to do with posture and feet and not the swing itself, but it's where it all starts.
Did you really drop your dad's name, Rozycki, from your last name because it didn't fit easily on your uniform?
I don't like saying I dropped it, because I kind of want to bring it back at some point in my career and just surprise some people with it. But my dad, for now he's OK with it being off because it's hard to pronounce [roe-ZHITCH-kee]. I don't know if I really wanted a hyphenated name on a jersey.
What is the genesis of having your last name be Kepler-Rozycki? Is it custom to include the names of both parents? Were you just being respectful?
When I was born [in 1993], in Germany, you were still allowed to take both names if you wanted. When my sister was born a few years later, they got rid of that, so she only went by Rozycki. Later, she was able to add Kepler because she really wanted it in her name like I had.
So your sister is called Emma Rozycki-Kepler? And you are Max Kepler-Rozycki?
Yeah. Me picking Kepler now, it was never awkward with my dad. We spoke about it, I think, once, and he was easygoing about it. He told me, "Do what you want. Both names are family to me."
Because of your parents' ballet background, it seems to me you should have been introduced to every famous ballet star of the past 50 years. Have you met Mikhail Baryshnikov?
Yeah, but I don't remember meeting him. I remember them being around. I remember my parents talking about all of the big ballet names: Baryshnikov, Vladimir Malakhov. All of the Russians, so many. But I was young when I'd hang out in the ballet backstage area. But yeah, they know them all.
You earned a scholarship to Steffi Graf's tennis academy at age seven. Are we talking Wimbledon had you stuck with it?
I don't know. I could also wonder about being in the Bundesliga if I had stuck with soccer. I was young, I think 12 or 13 when I gave up tennis. I was 15 when I gave up soccer. I was on the same pace as baseball with the other two. It would have been fun to see where either sport would have taken me. I still try to follow both sports, though not as closely as I used to. There are so many tournaments, it's hard to follow.
Steffi ever come by and do any instructing? She bring Andre Agassi along?
They would stop by and say hello to all of the kids, but neither really coached us.
Are you a fan any players or teams? Bayern Munich?
Soccer, but not Bayern. I'm a fan of my hometown team, Hertha BSC (currently fifth of 18 teams in Bundesliga). I don't like to hop on bandwagon and say, "I'm a Barcelona fan," or "I'm a Munich fan," even though they're really good and impressive to watch.
Is there anyone else in the Twins clubhouse who speaks German or Polish? Helps to keep you sharp.
You find yourself losing those languages?
Yes, especially Polish. I barely speak Polish, unless it's with my dad — which is rare nowadays because he likes to speak English with my family. German, I speak with some friends but I feel it getting rusty. It's not an easy language. Every time I go back in the winter, I can tell that I've lost a little bit of it. They'll tell me, "Oh, you've got a slight accent," and I'll get mad because I don't like hearing that because I'm from Germany. It's a hard language, though.
Culturally, are you pretty much American now?
I'd say so, and I don't like saying that. But if you spend most of every full year over here—and I only get to spend a month at most in Germany—you're going to be Americanized if you want it or not. Yeah, I miss Germany a lot. The lifestyle over there.
What's the one thing you miss the most?
The food. The food and, probably, the vibe. It's a different vibe over there. I feel like it's a judgment-free zone in Europe, compared to here. Everything gets put into a personal perspective here. Everybody's trying to prove themselves over here. I mean, it is the land of opportunity and people are trying to make it. But over there, it's different. People think Germans are very strict and uptight. They're very easygoing when they speak one-on-one with a stranger. They're very honest, though.
Yeah. If you're not liked by somebody you just meet, they're going to be very direct about it. Here, you can never tell.
You know where you stand over there.
Exactly. Here, everybody is super friendly. But then again, you'll never hear from them the day after you meet them. In Germany, if someone is super-friendly to you, they probably mean it, and they want to hold on to that relationship. They're interested in you. I know it's a good thing to be polite but I'd take honesty over being polite. I think that's why people think Germans are angry most of the time.
How did you cram the final two years of high school into one?
I took of online classes. And when I came over from Germany, I was halfway through my ninth grade, of high school. And because our school system over there is more advanced, even though I was a sophomore, they put me as a senior. They actually started me out in sophomore classes and I guess I was just too advanced.
Do you feel like part of your youth was sacrificed? At 16, you were taking advanced high school classes during the day and playing professional baseball at night and on the weekends?
Mm-hmm. I missed out on a lot of things at that age when I was working, but that's why I moved away from Berlin. It was dragging me down a little. People I knew were starting to go out and party, and starting to introduce themselves to fun things at 16. I had a goal, which my mom put emphasis on. She said, you should go down south and play baseball in this boarding school, where you can focus on what you want to achieve in life. So I did that and luckily I got away from the stuff that could have dragged me down in Berlin.
You're away from Germany, but you're only one state away from what is said to be one of the most German states in the U.S., Wisconsin. Is that comforting? Can you get a little German fix if you cross into Eau Claire?
I remember playing in Beloit, Wisconsin, and people were telling me, "This is one of the more German places in the U.S." I couldn't really tell, though. Just a lot of cheese
If you had stayed in the minor leagues much longer, like at Rochester in Triple-A, do you think they would have had a themed jersey in your honor and had the guys dressed in lederhosen uniforms?
That's a good question. We had an event in Regensburg, where one time we wore actual lederhosen during a game and it was the most uncomfortable game I've ever played. It was the hottest — even though it wasn't that hot out.
But they're shorts! Shouldn't it be comfy?
Yeah, but it's legit leather, so they don't really breathe.
The Twins scout who discovered you, Andy Johnson, is based in Norway. Are there really ballplayers there, too?
We're everywhere. Yeah, they're everywhere. Not at the best level, but they're playing and making the best out of what they have out there. Playing on cornfields, soccer fields, building mounds out of planks and stuff with some Turface on top. I've played on some crazy fields. There's always a way to play a ballgame.
You've still got a career here with the Twins, but could you see yourself going on a mission to make ball fields around the world?
Yeah. If I'm successful here, giving it a couple of years, I'd definitely want to start some kind of movement to push that. Push the youth in that direction in Europe, trying to get them to see more than soccer.
The Yankees made a bid to sign you. Why did you think and your parents think that the Twins would be better?
I heard the farm system likes to work with every individual and puts an effort into every player they sign. Other organizations, they tend to give more attention to players who have gotten the bigger bonus. And the Twins — or at least what I had heard — was that they are more patient with players, and I needed that because I was coming from a country that wasn't as advanced in baseball. So I was like, "All right, I'm going to need the slow way to the top."
Molitor acknowledges that he's put a lot on you for being a rookie. You play almost every day, against left-handers a lot, too. You hit in the middle of the lineup. Do you ever feel overwhelmed? Maybe not to the point where you feel, "I can't do this!" But do you realize how hard it is, what you're trying to do?
Yeah. I mean, it's hard on your body playing every day. But the game itself, it'll only get hard once it speeds up on you. And I'm still learning how to slow things down when that happens. Mentally and physically, having to keep your body and your mind right. Luckily, I'm still 23 so I still have time to learn. I'm an open book and I'm trying to soak it all in.
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