On a recent rainy November day, Twins outfielder Max Kepler and Minor League pitcher Markus Solbach, who pitched in Triple-A for the Dodgers last year, were living out a German kid’s dream: They were hanging out with Hertha Berlin of the Bundesliga. It’s the team that Kepler trained briefly with as a goalie in his youth, and now they were there, putting on uniforms and getting absolutely crushed — in the video game “FIFA,” that is.
They chose Kepler’s new hometown team, Minnesota United of the MLS, and took on two esports Champions — including a three-time German “FIFA” champion — who were in charge of Hertha.
“They took it easy on us,” Solbach said with a laugh in a recent Zoom interview with MLB.com. “They could have torn us apart.”
“There’s moves I could have never have imagined were even possible,” Kepler added. “But I haven’t been on the sticks for at least three, four years. So, I was out of my element and then just thrown into chaos.”
The two German-born baseballers — Kepler hails from Berlin, Solbach is from Dormagen — spent three days showing off the American sport in their home country. In between leading baseball master classes for groups of 10- to 13-year-olds, they hung out with the soccer club for a little bit of cross-Atlantic sporting diplomacy.
After Kepler and Solbach watched the team train and took part in some shooting drills — Markus was 5-for-5, Max a respectable 3-for-5 — they took Hertha’s players to take some hacks in the cage.
“They actually hit the ball off the tee,” Solbach said. “Like, they made contact.”
“Except for one guy,” Kepler said with a grin. “He swung and missed.”
But that’s the way it is in Germany. If you grow up playing soccer, with maybe some tennis or basketball experience, you’re at a huge disadvantage when you try to play baseball.
“I think that’s why American athletes [have a more] diverse skillset, because they learn how to use their feet, they learn how to use their hands and they play all these different sports,” Solbach said. “They can even shoot a hockey puck on ice. If you’re a strict German kid, who just grows up the natural way, you learn how to play soccer and you almost lose ability to use your hands [when] throwing and catching. The coordination is just completely different. But what they can do with their feet? I mean, if you’ve never played soccer, you can’t even appreciate it. It’s unbelievable.”
Kepler and Solbach want that change. So many German kids don’t even think of baseball, and those that play certainly don’t dream of playing it professionally.
Kepler was pegged as a talent early on, but even then his parents — who were both ballet dancers — needed to take a leap of faith. After starring on adult teams in his early teens, Kepler needed to leave home and head to a baseball academy in Regensburg to further his career.
“A year or two before I got sent to the boarding school, I noticed that I was playing for the junior team, the youth team and then two men’s teams, and it was pretty much consuming my Thursday to Sunday,” Kepler said. “And I was like, ‘OK, this is getting more serious than before,’ when I was just standing in the outfield on a Sunday, with a burger in one hand and a Dr Pepper in the other.”
Kepler caught the eye of a Twins scout who signed the outfielder when he was 16 years old. Max and his mother then moved to Fort Myers, Fla., where the youngster played in the Gulf Coast League — all while finishing high school.
Solbach had a very different path. He also enjoyed playing in the men’s leagues, but no one had picked him out from the crowd and encouraged him to go pro. It was only when he was invited to play with Germany’s Under-18 National Team that he considered there might be a future.
“You’ve never actually had proper coaching and you’re still just as good or even better than these guys,” the coaches told him.
“Once I turned 19, I went from like 84 mph to 90 mph within a week by actually having somebody coach me. That changed my whole mindset and made my career.”
Since then, baseball’s taken him around the globe. Solbach has played in Germany, Australia, Italy and the U.S. — and he’s come one rung away from reaching the Major Leagues and is currently a free agent.
“I’m very blessed that I got to learn every single way of playing,” Solbach said. “And I think that that’s why I’m still around. And I’m still figuring stuff out because I’ve had hundreds of coaches, who’ve been teaching me different cultures and different styles.”
While Kepler and Solbach were lucky to find a path to the pros, so many other kids may not see a future in it.
“Obviously, for the youth, these camps are essential and I think very important — not just to the community of baseball in Germany, but from here on out and into the future,” Kepler said.
“What I try to do with the pitchers — and [what Max] probably did with the hitters, too — was to give them one little thing that they can take in their everyday practice. Maybe not a mechanical thing, but just the way they see baseball and the way they understand what we’re doing and why we’re here,” Solbach said. “You can talk about baseball 24/7, but most importantly, just if they can take one little thing out of this, then they’ve already gotten better. And then we’ve already done what we came here to achieve.”
There’s work to be done. Donald Lutz and Kepler are the only two German-developed players to reach the Major Leagues, and while the overall standard of play in their home country is higher than ever, the individual talent isn’t. A rash of German signings in the early 2000s has fallen off to where only a few players, like Solbach, are left in the Minors.
“If we could maybe figure out a way to have games played in Europe more often, that would definitely grow the audience,” Kepler said. “Just introduce it to people that probably have never seen it or even understood the game. Give them a chance to just see some baseball, because there’s so much around the game. Even if you’re not actually enjoying the game, there’s a whole atmosphere around baseball that is unique to any other sport.”
Reaching the upcoming 2023 World Baseball Classic is a goal, too. Germany has never qualified for the tournament. It reached the finals of the 2013 Classic qualifiers before falling to Canada, 11-1, but went 0-2 in 2017. It’ll be playing this spring in hopes of qualifying, with France pegged as the first opponent. Because Kepler is on the Twins’ 40-man roster, he can’t participate unless Germany reaches the main tournament.
But Solbach will be there, hoping to pitch his team to international heights.
“I haven’t gotten to play for my country in seven to eight years, which is tough on me,” Kepler said. “But maybe someday I’ll be back on that roster because that is a unique experience and it means a lot to me. But I’ll be living through Markus.”