Twins' Kepler-Rozycki is in his element
German outfield prospect transitioning to life in U.S.
Standing inside the duty-free shop at the Dusseldorf Airport in Germany, Kathy Kepler and her son, Max, were preparing to buy some chocolates before boarding a direct flight to Fort Myers, Fla., last month when she noticed some people staring at Max.It didn't take long before they approached to ask the 16-year-old boy a question, "Are you Max Kepler -- Rozycki?" When he responded yes, it was quickly followed with, "Oh my gosh, can we get an autograph and a picture?" At 16, Max Kepler-Rozycki already is garnering quite a bit of attention. The 6-foot-3, 193-pound outfielder from Berlin was recently signed by the Twins and given a $775,000 bonus -- the largest amount ever given to a position prospect outside of the U.S. and Latin America. Scouts have compared Max's graceful swing to that of former Major Leaguer Shawn Green, although he is still two years away from graduating high school. For the Twins' Norway-based scout Andy Johnson, there was no question that there was something special about this kid when he first spotted Max two years ago. "There was a lot of really easy, graceful athleticism," Johnson said. "The way he ran, his swing, the movements, it was easy to see that he was just athletically gifted beyond everyone he was playing with." But in addition to Max being labeled by some scouts as perhaps the most talented prospect to come out of Europe, there was something else that made him even more attractive to the Twins and the 15-16 other Major League teams that scouted him over the last year: his family understood better than most what it takes to reach an elite level athletically. Unique background Max is the son of two former stars in the Berlin ballet. An unusual gene pool for a baseball player to be sure, but one that many believe has played a role in the graceful athleticism that Max has shown at such an early age. Max's American-born mother, Kathy, began dancing at the age of 12 in San Antonio, Texas. At 15, she was awarded a scholarship by the Joffrey Ballet School in New York and moved there by herself to train. In 1984, Kathy joined the Berlin ballet where she met her husband Marek Rozycki. Marek was originally from Poland, where he had been sent to a ballet school at the age of 10 by his parents, who wanted to give their son a better future. Marek had defected from Poland two years prior to meeting Kathy and already was a member of the same company in Berlin. The two began dating in 1985 and soon married, having two children -- Max and a daughter, Emma. Max's parents introduced him to music and the arts at a young age, although he never took up the same passion for dance. Instead, his attention was focused on sports -- including baseball, soccer, tennis, swimming and skiing, among others. There were signs of Max's athletic gift very early on. At age 7, he was even awarded a tennis scholarship to the Steffi Graf Tennis Foundation in Berlin. But while he excelled in many of those other sports, baseball became Max's passion. Max's baseball career began at the John F. Kennedy School, an American school in Berlin. His parents didn't know much about the sport at the time, but they instilled many of their own lessons from ballet into their son. Understanding the physicality of a sport, Marek and Kathy often massaged and stretched their son's legs. They also taught him about concentrating and using correct breathing techniques to focus while he was playing. And of course, there was the all important footwork -- which his parents knew very well from their own profession. When Max was younger, he was hesitant to tell anyone about his parents' profession. Friends on his team would pretend to do pirouettes before games to tease him about his mom and dad being in the ballet. "But now I think he's getting the last chuckle," Kathy said. Growing as a ballplayer At age 11, Max wanted to spend more time playing baseball than the eight-week program at his school, so his mom looked into other German ballclubs in Berlin. She found one in town and enrolled Max in the program. There Max worked with a trainer named Willie, who was originally from the Dominican Republic. Sitting in a small chair inside a gymnasium where the team practiced in the winter, Willie would throw balls to Max for him to hit. But Max was having a hard time making contact with the ball, so Willie began throwing balls that would hit the boy if he couldn't get the bat to them quickly enough. Seeing that, Marek wanted to pull his son out of the program immediately. But Kathy wanted to see what Max thought first. Standing there with his little lips quivering, Max was assured by his parents that he didn't have to continue. However, Max had different ideas.
"Willie was right. I was not concentrating and I have to learn how to aim better and concentrate better so I can hit the ball," Max told his parents."That was that," Kathy said. "He stayed there and worked with Willie for three years, really growing as a ballplayer. And we knew then that he was taking this game more seriously than your average kid." Scouting early on Johnson was the first scout to show interest in Max. It came when Max was 14 and playing for the junior national team at a tournament in Bonn, Germany. Around that same time, Max was once again growing bored and feeling like he wanted to do more with baseball than he could at the club in Berlin. "The trainers there told us that they couldn't do anything more with him, so we looked into other options," Kathy said. That meant moving Max to Regensburg, a small town in southern Germany where there was a baseball boarding school being run by Martin Brunner. In the past three years, the school has exported seven players to the U.S. to play in the Minor Leagues and for Max, the school only helped increase the amount of attention on him. In addition to the Twins, a total of 14-15 other Major League teams traveled to Germany to take a look at the highly touted prospect. That included the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. "It was a bit overwhelming for us at first," Kathy said of the attention given to Max. "Our approach in the beginning was that he's so young. But as things got more serious with team's interest, we realized we couldn't ignore it. So we tried to figure out what was the best plan for Max." After doing a lot of research into the teams pursuing Max, Kathy said that she and her husband felt the Twins were the best fit based on their plan to help the 16-year-old with his development. So in July, Max signed his contract and prepared for his next step. A new home Max and his mother arrived in Fort Myers last month in time for him to begin his junior year in high school at South Fort Myers High School. Marek, who is currently a professor for classical dance and an assistant director at the state ballet school in Berlin, and Emma, have remained back in Germany. Emma is also a gifted athlete and is currently on a golf scholarship at school with a 14 handicap. But Kathy left the family and her job behind for the time being to help Max settle into his new life in Florida. The palm trees and hot, humid weather has been a stark contrast to life in Germany. So too, has the school system, but in a good way, Max said. His schedule now consists of going to school from 7:15 a.m. until 10 a.m. before heading across the street to the Twins' Lee County Sports Complex to train until about 2 p.m. Max's schedule has been tailored to allow time for baseball by having him also take a couple of online courses that he can complete in the evenings. It's not too overwhelming for Max, who is trilingual -- speaking fluent English, German and Polish -- and is strong in many academic subjects, as he's enrolled in honors courses in school. But Max is still a typical teen in a lot of ways. Once he leaves the ballpark, he heads home to finish his homework. Unlike the other ballplayers, he also lives with his mom in an apartment near the field. On Thursday, the Twins' annual fall instructional league began and Max will be taking part in that as well. The days will grow a little longer at the field with games taking place. Max's official Minor League playing career won't begin, though, until next summer. During the 2010 season, he'll play for the Twins Rookie Gulf Coast League team managed by Jake Mauer, the brother of Twins catcher Joe Mauer. This is the first time the Twins have brought a teenage prospect to the U.S. to go to school and train, so it's a learning process for everyone involved. But the Twins' Minor League field coordinator Joe Lepel, who has been working with Max one-on-one since he arrived in Florida, has been impressed with what he's seen from the young man. "I think his maturity level and how he carries himself is a little older than 16," Lepel said. Although he's considered a five-tool prospect and already blessed with an athletic physique at his age, Max is still a question mark in what type of player he will become. "He's at a point where you don't know if he's going to be really, really fast or a masher," Johnson said. "Physically you can see there is a lot of projectability in the body, but you don't necessarily know if he's going to get big and mash or if he's going to be a lankier version of Grady Sizemore." If anyone knows that there is still a long road ahead of Max, it's his parents. Kathy recounts being 17 and competing against 400 girls for one spot in the Houston ballet. She got it at the time, but said that it was a competitive world where nothing ever came easy -- even after getting that initial contract. "We know this is just the beginning for Max," Kathy said. "Now he's going to really learn what it takes to be a good player and to advance." The Major Leagues are still a ways off for the prospect, but for now he's just happy to be in Fort Myers and surrounded by the sport he loves. Baseball is still relatively new in Germany, with other sports like soccer and tennis being far more popular. Here, he's finding things very different. "We walked in a restaurant the other day and the TVs were on, wall-to-wall with baseball," Kathy said. "In Germany, you say you play baseball and some people may say they've heard of it, but it's not really a big sport. Now Max is in his element."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.