09/24/09 3:00 AM ET
Twins' Kepler-Rozycki is in his element
German outfield prospect transitioning to life in U.S.
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
"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.