CEDAR RAPIDS – Most baseball people know Max Kepler’s one-of-a-kind back story. It’s arguably the best in all of minor-league baseball.
All of professional baseball.
“I ask myself ‘How do people not know it at this point?’” the Cedar Rapids Kernels outfielder said Tuesday afternoon, after his two-run home run in the eighth inning lifted his team to a 6-4 win over Burlington before 3,459 fans at Veterans Memorial Stadium. “It’s out there, you know? You want to hear it?”
So the courteous 20-year-old told the story of his young life for what had to seem like the millionth time.
Kepler was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, where his parents (Kathy Kepler and Marek Rozycki) met as professional ballet dancers. His mom originally is from Texas, his dad from Poland.
Neither Max nor his sister ever gravitated toward the ballet. His sister is a golfer, while he played soccer growing up and another sport unique to most Germans.
“My mom got me into it,” Kepler said. “She’s a big baseball fan, being from Texas. We just found the littlest league in Germany that it was possible to play. I started out in that league … and I guess I made something out of it from there.”
The Minnesota Twins loved his potential and signed him at age 16 for $800,000 as an international free agent in 2009. It’s the largest signing bonus ever for a European player.
Kepler moved to Fort Myers, Fla., to finish high school and get his pro career started. He has begun to fill out nicely physically (6-foot-4 and 207 pounds) and is starting to progress into the player the Twins thought he’d eventually be.
The left-hander was supposed to break spring training with the Kernels but incurred a strained elbow and a couple of rehabilitation setbacks that kept him in Florida in extended spring training until the beginning of the Midwest League’s second half last weekend.
“It took me awhile to get back, but it’s better. A lot better, a lot stronger,” Kepler said of his elbow. “It was depressing, it felt like I went through a depression. But injuries are a part of baseball. You’ve just got to fight through it.”
Kepler has made an immediate impression, with four doubles and a home run in his first five games with Cedar Rapids (45-28 overall). With a man on and none out in the eighth, he lofted a fly to left field against Burlington reliever Joey Krehbiel (3-4) that carried just onto the short porch for the game-winning hit.
Kaleb Merck (1-0) retired all seven Bees he faced to pick up the “vulture” win in relief. The Kernels scored four times in the seventh to make it a 4-4 game, including Jorge Polanco’s game-tying, bases-loaded triple with two outs.
The Kernels are 5-0 in the second half.
“It’s been a lot of things,” said Kernels Manager Jake Mauer. “Our pitching staff is beginning to give us more innings. That game today could have gotten out of hand at any point … You give this offense a chance, and they’re going to make good on it a lot of times.”
Kepler hit fifth Monday, by the way, and played center field for the first time, replacing promoted wunderkind Byron Buxton. He doesn’t have the speed and grace of Buxton out there, but did a nice job.
Mauer indicated Kepler also will get some repetitions in left field and first base as well.
“I’m just doing my own thing, focusing on myself,” Kepler said. “(Buxton) is a great player, and I hope the best for him. I love playing center field, and I’m going to do my best at it.”
Kernels reliever Tim Atherton had to be removed from Tuesday’s game after throwing to three batters in the seventh, walking two. Mauer said Atherton had a tight back, an injury which he didn’t think was serious.
Cedar Rapids announced right-handed pitcher Madison Boer has joined the team from high-Class A Fort Myers. Boer was a second-round draft pick of the Twins in 2011 out of the University of Oregon but struggled as a starter last season in Fort Myers and again this season in three games before going on the disabled list.
Mauer said he will begin his Kernels’ tenure as a reliever. Cedar Rapids and Burlington (27-43) play again Wednesday night at 6:35, with the two-millionth fan at newer Veterans Memorial Stadium likely coming through the gates.
The lucky fan will receive a prize package worth $3,000.
Here is the game boxscore:
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