GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Apart from serving as the lone major international baseball competition since the sport’s ouster from the Olympics, one of the main goals of the World Baseball Classic since its inception has been to foster the worldwide growth of baseball, to get young people in countries across the globe to pick up a glove and a bat, and start playing.
One of the first children of that generation of international players, ironically enough, wasn’t even aware of the Classic when it debuted in 2006. Yet, seven years after that inaugural event,
Cincinnati Reds farmhand Donald Lutz is on the verge of becoming the first German national to play in the Major Leagues.
“I didn’t see it,” he laughs bashfully, hiding his face in shame. “I didn’t even know.”
Lutz just started to play baseball towards the end of 2006, and blossomed in 2007, to the point where he was invited to an MLB-sponsored academy in Italy.
“Before that, I didn’t really have much to do with baseball. I just played hockey and European handball,” says Lutz.
Lutz -- born to an American father and a German mother in Watertown, New York -- moved to Germany full-time after his parents split, when he was just one year old. He was raised by his mother in Friedberg, Germany, just outside of Frankfurt.
“I just grew up like a regular German,” says Lutz, who was required to learn English during secondary school.
“In school, English is mandatory, so you’ve got to be decent at it, even just to graduate, so everybody speaks a little bit. Once I came over here, the first couple years, I remember I had a really thick accent, and I was kind of afraid to talk to people, because they couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them,” says Lutz. “But, after a few years, I got more established. It faded. The more you talk and have conversations, it gets better and better and better. People are always telling me that I’ve got all kinds of a messed up accent. I don’t even know what’s going on.”
After discovering baseball in 2006, and starting to play in youth leagues, he was picked to be a part of an annual academy in Italy in August of 2007.
“They invite the 60 best players out of Europe and Africa. It’s like a try-out camp, where a bunch of scouts come out, and that’s where the scout contacted me the first time,” says Lutz, who has grown into a 6-foot-3, 235-pound outfielder/first baseman for the Redlegs. “We went to that academy, and they had a bunch of gear out there, and I remember that they gave out, for the winning team, they gave out some pants from the Dominican Republic, and I remember Manny Ramirez’s pants. We had the World Baseball Classic balls for BP and stuff like that, and that’s where I first really realized [that the WBC existed].”
Unbeknownst to him, he got a glimpse of his future organization at that academy, meeting a Reds legend as he worked out for scouts.
“Barry Larkin was actually there. He used to run the camp out there. Rod Carew came out, a bunch of big people. That was pretty cool,” says Lutz, who admits, “by then, I didn’t really have much baseball knowledge. I didn’t watch it growing up. I didn’t even know what he did. Rod Carew, he signed my ball and put ‘HOF’ on it. I didn’t even know what it meant. My friends and I, we were like, ‘What’s that?’ We had to Google it.”
At just 17 years-old, Lutz caught the eye of scouts, and he was signed almost immediately. He came over to the United States in the summer of 2008, and played two seasons for the rookie league Gulf Coast League Reds. He played in 50 games over two seasons, hitting just two home runs. He had a lot to learn about the game, still, but he took every chance he could to get at-bats.
After a quality season at Billings, Mont., in the Pioneer League, hitting .286 in 55 games, he sojourned down under to the Australian Baseball League, where he hit .260 in 29 games, with five home runs and four stolen bases in 110 plate appearances. When he got back to the United States, he was assigned to Single-A Dayton, where, in 506 plate appearances over 123 games, hitting .301 with 20 homers, 75 RBI and 23 doubles. Something clearly had clicked with the big German.
“Australia helped me out a lot,” Lutz says. “Even before I came here, I’d only played two years of baseball, so I didn’t have many at-bats. I tried to get as many at-bats as I could, especially in Dayton. My hitting coach and manager, I got so much good coaching all the time, and at some point, it clicked. I figured stuff out. I try to take stuff in from everybody, be like a big sponge.”
Lutz had played in several youth and semi-professional leagues during his time back home in Germany – and his 0-for performance in the first bundesliga (the highest level he played while across the pond) still irks him, even though he’s wearing a big league uniform. But even with that smudge on his resume, he was delighted to play for the German national team during the 2012 World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Regensberg, Germany, at the same facility in which he played as a youth.
“It was huge. They even filled the stadium,” Lutz says. “It has definitely advanced. It opened eyes for little kids. I’ve never seen so many German kids out there, having fun, just playing catch on the sidelines. You don’t see that. It really helped out a lot for the community and for getting people into baseball, and showing them that there’s actually pretty high-level baseball played in Germany, too.”
Lutz went 4-for-13 with four runs and 2 RBI, starting at first base throughout the four-game tournament, but saw his team get the boot in the finals against Canada, which blew out the home team, 11-1.
“It’s really going to suck,” laughs Lutz, when asked what he’ll feel while watching the Classic games play out in Arizona. “I think they’re trying to rub it in, too. I think we’re going to play against Team Canada here in an exhibition -- the team that kicked us out. But, I’ve got a bunch of friends in it, and I wish them good luck. But, it really, really sucks.”
Even while expressing such suckitude, Lutz is all smiles. And so is manager Dusty Baker. Baker raved about how hard Lutz strikes the ball, and with a bit more experience and plate discipline, Lutz could very well be an impact power hitter at the big league level fairly soon -- perhaps even by the next WBC.
“It’s big. Every country over there in Europe, everyone is trying to get better,” Lutz says. “They get a lot of support from Major League Baseball. They’re setting people up, they’re doing clinics and everything. The level is getting better and better, too. We can compete in World Championships now, and European Championships are high-level baseball. Everything just keeps improving, which is a good thing.”
As it stands, Lutz will likely start the season at Triple-A, and though he started Saturday’s game for Cincinnat in left field -- making one tough catch on a knuckling liner -- his future seems to be either at first base or designated hitter.
“It means a lot that they gave me a chance,” Lutz says of the Reds. “They believe in me. They put me on the [40-man] roster and everything. It’s exciting. I’m learning so much stuff every day, even just talking to them and watching the games and everything. It’s played a little differently, obviously, than the minor leagues. I try to learn as much as I can right now, with the time I’m spending here.”
His baseball career has even allowed Lutz -- who’s full name is Donald Lutz III -- to reconnect with his father, Donald Lutz, Jr. Three years ago, he and his father met for the first time since he left for Germany.
“It was fun. It wasn’t awkward,” says Lutz. “It was more like seeing a good friend, because I never really knew him. It was good seeing him, just catching up. He’s where I got my skinny calves from, so I got to see where those came from.”
He pulls up his pants to show that, no, he cannot pull off the high-cuffed look.
“I realized that’s where I got those from,” he laughs. “It was really good. We caught up, and we try to see each other every year.”
As for what the American father thinks of his German son being so close to the Major Leagues? “He was proud,” Lutz says. “He’s excited. He supports me.”