Lutz’s arrival a milestone for MLB

The former hockey player from Friedberg, Germany, sits in the visiting dugout at Wrigley Field and looks out onto one of the most famous lawns in America.

Donald Lutz, his chin burrowed in a grey Cincinnati Reds hoodie to ward off the damp cold one recent afternoon, is asked what it means that he’s here, steps away from where Babe Ruth called his shot.

He laughs.

“I think,” Lutz says, “I still haven’t realized where I’m at right now.”

It’s starting to settle in: Lutz, a 24-year-old outfielder who debuted with the Reds last week, is believed to be the first German-developed player in Major League Baseball history.

For proof that he’s made it as a sports hero in Germany, look no further than his ongoing Twitter conversation with Dirk Nowitzki. After Lutz singled off Chicago Cubs reliever Shawn Camp for his first hit Sunday afternoon, the NBA star tweeted, “first hit in the big leagues? Stark mein junge. Congrats”

Translation: Strong, my boy.

Lutz’s first stint in the majors may last only as long as Chris Heisey remains on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. But in the same year the World Baseball Classic showcased the sport’s expanding global reach, Lutz’s arrival is another milestone. And his Twitter bio (@braunerhulk) — “First german in the show!!” — reflects how eagerly Lutz is embracing his new, unofficial role as baseball’s ambassador to the country.

“I love it,” he says, “I told everybody all the time, ‘I want to be the first one out here.’ People always thought I was joking.

“I don’t feel pressure. It’s just an amazing feeling. I’m really proud. Hard work pays off. I hope I can be an example to German kids. My old coaches are already hitting me up, saying, ‘We’re going to put a poster of you on the wall. We want you to sign it as an inspiration to the kids.’ That really gets me going. That really means a lot. I want to be able to help them out.”

Germany currently ranks behind the Netherlands and Italy in the European baseball hierarchy, but may have greater growth potential than its continental rivals. One reason is scale: Germany is the most populous country in Western or Central Europe. According to data compiled by the Confederation of European Baseball, Germany has the most registered amateur baseball players of any country in Europe.

Many in the industry see Berlin-born outfielder Max Kepler, a Minnesota Twins prospect, as the most promising European player in the professional ranks. Germany hosted a World Baseball Classic qualifier in Regensburg last fall — Lutz batted .308 in four games — and the country’s baseball federation has contacted Major League Baseball about the possibility of hosting regular-season games in the future.

MLB officials have researched the viability of retrofitting Bayern Munich’s soccer stadium for a regular-season series. Munich is merely one of many options MLB is considering for overseas games, but it’s apparent that baseball is gaining popularity in the country. “Germany shows great promise for rapid baseball growth,” says Jim Stoeckel, the Reds’ director of global scouting who signed Lutz. “There are nice facilities and talented athletes.”

Lutz was born in Watertown, N.Y., to an African-American father and German mother. His parents met in Germany, where his father, Donald Lutz II, served in the U.S. Army. They divorced when Donald was eight months old, at which point his mother, Marlen, moved back to Germany with her three children.

“From then on, I lived like a regular German,” says Lutz, who has dual citizenship. “We didn’t speak any English at home. I was just a regular German with an American passport.

“I usually just say I’m German. It was cool sometimes to act like you’re an American and show your passport around. The only thing I had (growing up) was I was the only guy with short hair, where you cut it really short, and obviously my skin color.”

Lutz didn’t meet his father until about three years ago, but they’ve kept in touch since then; the elder Lutz watched his son play for the Reds’ Double-A affiliate in Pensacola, Fla., last year. “It was interesting at first — it wasn’t really weird,” Lutz says of the day he met his father. “Some guys asked me if it was weird. It was more like meeting a good friend. We had a lot of things in common. It was cool to finally get to see him.”

So, how did Lutz come to play baseball? He was a defenseman long before an outfielder, because one of his close friends at school was the son of a hockey trainer. Lutz, an imposing 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds today, was bigger than everyone then, too. He loved to hit and had a booming slap shot. How many times did he drop the gloves? “A few,” he says, smiling, “but not too many people actually fought me.”

The teenage Lutz saw his athletic life change forever on the day his older brother, Sascha — who already had picked up baseball — took him to practice. Lutz grabbed a bat and tried to hit right-handed. It didn’t go well. But a coach there asked Lutz — a left-handed shooter in hockey — to try hitting from the other side of the plate. The laser show began, and Lutz was in love with the game.

Before long, he was on his way to Germany’s national baseball academy in Regensburg. He spent roughly a year and a half there, signed with the Reds at age 18 in 2007, and started climbing through the minor leagues one year later.

Research through shows 41 German-born players have reached the majors, but they generally fall into one of two categories: They immigrated to the U.S. as children during the late 19th or early 20th centuries; or they were born on U.S. military bases after World War II and grew up mostly in the United States.

Lutz’s story is unique, which is why he can become such a compelling figure: He’s a biracial German who grew up in a soccer-mad country and has reached the pinnacle of America’s national pastime. English was once a foreign language to him; he speaks it flawlessly now. Lutz appreciates the extraordinary nature of his journey, but he’s more concerned with what it means for others. “I’m hoping to improve baseball in Germany — especially now that I got here,” he says. “I want to bring some light over there, to make people aware of the talent (we have).”

Even though the Germans lost on home soil in the final of last autumn’s WBC qualifier, the atmosphere left an impression on Lutz. He remembers the sight of kids playing catch throughout Armin-Wolf Baseball Arena during the games. “We never used to have that,” he says. Now those kids have something they lacked one year and even one month ago — a German role model in the major leagues.

For now, Nowitzki (@swish41) has a sizeable lead in Twitter followers over @braunerhulk. But let’s see if Lutz can close the deficit over time. As his bio says, he’s the first German in The Show. His legacy will be those that follow.