Donald Lutz's first swings with a baseball bat came right-handed, and they didn't feel right at all.
Lutz was 15 years old, and like most kids in Germany, he had never played baseball. But one day his older brother Sascha took him to a field and told him to give it a try. Those first uncomfortable hacks soon became a memory when Lutz decided to swing the bat the same way he handled a hockey stick: left-handed.
"So I started crushing the ball," Lutz said, "and from there, I was like, 'That's a lot of fun.' So I continued to play."
Baseball stuck for Lutz, who earned a contract from the Reds, played his way onto the organization's 40-man roster as a first baseman/outfielder and reached Double-A this season at age 23. Now the sport is taking him on a homecoming trip, thanks to the World Baseball Classic qualifier that begins on Thursday at Armin-Wolf Baseball Arena in Regensburg, Germany. The host country will battle Canada, the Czech Republic and Great Britain for a spot in the Classic, which is set for March.
For Lutz and some of his teammates, the tournament offers a true return to their roots, as well as a reminder of how far baseball has come in Germany. As with Lutz's introduction to the sport, the process isn't necessarily smooth, but it seems to be finding its course.
"The level of baseball keeps improving year to year, the competition is getting better and better, and there's actually some high-class baseball being played out here right now," said Lutz, who was born in New York but moved to Germany with his mother at age 1.
Twins prospect Max Kepler, 19, grew up in Germany as the son of an American-born mother and a Polish-born father, who met as ballet dancers in Berlin. Three years ago, he received the largest signing bonus ever for a position player outside of the U.S. or Latin America. The outfielder was an Appalachian League All-Star this season.
Kepler has seen his sport start to take root back home.
"The youth is picking up on playing baseball, not just soccer," Kepler said. "If you compare it to the U.S., they're still not as far, but they're getting there. They're getting there slowly."
About 30,000 people play baseball in Germany, on 230 teams organized by the German Baseball Association. Major League Baseball supports academies around the country, including in Regensburg, where Lutz and Kepler played before signing pro contracts in the U.S.
Armin-Wolf Arena, whose capacity will be increased to 10,000 for the qualifier, also hosted the 2009 Baseball World Cup preliminary round. Lutz couldn't play that time due to injury, so he has eagerly been awaiting this second chance and the opportunity to help his country advance, on the heels of a fourth-place finish at the European Championship.
"I'm really looking forward to playing in front of [the home crowd], and it'd be huge," said Lutz, who hit 22 home runs and slugged .517 between three Minor League levels this year. "I'm really proud to represent my country and wear that uniform."
Kepler called it "an honor" to play for Germany.
Kepler, who has needed to play catch-up in his career after developing outside a baseball hotbed, insists he is now "right there with" his peers. After a tough 2011, Kepler returned to Rookie-level Elizabethton this season and put up a .297/.387/.539 batting line. The success means even more because of his origins.
"It's a blessing to me and to German baseball," Kepler said. "It's a sign to show them that anybody in Germany can make it, anybody in Europe can make it, anybody in the world can make it. Everybody who comes from across the ocean is challenged, but if you work hard and stay focused, you can do it."