One sunny afternoon last year, I sat at Wurstküche, a 14th-century riverside café in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, eating sausages and drinking Pilsner with a local sportsman named Martin Brunner. Crowds strolled over the Danube on the Stone Bridge, a landmark completed in 1148. Above a medieval skyline of Gothic clock towers and red-tile roofs, I could see the spires of the Regensburg cathedral, where Joseph Ratzinger served as cardinal before he became Pope Benedict XVI. Regensburg, which was barely touched by Allied bombs, is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Bavaria’s most popular tourist attractions. Lately the city has taken on a new identity: the capital of German baseball.
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Brunner—the man largely responsible for that transformation—grew up 70 miles from here, in Weilheim, south of Munich, and fell into baseball in 1990 at age 17. Major League Baseball at the time was sponsoring a “Pitch, Hit and Run” program that dispatched coaches to Western Europe, spreading America’s pastime to youth groups and high schools. “My friends were raving about it, so I came out and tried to hit that ball,” he told me. “When the ball jumped off that bat, it felt so good I wanted to have it every day. It caught me.” His enthusiasm for the sport grew when he spent a few months in Indiana on a college engineering internship. One day he watched the Fort Wayne Wizards play before a crowd of 10,000 people. It was only a minor-league team in a second-tier stadium, but he found the experience “exhilarating”. During that same trip in 1994, he was invited to work out with the University of Arizona baseball team at its stadium in Tucson, and he marveled at the Bermuda grass covering the outfield. “I just had to reach down and grab it. Was it for real? Was it artificial?” he recalled. “It is so thick, so brilliant. It was like your feet never touched the ground.”
Brunner, a short, balding, and energetic 39-year-old who speaks fluent English with just a trace of a German accent, was good enough to land a spring training tryout with the Montreal Expos in 1997. “If you grow up swinging aluminum and never see a pitch faster than 80 [mph], good luck adjusting,” he told me. The team cut him loose. He was disappointed, but he’d become infused with a new ambition: to build the foundations for the sport to grow in Germany. That same spring, after he returned from the States, he was recruited as a player and coach by the Regensburg Legionäre, the local semipro team; five years later, Brunner rented space in a boarding school to house five teenage players, recruited from baseball programs across Germany, and founded the Regensburg Baseball Academy.
The young prospects, who now number 16, attend high schools in Regensburg, and follow a year-round regimen of cardiovascular work, diet counseling and weight training. Most play more than 100 games between April and October—a dozen graduates have signed U.S. Major League contracts—including Berlin-born Max Kepler, an $850,000 bonus baby with the Minnesota Twins, and Donald Lutz, a rising star in the Cincinnati Reds farm system.
After a walk along the Danube, we got into Brunner’s Mercedes and traveled across town to the Armin-Wolf-Arena, a €2 million, 4,500-seat baseball stadium that Brunner helped get built on the site of a former limestone quarry. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and as I stepped through a tunnel and emerged into the grandstands, I felt a pleasant shock of recognition. The elegant lines of the stadium, the four-hundred-foot-deep centerfield wall (the outfield measurements are displayed in both feet and meters), the lush green outfield and groomed red-clay base paths, and the sheer unlikelihood of its being in Bavaria, took my breath away. A dozen young athletes gathered around the backstop at home plate, waiting for their turn at bat. Brunner stood behind a protective screen on the pitcher’s mound, firing fastballs and offering encouragement. “Attaboy,” “Find a good pitch,” “Noch mal [one more time]”. He invited me to take a few swings, and I lined the first pitch into center-right field.
“Jawohl!” Brunner exclaimed.
Roughly 25,000 Germans between the ages of five and 50 play organized baseball- a miniscule number compared to the six million who play soccer. They include about 1,000 players on 70 semiprofessional teams in three German Bundesliga, or national leagues. For virtually all of them, it is a labor of love, not money. Playing semipro baseball in Germany means squeezing in a couple of hours of daily practice after nine-to-five jobs, and spending weekends on team buses slogging to neglected baseball diamonds that can make the average American high-school field look like a professional ball park. It means playing the game often before a few dozen spectators, and facing the indifference or perplexity of friends and family. Almost no German ballplayer earns a living wage.
Even so, the game’s popularity is growing. Two year-round baseball training schools, in Mainz and Paderborn, have opened in the last two years, competing with Regensburg for the country’s young talent. The Regensburg Legionäre draw a respectable 600 fans on average to its home games at the Armin-Wolf-Arena, and more than 1,000 for the playoffs. Other baseball stadiums have opened in Stuttgart, Heidenheim and Bonn. The quality of play is inching upward. Germany's national team is ranked 17th in the world by the International Baseball Federation, a significant improvement from just a few years ago when, says German national team coach Greg Frady, "the team had no success, and got no respect. We may not have been in the top one hundred." Frady cites a new spirit of competition, and a surging national pride that has helped to turn around a once-diffident and hapless squad. "I do believe that Germany’s recent history...made them reluctant to appear aggressive,” he told me. A watershed for all German sports came during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when German fans cast aside their post-Nazi-era reticence about displays of patriotism, and exuberantly flew the flag from car antennas, windows, and apartment balconies. “There’s been a change of mentality,” said Frady.