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Lutz's unique journey began overseas07/27/2012 10:32 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
A quick glance at Donald Lutz's MiLB.com profile doesn't reveal anything out of the ordinary. Visitors to the page learn that he's a 23-year-old first baseman (and now, outfielder) in the Cincinnati Reds organization, recently promoted to the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos after bashing 17 home runs over 63 games with the Class A Advanced Bakersfield Blaze. He's 6-foot-3, bats left, throws right and was born in Watertown, N.Y.
And not only has the power-hitting Lutz recently made the leap to Double-A, but he's currently on the Reds' 40-man roster as well. With this sort of baseball pedigree, it's easy to assume that he grew up immersed in the sport -- playing on the local youth fields by day and, perhaps, rooting on the New York-Penn League's Watertown Indians at night.
Except, no. Lutz was born 1989 to an American serviceman father and a German mother, and when his parents divorced the following year, he relocated with his mother to her native Germany. He grew up in Friedberg, located in the southwest portion of the country. Lutz describes Friedberg as "a small town, with about 60,000 people. Real nice place, the closest big town is Frankfurt."
And in Friedberg, as with virtually all of Germany, baseball is a sporting afterthought. Lutz grew up playing handball and hockey, but playing baseball -- let alone making a living at it -- was never something that crossed his mind.
Lutz can't remember exactly when it was that he played baseball for the first time but guesses that it was at the age of "15 or 16." The impetus was his brother, Sascha, who is five years older. Sascha had began to play baseball himself -- he is now a member of the German National Team -- and one day he invited Donald to come along and watch him practice. It was love at first sight.
"They gave me a chance to start hitting, and I hit right-handed at first because I threw with my right hand," recalled Lutz. "And it just didn't feel natural. I said, 'I don't know, this is not my thing,' but then [Sascha] told me to try hitting the other way. So I started swinging left-handed and crushing the ball everywhere. From then on it was a lot of fun -- hitting the ball, watching it carry, watching other people hit -- it was all a fun time. Like, 'Okay, let's do this.' ... A week later they had me on the field, and I didn't know what I was doing. They just told me to swing the bat. I remember that my first at-bat was an inside-the-park home run. The next three, I struck out."
The baseball bug may have bit Lutz at a late age, but once it did, there was no going back. The next couple of years were a whirlwind of activity, as his sporting career ascended to heights that he had, quite literally, never imagined.
"As soon as I started playing, I tried to learn about the game. They don't show baseball [on TV] in Germany, so I went online -- MLB.com and all that," said Lutz. "After a year of playing, I switched to the second-highest league in Germany and started swinging a wooden bat. Before I knew it, I was on the German national team. "We started traveling and playing in international competitions, and a bunch of Americans came over and ran clinics for us. ... Soon I switched to the Regensburg Academy, a baseball academy that MLB actually supports, because prospects come out of there. They have a really good program set up, and I was working on my skills every day. Before it had been practice one day a week, and then games on the weekend. Now they were teaching us the proper way, school every morning and baseball the rest of the day."
The Week That Was
But throughout most of this time, Lutz maintains that he was still playing for fun more than anything else. "I didn't even know what Minor League Baseball was," he says, and it wasn't until a scout approached him in 2006 that he realized that he might be able to play professionally.
"[The scout] asked for my email, and I thought, 'Why would he want that?'" Lutz said. "He explained that there was a chance that I could play in America, and that's when I started Googling the Minor Leagues."
The Mets and Twins showed interest in Lutz, but he was signed by Reds scout Jim Stoeckel on July 15, 2007, as an international free agent. The following season, at the age of 18, he returned to the country of his birth and embarked on his still ongoing professional baseball odyssey.
Save for one week-long family vacation, Lutz had never spent time in the United States after age 1. But the Reds have given him one heck of a thorough tour, as thus far his career has taken him from sweltering Sarasota, Fla., backlots to the wide open spaces of Billings, Mont., to the Dayton Dragons' perpetually sold-out Midwest baseball carnival to the no-frills WPA-era environs of Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Stadium.
And now here he is in Pensacola, home of the Blue Wahoos.
"I had to Google that one, too," said Lutz, of hearing his team was named after a fish indigenous to the region. "I got my hat and said 'Oh, what's that? A Blue Wahoo?' ... But it's real nice out here, everything's top notch -- the field, the fans and this stadium, right on the water."
Lutz speaks in similarly charitable terms about all of the places he's been along the way, but there's no doubt that the American lifestyle has taken some getting used to.
"Everything is so spread out here," he said. "[In Germany] you can walk or take your bike, and the public transportation is really good so you don't have to worry. It seems like here, you need a car. And the food, everyone eats fast food every day. Back home there was one Burger King, but it's not a regular thing."
The level of competition has taken some getting used to as well. After dealing with some injuries earlier in the season, Lutz says that his goal now is to "finish strong" while continuing to hone his outfield skills after spending most of the year manning first base.
"I like both [positions], actually, but I'm starting to like the outfield a little better," he said. "I'm getting better reads on the ball, so it's been more fun."
Meanwhile, in September, Regensburg will serve as the host of the first qualifying pool of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Lutz says that he'd like to represent Germany in the tournament, but that his main goal at the moment is to be selected for the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.
There is still much to be determined, and those interested in learning more about Lutz and his unorthodox baseball journey can follow him on Twitter at @braunerhulk. "Brauner hulk," which translates to "brown hulk" in English, has been Lutz's nickname ever since his early days of bashing baseballs out of the park.
"Someone called me that when I first started playing, because I was way bigger than the other kids," he recalled. "And then, at one of the tournaments, I wore a jacket under my jersey. I looked really big, and after that everyone called me [brauner hulk]."
But no matter what you call him, Lutz's current mission in life is simple. In fact, his Twitter bio explains it all: "I wanna be the first German in the big leagues!"