Sports

Sunday, May 20 2012 09:22 PM

Germany's diamond in the rough

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    Henry A. Barrios / The Californian German born Donald Lutz has become the Bakersfield Blaze home run star.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Donald Lutz gets ready for some batting practice with the Bakersfield Blaze. The German born athlete has been on a home run binge.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    German born Donald Lutz watches the ball fly during batting practice with the Bakersfield Blaze.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    German born Donald Lutz passes out some of his broken bats to Boys & Girls club members visiting the Blaze during a pre game work out. Lutz has been on a home run binge lately with the Bakersfield Blaze. "I break a lot of bats," he says.

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BY MATT MARTZ Special to The Californian

In Germany, there is no MLB Network, no ESPN web gems, and you can't just click on the television at the end of the day to catch the nightly baseball scores.

So it's no surprise that Donald Lutz didn't know much about America's favorite pastime growing up, except for the small faded posters his older brother Sascha possessed of various players from baseball's chase for the home run record era.

In fact, by the time he picked up a bat on the small dusty diamond near his house in Friedberg, a small rural town of 28,000 just 20 minutes outside of Frankfurt, he was already 15 years old.

"I still didn't know much," Lutz said. "And I just found out a year before I signed that there was a chance for me to come to the United States and work my way through the minor leagues to play professional baseball."

"I was just having a good time playing until I was in Holland at a European Championship and a scout came up and gave me his card," he added. "And everybody just looked at me because I didn't even know why he was there."

That scout was Jim Stoeckel, the global scouting director from the Cincinnati Reds, who immediately recognized Lutz's raw talent, ultimately inking him to a major league deal as an international free agent in 2007.

Just four short years later, Lutz is quickly on his way to the becoming the first of five German players currently under contract with MLB organizations.

To sum it up, the lofty Lutz is baseball's younger version of NBA Dallas Mavericks' German superstar Dirk Notwizski.

Weighing in at 240 pounds and standing 6-foot-4, the burly slugger is rapidly becoming a menace for minor league pitching staffs.

After a solid season with the Reds' Class A affiliate Dayton Dragons, Lutz is tearing up the California League in 2012 with the Bakersfield Blaze, currently tied for second in both home runs (11) and RBIs (34) and third with a .621 slugging percentage.

But the road from the dull dirt fields of his homeland to the dream of one day playing on the manicured grounds of Major League Baseball's cathedrals has had its share of dips and detours for the rising star.

Lutz, 23, was born in Watertown, N.Y., but when he was a year old his German mother took him back to her birthplace to raise him and his three siblings.

Already towering above the other kids his age, Lutz's first sport was hockey, where his intimidating size served him well as an enforcer on the ice.

Eventually he grew tired of that role, and not wanting to partake in his country's passion for soccer, he fell in love with European handball before baseball ultimately surfaced after Sascha suggested Lutz check it out.

"I picked up baseball really quick, " he said. "Once I started playing, everything started to move really fast."

And it did.

By 2007, at 17, Lutz had already earned a spot in the German Baseball Bundesliga, an elite level of competition in Germany that supplies the national team roster.

After a poor first-year showing in the first division, going 0-for-12 with two walks, Lutz exploded in his second season, leading the division with a .506 average, 39 RBIs and six home runs in just 24 games.

Those statistics landed him a spot on the German national team just in time for the 2008 Final Olympic Qualification Tournament where Lutz posted an imposing slash line of .250/.318/.400 as one of the team's top hitters.

In that same year, Lutz was also a member of the 2008 European Under-21 championship team, while making his U.S. debut with the Red's Gulf Coast League's rookie team where he hit a respectable .250/.317/.361 for the season, while primarily playing first base and left field.

In 2011, Lutz again put up eye-popping numbers for a player that had spent very little time playing organized ball, batting .301 with 20 home runs and 75 RBIs in 123 games in Dayton, that also included a 16-game hitting streak.

Then on July 21, he pulled off what he considers to be one of the major highlights of his professional career, becoming the first Dayton player to ever hit for the cycle over five innings in his first four at bats with the Dragons.

It was the second time Lutz accomplished the feat, with his first coming in his second season with the GCL Reds in 2009.

Another highlight was smashing a home run off Cincinnati starter Mike Leake in this year's Reds Spring Showcase Future's Game at Great American Ballpark, in front of 15,000 fervent baseball fans.

"It was crazy; the fans here are different and the crowds are much bigger," said Lutz, comparing the German leagues who draw two to three thousand spectators per game.

"Here they like to drink beer, get a little rowdy, and shout at the players, especially if you're the team on the road."

Besides adjusting to the fan culture in the States, making the transition to living in the U.S. has been interesting for Lutz.

"At the beginning it was hard to be away from family and friends," he said, "but I got used to it real quick.

"Another thing was how everything works here, like the food, transportation, and all that."

But perhaps the most challenging adjustment for Lutz has been the one from the infield to the outfield.

With the Reds signing first baseman slugger Joey Votto to a 10 year, $225 million contract just prior to the start of the 2012 season, the club wants Lutz to make the switch from first base to left field.

The outfield is something Blaze manager Ken Griffey Sr. knows a lot about after spending sufficient time at both positions during his 19 years in the major leagues.

"He still has a lot to learn because they have him learning both spots," Griffey said. "That has been his biggest test."

"Once you start moving a player around, it's tough to really settle down to play, and his biggest asset is swinging the bat."

The other attribute Griffey and Lutz have in common is their ability to scamper the base paths, with Griffey swiping 200 stolen bases during his career, and Lutz nabbing a career-total 23, including six during his short stint with Bakersfield.

"He moves real well for a big man," said Griffey. "I knew he could run, but the big surprise is his ability to steal bases."

But Lutz is also hoping to pilfer more than just a few bases.

He wants to snatch the identity of being the first German to play in a major-league game.

"I think it would mean a lot," Lutz said. "Maybe it would open some eyes to show people there is German talent out there, and there hasn't been one yet, so it's about time."

For now, though, the agile hitting hulk seems content with crushing balls in the hitter-friendly Cal League.

"I'm having a lot of fun, and feel really blessed to just be out there every single day," said Lutz, who pointed out three goals for himself this season in Bakersfield.

"I want to keep hitting better than .300, make the All-Star Game, then be moved up to AA."

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