Mets farmhand Kai Gronauer is one of a handful of German-born players currently competing in affiliated Minor League Baseball in the United States. A native of Solingen, Germany, Gronauer is in his second season with the Binghamton Mets; after hitting .253 with four homeruns in 52 games last year, he is off to a slow start in 2012, with just four hits in 26 at-bats through eight games.
I sat down with Gronauer when Binghamton visited New Hampshire recently. We talked about how he learned English, the other German-born players currently in the United States, and his hopes for the future of baseball in his home country.
How did you become first interested in baseball?
I just went to the local baseball team in my city where I grew up, with my best friend. He asked me if I wanted to go to baseball practice with him because he heard that there’s a team and we always did everything together. We played soccer together, tennis together, everything. So I was like, “Well, absolutely, we’ll go.” And I liked it and stayed with it.
Looking back on the past few years, coming from Germany, coming to the U.S. – do you look back and kind of say, “Wow, this is where I’ve been and what I’ve done?”
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, especially when you look at the baseball that is played in Germany, it’s not the highest level, but we’re developing real well. So when I look at how I developed, how I grew up with the baseball in Germany, it’s always very interesting for me to just look back at how it was back in the days, and then when I came over here how much everything kind of changed. German baseball for me is still a passion. I always look back because we had some great times. Won a German championship with my team and it was kind of on the rise when I came up as well. It was great being over there, but it’s even better – I took it to the next level when I got over here.
How often are you able to go back? Do you live there in the offseason?
I live there in the offseason, yeah. I always go back in the offseason.
Your English is really good. When did you start learning that?
Well, when I went to the next school level after elementary school, so I was 10-11 years old, I learned to speak a little bit of English. But what really helped me, what I keep telling everybody, is actually speaking it away from school. What happened was, our team that I played for in Germany always had two or three American players that were on the team. Obviously they didn’t speak German, so every time we went to practice or the games we always spoke English. Away from school, pretty much, and that’s what helped me develop.
How long did it take you to really get comfortable with it?
Oh, it took me awhile, until I was 16, 17. I was a little scared, obviously, had to learn a lot of vocabulary and all that, but a lot of times we had American coaches. The national team coaches were mostly American, so we always had to speak English with those guys. It’s a learning process.
Do you speak anything else besides English and German?
I’m picking up a little Spanish here and there. Of course, you’ve gotta talk to the Latin pitchers, Latin players as well. I had Latin in school, that kind of helps me out with Spanish, so I’ve got a little bit of Spanish.
When you first came over here to play, what was the hardest thing to get used to?
Probably the coaches and managers, [laughs] because in Germany they’re really trying to help you, usually in a nice way. My coach I had was kind of hard knocks, he was getting on me a lot, and it was tough playing for him because he was kind of like a college coach. He was German, but he went to the States and played a little bit, and he was kind of rough on me at times, but it was good learning. But then when I came to the States, you had to do your job, and if you didn’t do your job, guys get really mad. I had to learn how to deal with that.
How many German-born players are there over here in America right now?
Besides me, Donald Lutz, he’s with the Reds. He’s actually on the 40-man roster. He was born in Germany. Max Kepler, with the Twins, he signed for the highest European signing bonus ever. There’s Daniel Thieben, he’s with the Mariners. Another pitcher, who’s with the Red Sox, his name is Markus Solbach [Ed. Note: Solbach actually plays for the Twins. Either Gronauer had him confused with Jennell Hudson, a pitcher in the Red Sox system until last season, or I misheard the name.] And that’s it, I believe.
Are those guys that you know, that you came up with?
I didn’t really come up with them because they’re a little younger than me, but we played together last year on the national team, and I played with Donald Lutz for a couple years now on the national team.
Is that a situation where you guys might go out of your way to talk to each other while you’re here, or is it maybe if you happen to be playing against each other you may get together?
I haven’t played against anybody from Germany yet, because I signed before the other guys and moved up fairly quick in comparison to the other ones, but I keep talking to Donald a lot because he went through what I did the last few years. He was invited to big league spring training and all that. He had a great time over there, he did really well, and we talked a lot. It’s just good, especially when you’re in the States pretty much by yourself, to speak a little German. And it’s not only speaking German to your family when I call home, but also speaking German about baseball.
When you go back to Germany, what kind of questions do people ask you about life over here? Or do they ask you questions about life over here?
The baseball people always ask me what the baseball is like, and all that obviously. My family, especially, asks about the life over here away from baseball. It is different in many ways, [laughs] but it’s tough to explain because it’s actually not that much different. You really have to look into special things to see what the differences are. Like a lot of American guys always tell me, “It’s so much different over there, isn’t it?” and I’m like, “No, it’s not really that much different.” I mean, you go over there, you wouldn’t be lost or anything.
We all want to think of it as this crazy, exotic place across the Atlantic Ocean.
[laughs] It’s not really exotic over there.
Do most people there have an understanding of baseball?
No. [laughs] I wish I could say something else, but no. My parents still have problems understanding the game. They still go to watch games for the team I used to play with, but when it comes down to, say, an infield fly or something like that, or two runners on the same base, they wouldn’t understand. They don’t know. But the baseball players, they understand the game real well.
And that’s kind of where I wanted to end up. You had mentioned the future of baseball in Germany, I guess. What are your hopes for it, as far as the future of it there?
We’ve got a big tournament coming up in September. We play in the qualifier for the World Baseball Classic. And to be honest, German baseball is on the verge of going dramatically downhill because since baseball’s not an Olympic sport anymore, the funds were cut. We had problems just paying people that worked for the organization, keeping them around, keeping the coach around who’s done a terrific job with the team. He’s the head coach at Georgia State and we always have to fly him over to Germany and it’s quite expensive for German baseball to pay for all the guys.
I really hope that when we do well in the qualifier for the World Baseball Classic that we get a little more support in Germany, but also maybe from Major League Baseball when they recognize that Europe does have talented baseball programs. Baseball is growing in Germany. Right now it’s one Major League Baseball Academy in Germany and they’re building up new academies as well that are specifically programmed for baseball players to learn the game of baseball and to go to school, kinda combine it. I really hope that the program stays alive by performing well on a bigger stage.
What are you and the other guys that are here able to do to help promote it and try to drive it, aside from playing for the national team?
It’s hard to promote it because we’re not getting a whole lot of attention, and unfortunately it’s kind of branded by the steroid era. Whenever baseball’s in the newspapers, it’s usually because somebody was popped for PEDs again or something like that. Those are the only news stories that come over from the States, pretty much, and it’s a shame that we look at baseball in that kind of way. But like I said: by performing well in international tournaments – European Cups, World Cups, World Baseball Classic – and through guys like Donald, who’s on the 40-man roster now, through guys like Max Kepler, who got the highest European signing bonus ever, and maybe somebody who actually makes it to the major leagues one day, that’s how we want to make baseball a little bit more popular in Germany and help German baseball out.
Photo: Mack’s Mets