No crowds cheered for New York Mets slugger Daniel Vogelbach on a January morning at his brother’s Fort Myers workout facility, 2 the Top Performance Training.
No TV cameras recorded Minnesota Twins outfielder Max Kepler on another January morning in Evolve Baseball, a training haven on an industrial stretch of Alico Road in South Fort Myers.
Yes, baseball is more than the six months of the regular season and six weeks of Spring Training.
It’s a full-time job. Spring Training is getting underway in Florida and Arizona cities.
The preparation doesn’t begin when Mr. Vogelbach reports to the Mets’ facility in Port St. Lucie.
It doesn’t begin for Mr. Kepler when he reports to the Twins’ camp at the Lee County Sports Complex.
It begins shortly after the end of the previous season. Once, a long time ago, big league ballplayers made modest salaries and most had to find off-season employment to tide them over.
But even a century ago, players had to prepare for what was then a 154-game schedule. That included Babe Ruth, not exactly considered a paragon of diligence and fitness.
Author Jane Leavy in her 2018 Ruth biography, “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created,” detailed some of what he did under the tutelage of personal trainer Artie McGovern.
“He ran every morning at 6:30 and worked out ostentatiously during lunch, jumping rope and playing cards with a medicine ball,” Ms. Leavy wrote. “McGovern kept the papers updated on Ruth’s shrinking midline: 40 inches compared with the 48½ inches it had been two years earlier.”
The work paid off. After a subpar 1925 season, Mr. Ruth went on a tear in his early to mid-30s, leading the American League in homers every year from 1926 to 1931.
Mr. Vogelbach, whose nicknames include The Babe, and Mr. Kepler both recently turned 30.
They have seven and eight years in the majors, respectively. But their journeys have been different.
Mr. Kepler was signed out of Germany by the Twins as an international free agent in 2009 and has remained with the organization his entire career.
Mr. Vogelbach was a second-round draft choice of the Chicago Cubs in 2011. He has played in the majors with the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates and now the Mets.
Both men want to stay in the majors. They know that players in the minors and those drafted every year and signed out of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, South Korea and other countries would eagerly take their jobs.
So, there they were in January.
To the Max
White baseballs fired out of a pitching machine fed by Evolve owner Danny Tufariello whistled 45 feet toward Mr. Kepler at the other end of a batting cage, where he grasped a black bat. Ball after ball. Thwack! Crack! Zing!
Mr. Kepler fine-tuned his swing and timing. Balls whistled off his Dove Tail Bat and sailed to the other end of the tunnel in the Evolve facility tucked into a strip center between U.S. 41 and I-75.
This is the swing that produced 36 homers by the 6-foot-4 Mr. Kepler for the Twins in 2019. It’s a swing that has propelled his unlikely story from Germany to the majors.
He was born in Berlin to ballet dancer parents. His mom, Kathy, is from Texas and his dad, Marek Rozycki, is from Poland. As a youngster, Max also played soccer and tennis but fell in love with baseball.
Blessed with the athletic genes of elite ballet dancers, young Max focused on the most American of games..
“This is what I dreamed of,” Mr. Kepler said. “And I’m still living a dream that I never really thought would come true.”
Soon after he signed with the Twins at age 16, he entered their training program at the Lee County Sports Complex. He also enrolled at South Fort Myers High School where he ran one 40- yard dash in a physical education class that got the attention of coaches.
“Every coach wanted me,” Mr. Kepler said.
But he was not a typical high school kid. He was already a professional athlete.
It was a long slog through the minors as he honed his craft and matured into a young man.
“There are so many times in my career where I’ve doubted whether I wanted to continue playing baseball,” Mr. Kepler said.
Stops on the way included playing for the Elizabethtown Twins, Cedar Rapids Kernals, Salt River Rafters, Glendale Desert Dogs, Fort Myers Miracle, Chattanooga Lookouts and Rochester Red Wings.
He even thought of quitting “because I was going into my fourth year or fifth year and I was in little towns where the population was maybe 30,000, 40,000 people,” Mr. Kepler said. “There were no people in the stands. And then on top of that I’m in a slump and you just wonder if I’m ever going to make it out of this or if my time I invested in this opposed to investing in a guaranteed job or university or college would actually pay off. There were plenty of times of doubt.”
In the 14 years of his baseball journey from teenager to a man in his 30s, he has learned how to be a professional.
Once a season ends, Mr. Kepler takes two or three weeks off.
“To decompress,” he said.
Then by mid-November he starts lifting weights and running. By Christmas, the real work ramps up.
The right fielder’s 2022 season was derailed by a broken toe when hit by a pitch on July 24. He came back and finished with nine homers.
After hitting in the cage in January, Mr. Kepler and Mr. Tufariello walked out of Evolve’s backdoor and played catch in a parking lot. Behind that were towering mounds of mulch, part of the Southwest Florida landscape since Hurricane Ian.
They were a long way from the bright lights of Major League Baseball.
With the Show in mind, Mr. Kepler constantly fine-tunes his swing. Pitchers adjust to his patterns. He adjusts in return.
“It’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game where one year you work on this and the next year back to working on that,” Mr. Kepler said,
The day before Mr. Kepler chatted with Florida Weekly, former third baseman Scott Rolen was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
At this point, with a big league resume of a .232 career batting average and 129 homers, Mr. Kepler has no illusions of joining Mr. Rolen in Cooperstown.
“I’ll make the Hall of Fame Europe,” Mr. Kepler said jokingly.
But he is a big leaguer and wants to remain so. Hence the tough workouts.
Mr. Tufariello was excited to have an established big leaguer training at his facility.
“When I met him, oh, man, we got Max Kepler here,” Mr. Tufariello said. “Like that’s kind of a dream in itself to have guys of that caliber in the facility.”
He soon learned why Mr. Kepler has a long big league resume.
“Max has got to be a big-leaguer because he’s worked his whole life getting there,” Mr. Tufariello said.
The regular season starts soon for the Twins: March 30 at Kansas City. Their 162nd game comes Oct. 1 in Colorado.
Have bat, will travel
Josh Vogelbach, owner of 2 the Top Performance Training, didn’t have to go far to find a big-league client.
Daniel Vogelbach is his brother. In the off-season, Daniel is a regular in the facility tucked into a warren of offices near a Publix where McGregor Boulevard intersects College Parkway.
Both men were outstanding athletes at Bishop Verot High School. Josh went on to play quarterback at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Daniel has traveled the country playing baseball. Before reaching the majors, his minor league stops included the Boise Hawks, Daytona Cubs, Tennessee Smokies. Kane County Cougars, Mesa Solar Sox, Iowa Cubs, Tacoma Rainiers and Nashville Sounds.
Now he’s in America’s biggest sports market: New York City.
On a morning in January before working out at his brother’s place, Mr. Vogelbach talked about the off-season, goals and how to stay in the majors.
“You got to be a professional,” he said. “This is your job. … There’s a draft every year and there are good players coming into professional baseball every year. If you don’t do the job and if you don’t take care of what you should take care of, you’re going to be passed up by other people.”
To avoid that means taking the job as a year-round professional. Or else you can become an ex-professional.
“Exactly,” Mr. Vogelbach said. “It’s the easiest sport to make it, but the hardest sport to stay.”
The math is relentless. Father Time is undefeated. The competition ceaseless. A player is measured every day against other players and his previous performances and future expectations.
So, that’s where the gym work comes in, plus the off-season hitting and base running.
It’s all to prepare for the crucible of a 162-game season with cross-country travel and playing nearly every day. There are times when a team arrives in a city in the wee hours and must play later that day.
“Put it in perspective,” Mr. Vogelbach said. “It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to say how tired you are.”
He’s now looking forward to playing a full season in New York. He was traded to the Mets on July 22, 2022. In 55 games with the National League East contenders he hit .255 with six homers.
Under owner Steve Cohen, the Mets have opened the checkbook. The projected team payroll is $329 million, tops in baseball. The New York Yankees are second at $258 million. Mr. Vogelbach’s previous team, the Pirates, rank 27th in projected payroll at $54.6 million.
“The organization is totally committed to winning, as everybody can tell this off-season,” Mr. Vogelbach said.
He hopes this year with this team will provide a postseason breakthrough for him. As Mr. Vogelbach sat in the gym on that winter morning, he was looking ahead to the fall and the postseason. He’s been in the playoffs three times, twice with Milwaukee and last year with New York.
“I’ve been eliminated in the first round every year,” Mr. Vogelbach said. “So, it just makes you want more in the playoffs.”
Off-season workouts with his brother are a family tradition.
“I’ve been doing this with my brother since well before I was drafted, so I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty successful career so far,” Mr. Vogelbach said.
At 6 feet and 270 pounds, Daniel Vogelbach will never be confused with lithe shortstops or centerfielders. He is a slugger.
“He doesn’t have the typical baseball body obviously,” Josh said. “I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of guys. My brother is the hardest working athlete I’ve been around, and his work ethic is second to none. “
In his career, Mr. Vogelbach has started 237 games as designated hitter and 129 at first base. His brother’s off-season regimen helps make him strong, quick and flexible.
“We focus on core work, lot of explosion,” Josh said.
He added that another element of winter work is “injury prevention.” That includes flexibility exercises.
The work is essential, according to Josh. Daniel, despite being an American League All-Star in 2019, is not a big star.
“He hasn’t signed a huge, multiyear deal,” Josh said. “Daniel always feels he’s going to have to prove himself or earn a spot.”
Staying in the big leagues means training before Spring Training begins. That includes an hour of cardio a day, according to Josh. That includes hitting baseballs off a tee and running bases and weight training.
The 162-game season is on the horizon. The Mets open March 30 in Miami and end their regular season Oct. 1 vs. the Philadelphia Phillies. ¦