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03/04/12 5:20 PM EST

Lutz opening eyes despite little experience

German slugger has been playing baseball for just seven years

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Without context, Reds prospect Donald Lutz got his introduction to baseball in an entirely normal way. There was a ball field near his house where his older brother and other kids invited him to play, and the rest is history.

However, that first taste of baseball didn't come until Lutz was almost 16 years old. And that ball field near his house? It was in Germany.

Lutz, now 23, was born in Watertown, N.Y., but he was a 1-year-old when his German mother took him back to her country and raised him there. He grew up in Regensburg, a Bavarian city about 90 minutes south of Munich.

Listed now at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds, but appearing much bigger, Lutz's first sport was hockey. He often utilized his size to play the role of an enforcer on the ice.

"I used to play when I was little and played for eight years," Lutz said. "I used my body to my advantage because I was bigger than a lot of kids. It was funny when some of my teammates would get hit, they'd say, 'Get No. 3, man. He got me.'"

Baseball eventually surfaced when older brother Sascha suggested Lutz check it out.

"There was a baseball field maybe 200 yards from our house, and I could see it every day," Lutz said. "Some of my friends played. I went over there, picked up a bat and started swinging it right-handed. I couldn't do anything, and it felt really awkward. So I tried left-handed because I played hockey lefty. I got up there and started smashing the ball all over the field. That was it, and it just got me."

More than two years later, in July 2007, Lutz was signed by the Reds and global scouting director Jim Stoeckel.

In the interim, Lutz had begun playing for a German baseball academy and successfully tried out for the Major League Baseball European Academy that was held in Italy.

"We had guys like Barry Larkin out there. I met Rod Carew there," Lutz said. "It runs for three weeks, and there are tryouts throughout Europe. They invite the best 60 players from Europe and Africa. I actually signed at the tryout before going to the camp. [The Reds] didn't want other teams to see what was going on."

European players have started to make a footprint in professional baseball in recent years, with a handful reaching the big leagues, including Dutch pitcher Rick VandenHurk and outfielder Greg Halman, who was tragically murdered in Rotterdam by his brother this past offseason. Italian third baseman Alex Liddi became the European Academy's first big league player when he was called up by the Mariners last season.

Baseball has also made slow but steady growth in Germany, Lutz believes.

"There have been more tournaments. In 2009, it hosted the World Cup, and they had 12,000 people in the stadium," he said. "They're doing a good job getting it to the people. There have been MLB road shows coming to the cities, and they let the little kids play. Major League Baseball has put money into it and has sent coaches over there to hold clinics so kids can learn the proper way."

Lutz was signed as an outfielder by the Reds, but he has played more often at first base. In 2008, he started playing for the rookie-level Gulf Coast Reds.

In 2011 for Class A Dayton, Lutz batted .301 with 20 home runs and 75 RBIs in 123 games. On July 21, he became the first Dayton player to ever hit for the cycle.

"He had a really good season developmentally," Dayton manager Delino DeShields said. "You can see how far he's come the last couple of years. It's good to see he had a breakout-type season."

After the season, Lutz became the first German from the European Academy to be added to a 40-man roster when the Reds protected him. According to Baseball-Reference.com, a total of 39 players born in Germany have reached the Majors -- most were from the pre-war era and many were immigrants to the U.S.

Most American players have already had 10-15 years of experience at some level before reaching a big league camp. Lutz has only about seven years.

"There are a couple of ways you could look at that," DeShields said. "He could be behind a little bit, but at the same time, he hasn't had a lot of bad teaching either. When we got him, he was pretty raw and an open slate. His energy and enthusiasm for the game kind of sets him apart from the other kids. He really likes to play and he's a very coachable young man."

"I know he's very determined, smart young man," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He catches on pretty quickly for a guy that hasn't played ball much."

Following Major League Baseball in Germany requires some effort, and there certainly won't be a lot of discussion about the previous night's games around the office water cooler or school hallways.

Lutz, who also has played for the German national team, still found a way to keep up with the game.

"From the top to the bottom for little kids, soccer gets so much attention," Lutz said. "Baseball, you hardly see anything ... if you see anything. Sometimes I feel embarrassed when I come here and people ask me about history and former players. I don't know anything about them. The only way I can get information there was from MLB.com and watching the highlights every day."

If Lutz makes his way to the Majors one day, a whole new audience of Germans will likely start paying attention.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.