For Benji Kleiner, it all started during a field trip in his home country, Germany.
A classmate brought a baseball bat along on the trip. Kleiner, who was 11 at the time, decided to join his classmates in a pickup game of baseball on a nearby field.
“We just decided to try it,” Kleiner said. “We knew some of the rules and we were just trying to smack the ball over a fence.”
This is where Kleiner discovered his passion for baseball.
A resident of Berlin, Germany, Kleiner, now 33, has been an honorary member of the Butler baseball team for the past week thanks to the Envoy Program.
The program gave Butler head coach Steve Farley the opportunity to visit Europe a couple years ago to talk to Europeans about baseball in the United States.
“It’s been fun,” Farley said. “I was invited to Europe to put on clinics and I made connections.”
Farley was notified last month that Butler would get to host a foreign exchange coach. Butler was the only Division I school picked and was one of three schools nationwide to get the opportunity.
This isn’t Kleiner’s first trip to the United States. At age 14, he played little league baseball in North Carolina, and, at age 17, he played baseball in Mississippi thanks to a different exchange program.
Kleiner has been quick to notice the differences between baseball in America and Germany during his three visits overseas.
“The first thing is that baseball is really part of the American culture,” Kleiner said. “You go to college and you see the tradition and it gives you a really good insight into American culture.
“There is a lot more going with baseball here than in Germany.”
This is evident when looking at the league Kleiner plays and manages in.
There are five different leagues in which German teams can compete, based on how well they perform. Kleiner’s squad moved up to the top league at the end of the season last year after winning the second-best league.
“There are 16 teams per league,” Kleiner said. “The winner of the first [top] league is named the German champion.
“Getting last place in a league gets you demoted one league.”
Although there is a major difference in league systems between Germany and the United States, many other aspects of the game match up between the countries.
The German baseball leagues use wooden bats, have an American baseball diamond and dugout setup and play doubleheaders.
The similarities end there, however.
“We only play doubleheaders,” Kleiner said. “We only play on Saturdays too.”
The play of the average German baseball player also contrasts sharply with that of the average American baseball player.
“A lot of the kids at Butler would be star players in Germany,” Kleiner said.
Being that German baseball is not as developed as it is in the United States, Kleiner came overseas in hopes of learning about various different facets of American collegiate baseball, including coaching and player commitment.
“I’ve learned how coaches work with each other and with the medical staff and how players balance grades and baseball,” Kleiner said. “I’ve also learned how coaches of different sports interact and how a college helps baseball players get jobs after they graduate.”
In the end, Kleiner said he’ll remember one aspect of his experience more than the others.
“I met some great people,” Kleiner said. “Hopefully I’ll stay in touch with them.”