In 1995, Bernd Solbach received an opportunity from his employer.
Ford Motor Company wanted Solbach — from Pulheim near Cologne, Germany — to move to Detroit for two years. He had been with the company for quite some time, and his promotion offered him a taste of its headquarters in the Motor City from 1995-96.
“He worked with the Americans who created Ford,” said right-handed pitcher Markus Solbach, Bernd’s son, on Tuesday from his home in Germany. “My dad said, ‘There’s nothing better at this time than to take my kids there, have them learn another language and learn another culture.’ We ended up doing it for two years. I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t do that.”
Twenty-five years later, the Detroit Tigers could be bringing the younger Solbach to the Motor City, as well. They signed Markus to a minor-league deal last month; the contract became official Nov. 24, giving Solbach his latest chance at a long-awaited MLB debut. His new chapter begins in minor-league spring training, so becoming the next German-born player to reach the majors won’t be an easy task.
Solbach has played eight seasons in the minors in the organizations of the Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers, along with stints in the Australian Baseball League, Italian Baseball League, Germany’s Bundesliga and two independent leagues.
“The very, very first thing I have to say is — the reason I play baseball is the Detroit Tigers,” Solbach said. “The first baseball game I ever watched was at Tiger Stadium.”
Where it all began
Solbach, now 30, moved back to Germany in 1996, but his family made visiting Detroit an annual tradition and always looked forward to sitting in the seats at Comerica Park, not far from the ballpark where Solbach discovered his love for baseball.
The Tigers played at Tiger Stadium from 1912-99. He remembers watching his first baseball game in 1996 from the upper deck at Tiger Stadium, trying to follow the baseball with binoculars for about three hours.
“That memory is still stuck in my head,” Solbach said. “I was fascinated with what was happening.”
A young Solbach collected numerous items along the way: batting gloves, a baseball bat and a hat, all with the Old English “D” logo. He even scored a signature from Dmitri Young, a designated hitter with the Tigers from 2002-2006.
That first game, back in ’96, changed his life.
“I told my mom that I wanted to start playing baseball,” Solbach said. “About three weeks later, we ended up moving back to Germany. Shortly after that, I found a team in my hometown, started playing and never stopped.”
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Solbach played for the Pulheim Gophers in Germany for 12 years, beginning when he was 7. He moved to Australia in October 2010 for baseball, then to the United States in February 2011 as a 19-year-old after signing his first contract with the Twins.
His German club had one youth team, one junior team, one women’s softball team and three men’s teams. The Gophers, established in 1989, reached the Bundesliga’s 1st Division — the highest level of competition — in 2009 and 2010 with Solbach on the roster.
“I was pitching against another team, and after the game, the coach of that team (Matt Kemp) was fixing the mound,” Solbach said. “I was decent in baseball, but I didn’t feel like I was good enough to make it to the States. He called me over and we stood around the mound, and he told me, ‘You have a legit chance to sign a professional contract.’ In the beginning, I was like, ‘Maybe he’s joking around. I don’t really know this guy.'”
Two days later, Kemp called Solbach and his parents. He offered the teenager an opportunity to play for a team in Australia, thus exposing him to MLB scouts searching for the next diamond in the rough. Three weeks after the phone conversation, Solbach packed his bags and flew to Melbourne, Australia. He played for the Mulgrave Rebels from October 2010-March 2011.
The only problem: Solbach’s pitches topped out at 84 mph.
“After three and a half months, I had a scout contact me from the (Baltimore) Orioles,” Solbach said. “I wasn’t even close to being a prospect or anything. I met with him on a Wednesday. I threw a bullpen and was throwing 84.
“He said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance to throw another bullpen on Friday, but I want you to work on these two things.’ He basically told me that he wanted me to do my leg lift different and he wanted me to stand up taller. For two full days, every moment I can remember I was standing in front of a mirror. I was trying to perfect what he was telling me.
“My first pitch on Friday in the bullpen was 91 (mph). That kind of started it all.”
The scout, Brett Ward, wanted Solbach to return to Germany. He figured his prospective pitcher could go back to his home country, clean up his mechanics and start to understand his capabilities. The Orioles would track his development and consider signing him.
A couple weeks later, Twins scout Howard Norsetter called Solbach and immediately offered a contract.
So, Solbach inked his first pro deal.
With the Dodgers
A career jumpstarted by the Twins has taken Solbach through eight years. He has a 3.96 ERA with 103 walks and 327 strikeouts in 117 games (70 starts). The Tigers plan to use him as a starter, but neither team nor player has ruled out a move to the bullpen.
Most recently, Solbach pitched in the Dodgers’ organization from 2019-21.
He had his best year in 2019, posting a 2.57 ERA for Double-A Tulsa with eight walks and 39 strikeouts over 42 innings in eight games (seven starts). He also pitched six games in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League early in the season while rehabbing a back injury in spring training.
An on-the-mend Solbach learned more about his strengths from Gabe Ribas, then a pitching coordinator for the Dodgers. Ribas became the Tigers pitching director for the minor leagues in October 2021 and oversees new pitching coordinators Stephanos Stroop (ex-Dodgers coach) and Steve Smith. (The Tigers also hired Ryan Sienko, who spent seven years with the Dodgers, to help develop catchers.)
“I ended up figuring something out,” Solbach said of his 2019 success. “It was like playing a video game. I could pinpoint where I wanted to put the ball and everything felt good. My numbers, my metrics were good. In 2020 spring training, it was the same. I was finally throwing harder, 94-96 (mph). Everything clicked.”
He registered a 0.30 ERA in 30⅓ innings for ASD San Marino in the 2020 Italian Baseball League when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the minor leagues.
In 2021, Solbach had visa issues trying to return to the U.S. and didn’t arrive at the Dodgers’ spring training complex in Arizona until April 29. Later in the year, he missed 26 days with a positive COVID-19 test. Solbach had an 8.12 ERA for Triple-A Oklahoma City with 18 walks and 40 strikeouts over 47⅔ innings in 17 games (nine starts).
“I had two live BPs in extended spring training against Cody Bellinger,” Solbach said. “I did really well, but in the season, it just wouldn’t click. I would try everything, but I just couldn’t find a groove.”
Joining the Tigers
After the 2021 World Series, Solbach became a free agent. He got a call from Ribas, now with the Tigers, who expressed interest in bringing the veteran pitcher to Detroit’s organization. He might open the 2022 season in Triple-A Toledo.
The idea of working with Ribas made a great impact.
“When Gabe said he’s with the Tigers, my decision was taken away from me in the most positive way ever,” Solbach said. “He still had to go through the front office, obviously, but he just wanted to let me know that he would like to be my name in there and would like me to be a part of the organization.
“There was a time in spring training. He wanted me to do this specific thing. I would do exactly what he told me, and I had success. A bunch of times he would have a heart-to-heart conversation with me while I was injured. I always trust him. I feel like he always trusts me. He always says to me, ‘I love you as a player, but foremost, I love you as a person.'”
When Solbach gets to spring training, he will feature a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup in his arsenal. He didn’t get an invitation to big-league spring training, but he could pitch some games for Tigers manager AJ Hinch as a backup reliever in camp.
“I have to prove myself,” Solbach said. “That’s all I can do at this point.”
For now, Solbach is preparing for the opportunity of a lifetime. He said telling his parents about his minor-league deal with the Tigers was the best part. His mother, Martina, cried and said she felt like it was a “circle that’s closing.”
“I’ve had a long career,” Solbach said. “The fact that I watched the Detroit Tigers for my first baseball game, and now I get a chance to play for the Detroit Tigers is just unbelievable.
“I feel like I’m always writing new chapters in my life. This is like the final chapter. I can’t sit here and think I’m going to make the big leagues. Like, I still have to put the work in. But if I ended up making it with the Detroit Tigers, it would mean the world to me.”