When Max St. Pierre arrived at Kauffman Stadium on Sept. 4, he had no idea that he was hours away from making his Major League debut. In fact, it wasn't until he checked the lineup card in the visitors' clubhouse -- more out of habit than anything else -- that he realized his dreams were about to come true.
After 14 seasons and almost 1,000 games in the Minors, St. Pierre was on the brink of becoming a big league ballplayer. The only problem was nobody had told him.
He said if he had known, he would have made it an early night.
"My wife got there late around 12 a.m. the night before. Because I had family and relatives there I got to bed around 4 in the morning," St. Pierre said. "I kept asking myself 'They would tell me if I'm going to be playing my first game tomorrow, right?'
"When I first got [to the stadium], [Gerald] Laird was supposed to start, so I didn't think I was going to play. Then I saw my name on the lineup card. ... I didn't need anyone else to tell me anything else. I was excited and nervous and it was awesome."
Unlike many players who are fast-tracked to "The Show" or who only need a year or two of seasoning in the Minor Leagues before taking the big step, St. Pierre relied on patience, determination and a dogged belief that he would have his day to shine.
Pierre rarely doubted his own abilities, even when success and stardom didn't come as quickly as he had expected.
"Where I came from in Quebec City, I was the best at baseball. At my position, I was the best I had ever seen," he said. "Thinking about going straight to 'The Show,' I thought it was like hockey -- going straight from the Minor Leagues to the bigs.
"When I got there, somebody finally informed me that there was a farm system where you go like Rookie ball, Low-A, A-ball, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A to get to the Major Leagues. That was when I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm not even close to getting there. I'm not going to be playing against the Expos for a while.'"
Selected as a 17-year-old catcher out of College de Levis High School in Montreal by the Detroit Tigers in the 26th round of the 1997 Draft, St. Pierre wasn't exactly considered a "can't miss" prospect by the organization. The baseball world didn't know too much about the teenager and, in turn, St. Pierre admits he knew very little about what was in store. First, he had to learn English. Then he had to learn the game. Neither hurdle tempered his excitement.
"In the '90s, where I came from, it was all hockey," he added. "When they told me I had a chance to play professionally, I thought, 'Man, you're going to pay me to play baseball? Where do I sign?'
Minor League career breakdown
1997-'98: St. Pierre debuts as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, making 20 appearances for the Rookie ball affiliate of the Tigers. He hits .385 over 31 games the following year.
1999: St. Pierre moves to the New York-Penn League and makes 51 appearances with the Oneonta Tigers.
2000: The 20-year-old catcher gets his first taste of the Midwest League with the West Michigan Whitecaps, where he splits time with Inakel Vargas and hits .249 with 28 RBIs in 73 games.
2001: St. Pierre moves up to Class A Advanced with the Lakeland Tigers. He plays in 99 games and sets career highs in virtually every offensive category.
2002: In his sixth year in the organization, he gets at least a taste of three levels. St. Pierre hits .266 with three homers in 60 appearances for Double-A Erie.
2006: St. Pierre hits just .202 in 78 games after finally getting back to Triple-A Toledo and is granted free agency at the end of the year.
2007: The catcher is signed by Kansas City but is traded during Spring Training to Milwaukee. He ends up in Double-A Huntsville, but after 10 games with a .156 average, he is unsuccessfully converted to a pitcher. He is released in mid-June.
2008: Back in the Detroit organization, St. Pierre makes 86 appearances over two levels, but his struggles continue at the plate. His arm remains strong and he throws out a career-best 47 percent of baserunners.
2010: After 20 games in Erie, St. Pierre is promoted to Toledo, where he bats .300 over 39 games. The Tigers give the Canadian his shot in 'The Show' in September and he makes his debut in Detroit on Sept. 4 at Kansas City.
"But when I started, nobody spoke my language, I had no friends and I was competing in this big business where everybody wanted my job. It was really, really hard. But if I had to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat."
St. Pierre played in 20 games in his rookie year in the Gulf Coast League and showed solid growth in 1998, when he hit .385 in 31 GCL appearances. He stole six bases, hit a couple homers and subsequently made it on to the roster of the Oneonta Tigers in the short-season New York-Penn League for the 1999 campaign.
St. Pierre's playing time increased gradually over the next few years. While he wasn't able to replicate his .385 clip from Rookie ball, he was earning a reputation as a fine defensive catcher with a cannon for an arm who was mature beyond his years when it came to handling a pitching staff.
The Canadian said he was never too worried about his batting early on, instead thinking that he was good enough behind the plate to secure a big league job in the near future.
"I saw myself as being pretty good defensively," St. Pierre said. "My batting was all right, even though I didn't really know what I was doing. But I didn't really care because I thought, 'Oh yeah, I'm good defensively, so I'm going to get to the big leagues as a backup catcher because you don't need to hit.' I found out that was not true and that you need to hit to get there. It's not that easy to get there, and it's even harder to stay there."
In 2000, he helped anchor a West Michigan team that went 88-52 en route to winning the Class A Midwest League championship. He caught 73 games, helped the Whitecaps produce a 2.98 ERA -- 44 points better than the next best team -- and posted a career-high .990 fielding percentage.
While his bat remained steady, if not spectacular, in the Class A Advanced Florida State League with Lakeland in 2001, his defense started to grab the attention of the decision-makers in the Tigers' front office. He set personal bests in almost all offensive categories and threw out 39 percent of baserunners while committing six errors in 684 chances (.991 fielding percentage).
St. Pierre started 2002 in Lakeland, but by the middle of the year he was promoted to Double-A Erie. He hit .266 and even wound up in Triple-A Toledo at the end of the year. But that one game with the Mud Hens was his first and only taste of the International League for three years.
There were just too many other catchers blocking his way. In 2003, it was former second-rounder Brandon Inge and veteran A.J. Hinch; in '04, the Tigers took a shot on free agents Guillermo Rodriguez and Mike DiFelice; and in 2005, they platooned Sandy Martinez and Brandon Harper.
St. Pierre won the Mud Hens' starting job in 2006, but after hitting .202 in 78 games, the 28-year-old found himself losing playing time to Mike Rabelo, a former fourth-round pick who'd hit well at every level up to Triple-A.
On the move
St. Pierre became a free agent after the season and was signed by Kansas City in early 2007. The Royals shipped him to Milwaukee near the end of Spring Training, but he failed to make an impression with the Brewers, first behind the plate and then on the mound. St. Pierre was released less than three months later and forced to re-evaluate his life as a baseball player.
"I was frustrated because I was doing Double-A again and not even playing every day," he said. "They told me they wanted a catcher who could hit and that they wanted me to be a pitcher. I thought about it for a few days and told them I'd give it a go, but it was one of the worst things I've done. Basically, I never got a chance in Huntsville.
"At one point, I was like, 'What's going on here? What am I doing? I'm not a bad hitter. I hit like .250 and put the ball in play. I'm not that bad.' I thought that maybe it wasn't going to happen. That's when it really hit me that I might not be able to make it to the big leagues after all. I missed my family, my wife was pregnant, and that's when I decided it was time to go home."
St. Pierre decided his No. 1 priority was improving as a catcher. He was lured back to the game then-Tigers Minor League co-coordinator Glenn Ezell, who had been St. Pierre's catching co-coordinator when he first came to Detroit, and St. Pierre credits him with giving him confidence.
"Glenn Ezell was like a father figure to me," he said. "He told me he believed in me and said I shouldn't give up just like that. He said I made a mistake trying to be a pitcher and he tried to pump me up a little bit. I show up to Spring Training and got a job at Double-A splitting time with Dusty Ryan, and that ... really got me back on my feet.
"I felt I still had something in the tank and I had the support of my family and people around me, telling me I should give it another shot ... that I was still young and still had a good arm and that I shouldn't give up. They told me to keep my head up, stay positive and move forward. And that's what I did."
Finding a groove
While St. Pierre was enjoying being back in the Tigers system, he still had holes in his swing. He hit .250 in the Eastern League and .213 with Toledo in '08, and it wasn't until the following year -- his 13th as a pro -- that he actually felt comfortable at the plate.
"Something clicked for me and I was like, 'Wow, this is how I should hit. This is me. This is how I feel comfortable.' I never really had something I called 'home' on my swing, something that you can always go back to. I never had that. In the last day of Spring Training, I told [second baseman] Will Rhymes that I still didn't feel like I knew what I was doing and he said, 'You know, hitting isn't that hard. Just get your swing and try to repeat it every time. Stay consistent with it.'
"The way he explained the basics of hitting and the way to approach the ball just clicked right away. I had to work on it, but it worked out so well. It let me be strong and powerful and dangerous but still comfortable, instead of just trying to put the ball in play and guess and get out easily."
St. Pierre started 2009 a Double-A but returned to Triple-A and started playing every day. In August, he homered in a career-best three straight games. But just when St. Pierre was finding a groove, he was back in Erie.
"In my last game in Triple-A, I went 4-for-4 with a double, four RBIs, a homer, a couple runs and I got sent down to Double-A," he said. "Alex Avila was going to go to the big leagues and they didn't want to send Dusty Ryan down because he knew the pitching staff.
"I still wanted to finish strong, but I broke my hand. I told my wife I was going to keep doing what I was doing and see what happens, and it paid off."
The 2010 season started in a similar vein for St. Pierre, but his perseverance finally came to fruition and he was named one of MiLB.com's Organizational All-Stars.
But he broke his hand for the second time in 30 games and had trouble hitting upon his return.
"It took a month to start really driving the ball and that was when I said, 'OK, stay healthy and show them what kind of numbers you can put down,'" he recalled.
"I was playing against Louisville and I got a base hit my first at-bat and when I came back to the dugout 'Bull' [Leon Durham] said, 'You're done, you've got to see LP [manager Larry Parrish]. For me, I was like, 'Did I do something wrong? I haven't done anything. I don't go out. All I've done is play Call of Duty all night. LP looked at me, winked and said, 'You're going to the big leagues. Go, you're done for the day. Watch the game, catch some bullpen and don't get hurt.'"
The 30-year-old had waited almost half of his life to hear those words and felt sent shivers down his spine.
"It didn't hit me right away. It wasn't until I went to sit down and watch the rest of the game," St. Pierre said. "I just thought, 'Wow, I'm 30 years old and finally making it to The Show. Finally, it paid off. I can tell my kids, 'Yeah, daddy made it to the bigs. And that's when I started getting chills. I couldn't really believe it. I felt warm inside and I had this feeling that I couldn't even describe."
In the big leagues now
After 978 games, 3,314 at-bats and 14 years, St. Pierre was with the big club, suiting up in a Major League clubhouse. Despite catching thousands of innings, when the time came to step onto the field, he was more nervous than ever before.
"When I ran out to home plate I was like, 'Wow, this is big. This is nice. This is unbelievable.' I got myself a little nervous and told myself I couldn't drop balls or have passed balls. I was just telling myself, 'Don't, don't, don't,' and that is the worst thing you can do.
"Then, when the lights turned on, I just thought, 'This is the big league.' Even in the dark it was so bright that it felt like daytime."
The game provided several firsts for St. Pierre, who picked up his first hit in his first win. He was the oldest position player in 49 years to make his Major League debut for Detroit.
"The entire game, I wanted to show so much what I could do. I was facing [Bruce] Chen and it is really hard to face a guy who throws so slow when you're so excited. ... In my fourth at-bat, I got two strikes on me and I just took a breath and tried to calm down. I was anxious and nervous, so I relaxed my hands and told myself that my hands would do the work. I spun on a good curveball and got it to 3-2, and he came with a fastball away and I just reacted.
"When I got to first base and saw the ball go back to the dugout, I was so excited. I got a standing ovation and I didn't know what to do. Should I cry? Wave my helmet? I didn't want to mess up, so I just stared at the third base coach, so I didn't miss my next sign."
It was more than just a single. It was a symbolic reminder of the hard work and determination of a player who refused to believe he wasn't good enough.
"I came from a poor family, so when you get to the Major Leagues, it's just another level of life," he said. "It's just so different. It's nothing like I could imagine. ... It's a dream to me. I was so happy that I could say I was a baseball player.
"There were a lot of times that people didn't believe in me. I had to believe in myself. Even as a kid, I always thought I was the best at anything I did. Even if I wasn't the best, I believed in myself so much that I became the best. I always knew that I had it in me. I stayed positive and wanted to show everybody that a little kid from Quebec City could do it."