July 29, 2010
Isolation and Addiction, with Max St. Pierre
When Latin-American and Asian players sign professional contracts, they are typically immersed in English-language classes and, in some cases, assigned translators. Max St. Pierre wasn’t so fortunate. Taken by Detroit in the 26th round of the 1997 draft out of French-speaking Quebec City, the now 30-year-old catcher came into pro ball with neither a support system nor teammates who spoke the same language. What followed was a tumultuous ride through the minor leagues, one which featured not only loneliness but also a battle with alcohol abuse. St. Pierre, who is back with the Tigers organization after a brief hiatus, has his life back in order and is hitting a perfectly-fluent .324/.358/.419 with Triple-A Toledo.
David Laurila: What was the beginning of your professional career like?
Max St. Pierre: It was really lonely. I didn’t know what to expect or what to do, really. Simply learning English was a process and learning the [catching] position was a process as well. I had just turned 17 when I signed and I didn’t understand how it would be, because I had never really been around people who were speaking another language. I’m from Quebec City, so I was always speaking French and when I first came here I wasn’t really thinking about it that much. I was just coming here to play ball.
DL: Did you get any help from the Tigers organization?
MSP: No, not really. I didn’t get a translator or anything, so I was pretty much on my own and didn’t really have anybody to talk to. I just tried to learn a little bit of English. I tried to understand some words and learn words with my dictionary -- learn words and learn grammar. I’d watch TV with captions and try to translate word to word, but you can’t really do that.
DL: Did you approach anyone in the organization to say that you needed help?
MSP: No. I didn’t think that I was that much of a prospect to be able to get any help, or to get a translator. I was just there trying to compete for a job. But it was tough, especially as a catcher, because you have to be able to communicate with your pitcher. You have to get their confidence, their trust, so I think it affected me a lot just to learn how to call the game and how to learn how to talk to my pitcher.
DL: Was there a direct correlation between your feeling of isolation and the problems you had with alcohol?
MSP: No. I think it goes deeper than that, because I was already a party kid when I was younger. But to get accepted, I kind of wanted to go out and be with that crowd and have a good time. Drinking helped to give me more confidence to speak English.
DL: I would think that the culture and environment that you grow up in impacts your lifestyle in the minor leagues.
MSP: Yeah, it does a little bit. But I don’t know about the Latinos, because the Latinos have translators and friends and coaches who speak Spanish, and that’s a little bit different. So I don’t know. I guess that it just depends on how you grew up and where you came from.
DL: You were briefly out of the Tigers organization.
MSP: Yes, I left for a year . I got traded and [the Milwaukee Brewers] wanted me to pitch, so I pitched for a little bit. That’s when things got out of hand a little bit and I realized that I needed some help. I basically just wanted to quit and go on with my life. The drinking and party thing…I was starting to hurt people who were close to me. That’s when I realized that it had to stop. If I don’t have anybody -- my family and the people close to me -- if I end up with no friends, what am I going to do? I wouldn’t have anybody to help me.
DL: Why did the Brewers want to convert you to a pitcher?
MSP: They liked my arm and I guess they didn’t think I could hit. That’s the story of my life. Everybody has always been thinking that I couldn’t hit. It was “He’s not a good hitter, but he has a good arm, so let’s see what he’s got and we‘ll go from there.”
DL: How did you end up back with the Tigers?
MSP: I talked to [former director of player development] Glenn Ezell, who has been a father figure to me. I never knew my father growing up, so he helped me. He said that they’d like to invite me to big-league cap and see what I’ve got, if I still wanted to play. I said, “OK”.
DL: Looking at everything you’ve gone through, are you surprised that you’re in Triple-A and performing well?
MSP: No, because starting in July of last year, I think that I learned something about hitting that would actually make me a better hitter. I broke my hand late in the season last year, so I couldn’t really finish as strong as I wanted to -- I didn’t hit that many home runs the last month I was playing -- but that’s when I thought that I had a shot to be in at least Triple-A this year. They didn’t see it that way, so I started in Double-A, but I’m here now. So I’m not surprised, but I guess that I have come a long way from I was earlier in my career.