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Published: Sunday, 4/15/2012

Kunkel now Tigers' bullpen catcher

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Mud Hens catcher Jeff Kunkel, left front, will serve as the Detroit Tigers' bullpen catcher. Mud Hens catcher Jeff Kunkel, left front, will serve as the Detroit Tigers' bullpen catcher.
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Ever since the Tigers selected him in 37th round of the 2005 draft, Jeff Kunkel has been pushing to reach the major leagues.

Now the former Mud Hens catcher has made it -- although not in the way he expected.

Kunkel, who played with the Mud Hens for parts of the past two seasons, now is serving as the bullpen catcher in Detroit.

Kunkel was with the Tigers for the exhibition game at Fifth Third Field on April 4. While he has spent plenty of time at Fifth Third Field, that game marked his first trip to the visiting clubhouse.

"I didn't even know where to go. I had to follow everyone else," he said. "But I thought this [exhibition game] was a cool opportunity, especially for the guys in Toledo."

Kunkel, a former University of Michigan player who turned 29 in March, had spent the previous six years in Detroit's minor-league system, advancing to Toledo for the first time in 2010. He played in 25 games with the Hens and hit .225 with 11 RBIs.

Kunkel, who is better known for his defense, threw out 32 percent (11-of-34) of would-be base stealers while with Toledo in 2010.

Last season Kunkel yo-yoed between three different levels, playing eight games for Hi-A Lakeland, 12 for Double-A Erie, and 19 for the Hens. In those 19 contests for the Hens Kunkel batted .095 but did hit one of the 11 home runs of his minor-league career.

"[This spring] the Tigers brought this opportunity to me, and I thought it was a good time [to do it] -- so I took it," Kunkel said of his decision to become Detroit's bullpen catcher.

During games Kunkel will warm up relievers while soaking up the atmosphere of baseball in the big leagues.

"I'm excited to learn as much as I can from everybody," Kunkel said. "[Detroit] is a really good team with a lot of really good players.

"I think [Tigers fans] should be really excited about this team."

UNHAPPY ENDING: Former Mud Hen Max St-Pierre was suspended 50 games for a second violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, major league baseball announced Friday.

St-Pierre, who played in Toledo over parts of seven different seasons, was suspended for a drug of abuse. He also battled alcohol problems early in his career.

A 26th-round draft pick by Detroit in 1997, St-Pierre spent all but the 2007 season in the Tigers organization. He signed with the Red Sox this past winter but was released at the end of spring training.

The suspension will begin if and when St-Pierre signs with a major league organization.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Former Mud Hen Mike Hessman signed with the Astros organization this winter and is playing for Houston's Triple-A club in Oklahoma City.

In his first seven games for the RedHawks Hessman has hit .273 with a home run and three RBIs.

Hessman's hitting coach in Oklahoma City is Leon Roberts, the former Tiger who managed the Mud Hens in 1987.

One member of the RedHawks' front office is Melissa [Walters] Bird, a Maumee native who previously was an intern for the Mud Hens and Tigers. She now serves as Oklahoma City's director of corporate partnerships.

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade.com, 419-724-6481, or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.



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