Kevin Pillar was quintessential Toronto. He was never the biggest or the fastest, the most talented or most gifted.
But he had this way of leaving his mark. Being part of the show — and what a gift that was.
He was Superman without a cape, diving through the air with the greatest of ease, the late draft pick who came from nowhere and crashed into walls and fences and ivy bushes just to make an unlikely catch. He was the kid who played through whatever pain he was experiencing — complaining was something others did.
He wanted to play every day. He loved being part of this team and this town, throughout the best of Blue Jays circumstances and, recently, throughout some of the worst.
And now he’s gone to San Francisco, traded back to his home state, sent packing in exchange for another bucket of maybes as the last everyday link to those two seasons of playoff baseball here, the kind of post-season excitement and hope we might find with the NBA Raptors.
The winning came quickly here with the Blue Jays and ended quickly, and now another of the remnants of better times — another of our memories — taken from us at a time when it should be.
The great Jose Bautista isn’t playing anymore. The MVP Josh Donaldson went to Cleveland and now Atlanta. Edwin Encarnacion went to Cleveland and now Seattle. David Price is in Boston, Troy Tulowitzki is in New York, Russell Martin in Los Angeles. Devon Travis is hurt — some things, it seems, never change.
The deal with the San Francisco Giants was almost made before opening day, but the details got bogged down and the season began without a trade being consummated. By Monday night, general manager Ross Atkins had a few teams in play, a few teams interested, when he thought the night was done. He was dozing off when his cellphone rang. It was Farhan Zaidi on the phone, the Canadian GM of the Giants calling. He was anxious to make the trade for Pillar. Atkins made the deal and then went to sleep.
On Tuesday morning, he called Pillar. It wasn’t an easy call to make. You can wonder about Pillar the big-league player, about his offensive limitations, about his diminishing defence, about him being over 30, about him being a veteran on a team mostly made up of kids, about what all the new-aged statistics say about him.
But you can’t wonder about Pillar the teammate, the person, the pro.
Atkins called him a “consummate professional.” His best friend, the normally unemotional, almost-stoic Justin Smoak, began to talk about the trade on Tuesday afternoon and had to stop more than once to catch himself. He was losing his composure. He didn’t want to cry in front of cameras and notebooks.
Smoak took it badly. His wife, Kristin, close friends with Pillar’s wife Amanda, took it worse. This is the part about trades you rarely hear about. Not only was Smoak, the sure-thing first-round pick who almost lost his career, and the long shot Pillar close friends, the wives were close. The daughters were best friends.
After calling Pillar to tell him he’d been traded, Atkins did an unusual thing. He called Smoak to inform him of what went down.
This is the new millennial way of doing business in baseball. You don’t just trade a player with the hopes of making your team better. You trade a player and then call his closest friend to tell him what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
“It’s different,” said Smoak, trying to maintain composure. “It’s weird.”
Said Atkins: “We’re not in a popularity contest. We’re in a contest to win championships.”
Being popular isn’t likely to happen around here these days. Winning a championship, that seems a future lifetime away.
Pillar was a rare home-grown talent who belied the odds. The pennant winner he toiled for had players brought in from elsewhere to play catcher, first base, shortstop, third base and left and right field. He and Travis were home-grown among non-pitchers.
And in Pillar’s case, he became that rare baseball individual. He made catches in centre field no one else could make. That was his calling card. YouTube has various sites rating the best Pillar catches of all time. You ask those who have played with Pillar and each of them will tell you their own version of the best-catch story.
The analytics didn’t believe in his defence the way the visual of Superman certainly managed. He wasn’t Devon White in centre field, he wasn’t complete the way Lloyd Moseby was complete, or electric when Vernon Wells was at his best. But any day you could click Pillar’s name and find his greatest hits, all of them with the glove.
The Blue Jays traded Kendrys Morales last week because they wanted Rowdy Tellez playing more. They traded Pillar because they want Anthony Alford and others playing more. Having a veteran presence is a conversation now moot around the clubhouse. Finding out who can play is more important than finding out who can lead.
The belief in the Blue Jays front office was that Pillar couldn’t help them anymore. He could help when he was the seventh- or eighth- or ninth-best every-day player. His fielding has declined. His bat is still average.
This is a new Blue Jays beginning. It’s time to move on.
Kevin Pillar had a great run with some great Blue Jays teams. His popularity exceeded his talent.
Toronto loves its try guys, but in this case, it was time to say goodbye to Pillar, time to say thanks for those Superman moments.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019