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Over the course of seven seasons and nearly 700 games, Toronto Blue Jays fans watched Kevin Pillar grow from a long shot 32nd round pick to a household name in centrefield.
A durable athlete and plus-value defensive player, he worked his way into the lineup every single day on the strength of a highlight reel full of diving and leaping catches, providing stability and reliability in centre field.
Pillar’s tenure in Toronto came to an end on Tuesday morning, when he was traded to the San Francisco in return for a trio of prospects. While your mileage may vary on the return and on his possible value to a Blue Jays team focused on developing younger players, what is undeniable is the connection Pillar formed with the fans and teammates in the city.
Speaking to reporters prior to catching a flight to join his new team, Pillar let his emotions show when faced with the question of no longer being a part of the organization.
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“It’s all I’ve ever known,” a choked-up Pillar said. “You spend a lot of time here, more time here than you do in your home in the offseason. I spend more time with people here than I do with my own family. That part of it is hard.”
Pillar was a part in the 2015 and 2016 teams that both reached the ALCS, and will always be a popular figure in the city for his role on those clubs. “Getting an opportunity to win a division here is something I'll always cherish,” he said in response to a question of his favourite moments with the team. “Get an opportunity to play in the postseason in back-to-back years, being a couple games away from going to the World Series. I think that's why everyone in this clubhouse plays.”
Those playoff runs helped revitalize the enthusiasm for baseball in the city, and the packed houses at Rogers Centre made a lifelong impression. “Playing in front of a sold out crowd for almost two years straight was some of the best times of my life. I always looked forward to coming back to Toronto and knowing we were going to play in front of 45 or 50 thousand people. We were gonna have extremely passionate and rowdy fans.”
The pictures painted of a full crowd in that reflection are in stark contrast to the realities of the 2019 club, and in a rare night off on Monday he was fittingly able to take a moment to soak in how different things had become in such a short time. “I actually got a chance to not play yesterday, and sit back in the dugout and kinda look out, with the type of attendance we had, just the amount of change we’ve had in the seven years I’ve been here. It’s tough to see.”
Things certainly are changing for the team, and quickly. Pillar isn’t the only veteran to be moved already this year, and the pre-Opening Day trade of Kendrys Morales gave a hint that more movement could be coming. “What happened with KMo kind of really lets you know it can happen at any time,” Pillar pointed out. “I think if KMo was still here and he didn't get traded and I got traded four or five days into the season, I'd be a little bit more shocked, but after KMo was sent on the day before Opening Day, I think everyone is a little bit more aware that it could happen at any time, any place."
The changing face of the team and wave of young players replacing old ones is how the baseball business works sometimes, and Pillar will hold his now former team in his heart going forward. “There's definitely some really talented kids that are coming up and there's obviously some really talented guys in there that you know you've just seen the beginning of what they’re able to accomplish in their big-league career,” Pillar said of the Jays clubhouse. “Ultimately, I’m going to want nothing but the best for this franchise.”
Originally from West Hills, California, a trade to San Francisco will be a homecoming of sorts, making for some silver lining on an otherwise sad occasion. “This is always going to be near and dear to my heart and this place I'll always call home,” Pillar said of Toronto. “But I'm really excited to get to L.A. and meet my new teammates and have a chance to play in Dodger Stadium, a place I've been wanting to play in for a long time and grew up going to a ton of games and get an opportunity to see my family a lot more."
Pillar’s final message was one directly to the fans, many of whom can still be seen sporting his giveaway jerseys complete with capes attached, a nod to the Superman nickname he picked up from his penchant for flying through the air for diving catches.
“The biggest thing is just thank you. They've been great to me. They've been supportive of a lot of things that I’ve gone through on the field personally, a lot of stuff I did off the field personally. I got a chance to live my dream. I got called up as a 24-year-old kid that probably had no intentions of getting to the big leagues. I was able to have my debut here in Toronto as like I said a 24-year-old kid.
“I'm leaving here as 30-year-old man with a wife and a kid. Just a lifetime of memories. I think I’m not superman, I’m not the player. This city and this country kind of allowed me to almost become a mythical kind of superhuman baseball player and you know I can't thank them enough for that.”
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