Everyday spectacular
By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto
Everyday spectacular
By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto
Kevin Pillar isn't like other people. The Toronto Blue Jays centre-fielder lives the way he plays: spontaneously, without fear and confident in what he can do.

Kevin Pillar is dressed head to toe in catcher’s gear, which he dug out of the garage. He’s standing in the backyard of the house he lives in with a few teammates near California State University, Dominguez Hills, where he’s a senior studying business. His best friend, David Fair, is about 20 feet away, hockey stick in hand, and there are a couple of taped-up tennis balls at his feet. “Ready?” Fair asks. Pillar nods. Fair takes his stick back and rifles the first of many slapshots as hard as he can in Pillar’s direction.

It was Pillar’s idea to play this game, Slap Shot Regatta, because he saw it in the movie they were watching minutes earlier—She’s Out of My League. When the scene ended, Pillar stood up and said: “I wanna play. Let’s go.” Fair was happy to comply, so long as his friend was the guy blocking shots. Pillar’s pretty good at it, too—he’s stopping everything. Well, just about. Crash! A ball tears through the window of Fair’s bedroom. They probably could have set up with a better backdrop. “All right, that was fun,” Pillar says, inspecting the broken glass. “I think we’re done.”

Kevin Pillar does things most people wouldn’t do. We know this because we’ve watched him climb walls and lay out for line drives with zero regard for his personal safety. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Toronto Blue Jays’ centre-fielder is a little different off the field, too. This is, after all, the 979th pick in 2011, a man who turned himself into a starter nicknamed “Superman” in one of the deepest lineups in baseball. Says Fair, who’s known Pillar since Grade 6: “Kev’s a unique dude.”

Diving for a line-drive hit by the Houston Astros' Jose Altuve in early August, Pillar hit the ground so hard his belt buckle broke.

To understand why Pillar is the way he is, you have to go back to the start. His dad, Michael, was a professional motocross racer, so at age three, Kevin rode his first motorcycle on the desert and dirt paths near the family home in West Hills, Calif. He was in his first race at age six. “I wasn’t bad,” says Pillar, sitting on a leather couch in the Jays clubhouse before a game. (“Welcome to my office,” he said before the interview started, patting the couch cushion beside him.) He’s wearing a T-shirt with a logo that’s part Blue Jays, part Superman, and there’s a shaved stripe to the left of centre in his neatly combed brown hair. He picks at a scab on his right knee as he talks. “I was fearless, which scared my parents,” he says. By age 10, he was the kid on the adult motorcycle tracks ripping over jumps while his dad followed him around, trying to keep him safe. Family and friends called him “Crash.”

Until his senior year in high school, Pillar did everything: basketball, football, baseball, snowboarding, wakeboarding, you name it. His mother, Wendy, didn’t see a career in the big leagues coming. “My husband and I had no idea he was really interested in baseball,” she says. Pillar was the point guard, the running back and the centre-fielder. “I didn’t commit myself too early to baseball, never played travel ball,” he says. “I enjoyed summer break and going to the lake and hanging out with my friends and being a kid.”

But he did excel on the field all the way through. Pillar made a catch at age 13 that has become part of West Hills legend—it sounds like a fable, actually. His Little League team was up by one, it was the bottom of the ninth, and the opposition had two runners on and two out. A ball was hit to deep centre. Pillar ran up the hill—the field in his hometown features an incline at the wall in centre, just like in Houston—jumped up, plucked the ball out of the air and stole a home run. “He’s 13 years old!” says Fair, who was in the stands that day. “He does a little pirouette mid-air, lands on his feet, then does a somersault going down the hill, I kid you not.” Pillar smiles when he hears Fair’s description of the catch. “Sounds made up,” he says. “But it was just another day at the yard.”

“To get inside my head in those moments when the ball is hit in my direction? I don't think there's any rational thought.”

Still, he wasn’t attracting the type of attention other local kids were, like future first-round picks Mike Moustakas and Matt Dominguez. Pillar was a walk-on, non-scholarship player at his Div. II college, and he chose Dominguez Hills because he’d have a chance to play every day as a freshman. The facilities sure didn’t lure him there: The Toros didn’t even have on-site showers, unless you’re talking about the hose. He’ll tell you with a straight face that their clubhouse was the largest in the state, “because it was a parking lot.” Behind right field, in lot four, the baseball players would park their cars in the same spot every day, because vehicles were the closest things they had to lockers. Pillar dressed in his Chevy Silverado before games. He’d put his tailgate down, blast some country music and play Frisbee or toss around a football or chat with guys leaning on their open trunks. Odds are his teammates did a lot of listening, because Pillar calls himself “a talker,” and he really backs that up. Says Fair: “I can’t get him to shut up.”

Pillar wasn’t sure he wanted to dedicate himself to baseball until the end of his freshman year, after he was named an All-American. Fair noticed a change in his friend during their sophomore season, and not just because Pillar started hitting the gym at 5:30 every morning, or because he set an NCAA Div. II record with a 54-game hitting streak. “I used to hang out with Kevin and talk to him during batting practice,” says Fair, a former pitcher. “One day, he said, ‘I’m taking reps out here for real. This is the best time to practise for me.’ I’m his best friend, and he was like, ‘Get lost.’ That’s when I could tell Kev was taking this seriously.” There were other telltale signs, like when Pillar ran full-tilt into the wall chasing a ball during batting practice and broke his ankle.

Pillar climbed fences so often that his then-coach, Murphy Su’a–who urges his players to always play with game-like intensity—had to ask him to tone it down a bit in practice, because he kept digging in with his cleats and ripping the wall. Pillar didn’t listen. “It was great if he did that in games,” Su’a points out with a laugh. They patched holes a couple of times a season at StubHub Center during the Pillar years.

Part of the reason you don’t see Pillar celebrating or looking surprised or even smiling when he makes a spectacular catch is because he’s been doing this—as Fair puts it: “taking the brunt of the hit, eating it and still catching the ball”—for years. “It’s my job. I want it to appear easy,” Pillar says. It’s to the point where Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who likes to give players a pat on the back after big plays, forgets to do so with his centre-fielder. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Man, I didn’t even tell him, “Good play,”‘” Gibbons says, “because you see it so often.” That’s the way Pillar likes it, that the spectacular has become expected. A diving grab he made last October in Tampa, he says, is probably his nicest ever, though he didn’t notice how parallel he was to the ground until he saw the highlight. And yes, he watches his own highlights, partly for education, partly to pump himself up.

A few days later, he’s overwhelming a wooden child’s chair, and he’s sitting at a mini red plastic table—his knees are higher than the table’s top—in the family lounge at the Rogers Centre. It was his idea to do part two of the interview at this kids’ table, and he doesn’t exactly look comfortable, but he’s chatting up a storm. Minutes earlier, he whizzed down the hall on a scooter, wearing jeans with rips in the knees and a white Adidas T-shirt and sneakers: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here! I’m not late, am I?” No, he was a couple of minutes early.

What goes through his mind when he sees a ball hit in his direction that looks unreachable—well, he’ll interrupt you right there, because he doesn’t see any ball as unreachable. “But to get inside my head in those moments when the ball is hit in my direction?” he says, wrinkling his forehead. “I don’t think there’s any rational thought.”

Pillar is thinking only about the ball. “I’ve never once thought about my safety,” he says, shifting his six-foot, 205-lb. frame in that tiny chair. His first-ever stint on the disabled list came in August, and he knows what everyone was thinking: “How has this guy not been on the DL yet?” It’s a good question. “I always joke around with my wife, like, ‘Do you ever think I’m gonna die out there?'” Pillar says, grinning. “And she’s like, ‘I don’t know, maybe.'”

“He does a little pirouette mid-air, lands on his feet, then does a somersault going down the hill. I kid you not.”

The way Pillar met his wife, Amanda, is in line with the way he plays baseball. A soccer player who’d transferred to Dominguez Hills during Pillar’s junior year, Amanda was talking to Fair after class one day in the parking lot the first time Pillar saw her. He got his buddy to invite her to a Christmas party they were hosting the next night. When he heard she was on her way, he ran upstairs, changed out of his sweats, did his hair, then didn’t even let her get out of the driveway before he introduced himself. They spent the rest of the night talking. “I live in the moment,” Pillar says.

Pillar knew nothing about Toronto when he was drafted to the Blue Jays in 2011. “I think they like hockey,” he told Fair at the time. “It’s north, so I figured it was probably cold year-round,” Pillar says. The lifelong Dodgers fan didn’t even know who the Blue Jays manager was. When he was first called up in 2013, it was a whirlwind. “They’re trying to get me ready for BP, I didn’t know who was pitching, I don’t know if I’m playing, my phone was off because I crossed the border and I didn’t know about international plans,” he says. “I didn’t even know where the bathroom was.”

Now in his second full season, Pillar is more than familiar with the setup here. He’s had the same locker since day one, though everyone around him in the back left corner of the clubhouse has changed. His own outlook has changed, too: Just making it to the big leagues was once his main goal, and now that he’s had a taste, Pillar is confident he can be an all-star, that his bat will come around, and he’s putting in daily work in the “calibration station” (that’s what he calls the batting cage) to that end. “I know I’m better than my numbers have shown,” he says.

Pillar is only the sixth player in Dominguez Hills history to crack the big leagues, and the second to stick. Of all the players signed out of the draft in 2011, he’s the lowest selection to make it to the majors. It used to bother him that he was overlooked. Now he says he doesn’t care, that it has fuelled the way he thinks. “I still feel like I’m fighting battles,” he says. “I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.”
Kids are wearing capes to games these days because they want to be Superman, and Pillar regularly gets pictures of little baseball players laying out for balls, trying to emulate him on the field. He loves that stuff, though he says being called Superman “is still weird for me.” In the clubhouse, teammates have another name for him. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki came up with it, and it stuck: “Crash Dummy.” “I’ve been the same guy my whole life—that’s good to know,” Pillar says, smiling. A couple of beats pass, and he shifts again in that tiny wooden chair. “I guess I’m wired a little differently.”

Photo Credits

Ronald Martinez/Richard Lautens