TORONTO – Initially, in the aftermath that followed his on-field use of an anti-gay slur, Kevin Pillar hoped to quickly make amends and leave his moment of indiscretion behind. The Toronto Blue Jays centre-fielder immediately realized he’d made a mistake, one uncharacteristic of how he feels about the LGBTQ community, and believed that, in combination with his dedication to community service and strong reputation, would be enough to earn forgiveness.
“It wasn’t,” Pillar said Thursday, on the one-year anniversary of that fateful May 17 night in Atlanta when, angry after striking out against Jason Motte, he uttered a derogatory term for gay men at the Braves reliever.
“I look back a year from it and am thankful that it happened, because I hope the uncomfortable conversations that I can now have – which can be uncomfortable, can be sensitive, and for a long time there wasn’t really a reason to have these conversations – people can understand the impact it had.”
In that fashion, Pillar has steadily worked toward atonement since returning from the two-game suspension the Blue Jays handed him in co-ordination with Major League Baseball and the players association. At the time, he said he wanted to be made an example of, and he’s followed through beyond the donation of his forfeited salary to PFLAG, an advocacy and support group for the LGBTQ community, and the Toronto branch of You Can Play, which seeks to make sports safe and open for athletes regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
As he dealt with the fallout that came his way and grinded on the field as his production slipped last summer, Pillar also spent lots of time learning. He leaned on Billy Bean, a Major League Baseball vice-president and special assistant to commissioner Rob Manfred, who spent 10 years in professional baseball as a closeted gay player before publicizing his sexual orientation in 1999.
“He did a great job,” Bean said in an interview from New York. “Right from the start, it was quite apparent it was an accident, it wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t consistent with any way he conveys himself on the field, in the clubhouse, with his teammates, with his family, online, whatever. The thing about athletes is they are in front of fans and on camera more than anybody. I think it was a difficult learning experience for him, but he came through it as well as anybody could have expected.
“I’m glad he’s been able to compartmentalize it, he’s been playing great this year, which makes me extremely happy.”
Most poignant was a private meeting with roughly 20 LGBT people and their parents in Toronto last July, during which Pillar heard first-hand the challenges the young adults in the room faced in both accepting themselves and gaining the acceptance of others.
“Hearing the struggles that they go through living in their own skin every day was really sad, it made me even more remorseful for what I did, knowing how much the word is still casually used and how deeply it offends them,” said Pillar.
“You would think living in 2018, during a pretty progressive time in the world, that a lot of these struggles that these individuals go through would be something that would be a thing of the past. I can only imagine what it’s like for them to try to live what is considered to be a normal life after hearing what they have to go through.
“Just the fear of how they’re going to be accepted by their own family, their own friends. Then you throw in society on top of that, and what they continue to go through was eye-opening.”
Pillar did more than listen that day. Bean also attended and shared his story as a player and then Pillar spoke of the incident in Atlanta and began taking questions.
“I had to sit there and look them all in the face and not only apologize, but try to explain to them why it happened. And that was hard to do, but it made me better off for it,” he said. “I continue to try to make peace with anyone and everyone that I offended. I know it’s an unrealistic goal now to please everyone, but I’m going to continue to try to do that.”
Bean noted that during his playing days the use of anti-gay slurs was largely ignored and that an opportunity now exists to show that, like racial epithets, they have no place in baseball. He also points out to others that the mistake Pillar made could have happened to “anybody in our sport.”
“When I was playing, it could have happened every single night, multiple times,” said Bean. “The landscape has changed, the expectations have changed and the ramifications of our actions have changed. The hardest part, Kevin has come through.
“For the rest of the league, Kevin is a visible player, he’s on the highlights quite often, he’s one of the leaders on the club, it was a learning experience they all looked at and thought, wow, and maybe did a little self-reflection and realized that’s the environment we work and play in and we all need to remember a lot of people are watching and what we say and do matters.”
Pillar learned that the hard way and wants others in baseball, in sports and in general to consider the impact their words have, and be smarter in the words they use. He was at first reluctant to revisit the incident with Sportsnet because he understands how, deservedly or not, such a mistake can follow a person, and he’s worked hard to show he shouldn’t be one of them.
“I still receive messages from fans or people that are still disappointed in what I did,” said Pillar. “The biggest thing that I try to relate to them is we’re talking about a two-second snip of my entire life in front of a camera that called everything I’ve done up until this point into jeopardy and into question.
“The biggest thing for me is just to make peace with myself and peace with people that I’ve offended, to try to move on from it, but not forget it.”
Bean wants Pillar to do precisely that, and to those still upset over the incident, he would point out that from a distance, it’s easy to criticize and ask of them, “Have you ever made a mistake that you regret, or said something that you wish you hadn’t said?”
“The degree of that is different with each and every person, but when we realize that the guys are human, and that they are managing tons of emotion and lots of pressure, it’s understandable how it could have happened,” Bean continued.
“It wasn’t a premeditated choice to be evil or mean to someone, it’s a word the majority of young males have uttered in a derogatory sense because we were conditioned that that was an acceptable term. Now … those expectations have changed. It was an unfortunate situation. We’ve all recognized that. It’s really, in my opinion, what you try to do to change the situation that was created, or to get better immediately after, that matters the most.”