By Alexis Brudnicki (@baseballexis)
Buffalo, NY – Kevin Pillar admits he made a mistake.
Last Tuesday, the 25-year-old outfielder was removed from Toronto’s game against the New York Yankees at Rogers Centre by manager John Gibbons, in favour of a pinch-hitting Anthony Gose. Pillar reacted poorly, tossing his equipment in the dugout.
After the win, the skipper answered in the affirmative and referenced "selfish play" when asked if Pillar’s actions played a part in his demotion to Triple-A Buffalo following the game.
"I made a poor decision," Pillar said. "I got caught up in the moment and did something I shouldn’t have done. And whether or not I think it was justified, the manager has the final say and I’m just trying to get better from what happened.
"It couldn’t have come at a worse time, with my family being in town too, their first time in Toronto. It was hard. It’s been a hard 10 days but I’m just trying to become a better player and person for it and not let it happen again."
Keeping a level head is something Pillar has worked on since his high school days, and grew much better at while he was in college at Cal State Dominguez Hills. For the majority of his career, the California native has been able to stay even keel, though it took a similar incident early on for a significant change to happen.
"That’s happened multiple times," Pillar said of being frustrated. "I just don’t think I’ve shown emotion like that in some time. The last time was maybe in Lansing and the hitting coach [Kenny Graham] ended up putting my bat and helmet in the trash can. That was the moment where showing the emotion kind of stopped, it changed. I was really upset when he did that and it was definitely a learning moment."
And what were the circumstances then?
"I don’t know," Pillar said, remembering the consequences much more clearly than the action. "It was maybe a strikeout or something, and he didn’t like the way I took my stuff and threw it in the dugout. I just remember being in maybe the eighth inning, or the ninth, and coming back in from defence and the game being over, and I couldn’t find my stuff.
"Someone told me to look in the trash can. It was there. I had words with him after. At that point, it was our second year together and we were pretty close. That time was when the showing of emotion kind of stopped.
"But as much as I want to sit here and justify what I did [in Toronto], I can’t…it was definitely out of character, especially up there. I know my place, I know I’m a rookie, and I know those are things I can’t get away with. It was not even a minute of frustration and emotion that I showed that cost me some days in the big leagues and potentially even more."
Pillar may never know exactly how much he missed out on, and it sounds as though he’s still trying to make it a thing of the past, but his Bisons teammates and friends are making it easier.
"This game comes with a lot of pressures – in the game, am I going to be here today, am I going to get released, am I going to get sent down – and I think when you learn to play with those pressures and don’t let them become distractions, there’s a little bit more freedom when you play," Pillar said.
"I know there are some guys in this clubhouse who are in a similar situation that I’m in, hoping every day that we get a chance to get back there, and we’ve made a pact among us to not even worry about getting back to Toronto, but play with both feet in the city we’re in that day and to have fun doing it. Especially at this time of the year, the schedule’s been really tough, but we’re trying to make the best of it and have fun.
"In some weird way it’s fun being down here because I am playing with a lot of my friends, guys that I came up with, guys I’ve spent a long time with, and they’ve been a big help with the mistake I made that got me sent down here, helping me through it and reminding me to have fun when I play and not worry about what happened, when I’m going to get a chance to go back or if I’m going to get a chance; to just enjoy the moment down here."
Enjoying being on the field in whatever city his current team is playing in, Pillar has found some difficulty this season with the adjustment between playing every day for the Bisons and taking on a bench role with the Blue Jays, most often called upon as a defensive replacement or starting on days when the big club faced a left-handed starter.
"Baseball is a business," he said. "You’re going to be put in situations you’re probably not always comfortable with. The majority of guys in this clubhouse and most clubhouses are guys who have played every day in their career. There are very few guys who weren’t everyday guys in college or high school who are still left in this clubhouse.
"So [you have to] prepare yourself for the roles you may be put in, especially when I’m up there knowing I’m going to be facing left-handed pitching and maybe go an extended period of time without playing. You’ve got to mentally prepare yourself and maybe take your batting practice a certain day – those might be the only swings you get for the next couple of days – and you’ve got to take it with purpose, rather than when I’m playing down here, where batting practice becomes more of a way of getting loose and comfortable.
"When I’m up there, those might be the only swings I take and they have to be the most important swings I take every day."
Every new opportunity presented to Pillar by the Blue Jays became that latest, most important one, probably one reason his removal from his last major league game ignited a fire not often seen from the former 32nd-round pick.
"Baseball, especially at the big-league level, it gets super competitive," Pillar said. "The manager’s a competitor, I’m a competitor, and in that moment I wanted to be the guy to get it done and I just couldn’t handle it correctly.
"There are different ways to go about it. And above anything else, being able to be put in a situation to get pinch-hit for is ultimately my fault for not performing up there and I think that, more than anything, is what upset me."
Following the roster move, things didn’t get any easier for Pillar. With his parents and fiancée in town, his mom and dad venturing to Toronto for the first time, he quickly had to share the news and look to their next move.
"That was the hard part for me," he said. "They were waiting for me after the game and I just got told to leave and instead of walking back to our place that day, I drove so I could talk to them. I told them what happened and they were upset but they felt for me."
On Wednesday morning, Pillar declined to take the ride back across the border offered to him by Toronto and he and his family drove to Buffalo together. With a quick stop by Niagara Falls for the Pillar parents to have a glimpse, the outfielder was back in a Bisons uniform for the night’s game before they faced the remaining details of the visit.
"I started here [in Buffalo, during their trip], played two games, got called up for two games, and then they were back here for about two or three games before they went home," Pillar said. "There were a lot of things [to deal with].
"I got us a place here, a two-bedroom place we were sharing here, and then I had my two-bedroom place in Toronto, then when we came back we ended up getting our own hotels and they left."
Pillar has embraced his role with the Bisons and is on a team that is quickly climbing back up the International League standings. That, along with his teammates, has made a huge difference for him as he moves forward.
"When I came down the first time there were a lot of new faces here, a lot of guys we had signed, and it was a matter of getting to know some of the guys," Pillar said. "We added some guys – [Mike] Zagurski has been great not only for our bullpen guys, our younger bullpen guys, our younger pitchers, but [he’s] a huge clubhouse addition keeping things fun and keeping things light.
"Some of my good friends like [Ryan] Goins and [Andy] LaRoche are here and I really enjoy playing with those guys. Since I’ve been back the first time, we started winning some games and winning is a lot more fun than losing.
"That’s what’s made this experience a little bit easier, winning games and guys enjoying themselves a little bit more and a lot of us not worried about if we’re going to get called up tomorrow. We’re just embracing being here and we all feel if we win games, it kind of puts pressure – up top, they want winners, and if we win down here, it helps our chances up there."