Superman tarnished by anti-gay slur
Blue Jays’ Pillar says he’s ‘embarrassed’ by incident versus Braves
B y almost any sporting definition, Kevin Pillar seems like a man worth cheering for. He puts in his work. He flies through the air and not necessarily with the greatest of ease. He plays the outfield with a Superman electricity. And in this dreadful, haunting Blue Jays season, he has worked extraordinarily hard to change who he is.
To be better offensively. To not strike out so often. To walk more than occasionally. To become one of the better hitters in the American League. And at the quarter mark of the season, he has been the best Blue Jays player, the one player altering his reputation around the game.
And now this — a reputation spiralling in dispute and debate and shock after a moment he would like to have back. A reputation worth discussing and understanding. A reputation we need to come to grips with — and maybe take a giant step back from — in the wake of Pillar’s choice of words on the ball field in Atlanta on Wednesday night.
You didn’t have to be an expert lip-reader to have made out what Pillar said to Braves pitcher Jason Motte. After being quick-pitched and striking out, he said: “You faggot.”
You can’t say what Pillar said anymore. Not in public. Not anywhere. You can’t say it on the field, on the streets, in restaurants or bars or in the park. It’s the language of hatred. Even without intent or full comprehension of the context of his mistake, he has apologized. His words were not acceptable. They’re not acceptable now. They should never be acceptable.
This is big-city Toronto: Large, diverse, complex, divided. This is big-city Toronto, where the Blue Jays play to a wide, varied fan base of all ages and genders and colours. And even in a city of tension, where Pride and Black Lives Matter and the police and the city are struggling to find common ground with so much politics at play, there is never place for the language of hate, accidental, momentary or not.
The timing, really, could not have been worse. Wednesday was International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Really, every day should be a day against all phobias and prejudices. Why do we require a day to do what’s right?
But Pillar got caught in the non-thinking emotion of the moment, caught by the television cameras, caught by his own temper, caught by his choice of verbiage. “This is not who I am,” said Pillar. “I’m completely and utterly embarrassed” by this.
And on Thursday, he was given a two-game suspension by the Jays, a penalty that met with the approval of Major League Baseball and the players’ association.
It’s not who he is, but he said it. That’s the incongruity here. These words aren’t a life sentence. Just a loud and uncomfortable reminder.
I have got to know Pillar the way we get to know most ballplayers in our business. We hang around the clubhouse and the field. We ask a few questions. We exchange the odd barb. We tend to like those who are co-operative better than those who are not and the more human the ballplayer, the more we warm up to them.
But to say we know them — really know them — isn’t accurate. We know only what they show us or share with us. Before Wednesday, I always thought of Pillar as confident, slightly cocky, a touch sarcastic, occasionally tightly wound.
But I never would have equated Pillar, the Jewish outfielder from Los Angeles, a long-shot major-league player who had to acquire some bigleague modesty before making this way to Toronto, as the kind of player who would trip over himself in this manner. He is somewhat selfmade. He is the kind of ballplayer we admire. Toronto has warmed up to try guys and he is one of those. A player whose popularity was on the rise.
While walking out of Rogers Centre last summer, I overheard a conversation between a father and a son no more than eight years old.
“Dad,” the son asked, “is Jose Bautista Superman?”
“No,” the dad answered, “that’s Kevin Pillar.”
“Dad, why do they call him Superman?”
“Because he flies threw the air and makes these incredible catches.”
“He flies through the air?,” the son looked up with wide eyes.
“Yes, like this,” he said, trying to emulate a Pillar diving movement. “Dad,” he said, “I love Kevin Pillar.” Upon the homophobic blackeye suspension of former Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, former baseball commissioner Bud Selig said: “Baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities.”
The days when any sport had its own nasty language and society spoke with a different tone and different words are long over. There are too many microphones, too many cameras, too diverse and intelligent an audience watching: We’re not asking for perfection from our athletes. We’re asking for a sense of decency and decorum.
The next time a little kid walks out of the ballpark and asks his dad about Pillar and Superman, I wonder what will the father say?
It won’t be the same. It can’t be the same. That’s what has to hurt for Pillar. He wanted and pushed for a new reputation this season. This wasn’t what he had in mind.
Toronto Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar, right, said he is ‘completely and utterly embarrassed’ for directing an anti-gay slur at Braves relief pitcher Jason Motte Wednesday during a loss in Atlanta. Pillar was given a two-game suspension by the team.