Just over two years ago, Kevin Pillar was a college senior, playing Division II baseball in California. Today, he’s the starting left fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Jewish outfielder, who was called up from Toronto’s AAA affiliate in Buffalo on Aug. 14, has loved the Major League Baseball experience so far.
“It’s everything I thought it would be and more,” said Pillar, who grew up in West Hills, Calif., the son of a Jewish mother and Christian father. “You have this thought as to what it would be like, but it doesn’t compare once you get here.
“You’re playing in big league stadiums in front of 40,000 people in first-class accommodations. It’s been everything I thought, plus a lot more.”
Pillar was inserted into the lineup immediately upon arrival, but struggled at the plate, going hitless in his first five games.
“I wouldn’t say it concerned [me], but it was definitely something I was thinking about, because it was something where I worked so hard to get to this position since I was a little kid,” said Pillar, who stands six-feet tall and weighs 200 pounds.
“Just to get that first hit, it’s something I think every player coming up wants to get out of the way so they can get back to playing.”
In the second game of an Aug. 20 day-night double-header against the New York Yankees, and with his family in the stands, Pillar led off the third inning with a single up the middle off starter Phil Hughes.
“It took a little longer than I would have hoped, but getting it at Yankee Stadium and getting it with my parents there was pretty special,” Pillar said.
Pillar’s parents came up from California, where the outfielder had been a three-sport star in high school.
“I always knew I liked baseball, but my brother was a basketball player, so I played more basketball than baseball or football growing up,” Pillar said.
Though Pillar said his household growing up was “never super religious either way,” he did have a bar mitzvah.
“Growing up, we just celebrated pretty much all of the holidays,” Pillar said. “Both of my parents aren’t very religious, but my grandparents are, so we did it more out of respect for them.”
Pillar went to a Catholic high school that required him to study different religions, giving him the opportunity to take Hebrew studies and Judaism.
“I had eight semesters in high school to do religion, so I learned a lot,” Pillar said.
That said, he wasn’t too confident of his ability to still read Hebrew.
“It’s not very good,” Pillar said. “I’d honestly say, at this point, it’s more memorization of the prayers I had to do for my bar mitzvah [than being able to read it].”
Growing up in Southern California, Pillar became a big fan of Toronto’s last Jewish outfielder.
“Shawn Green was one of my favourites when he played in Los Angeles,” he said. “Growing up, he was one of the guys I looked up to, not because he was Jewish, just because he was a good person, a good player, and he happened to play for the Dodgers.”
Pillar went to nearby Cal State-Dominguez Hills to play NCAA college baseball, where he made national headlines by setting a Division II record with a 54-game hitting streak.
“It was something that kind of happened over the course of a couple of games that led to a couple of more games,” Pillar said. “I wasn’t really aware of it until I started reaching different records to break.
“When I got close to the Division II record, it became a big deal.”
Despite the streak, Pillar wasn’t drafted by the Blue Jays until the 32nd round in 2011.
Toronto sent him to their rookie league affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va., where Pillar played for the Appalachian League championship alongside fellow Jewish ballplayer Ian Kadish.
“He’s actually one of my good friends now,” Pillar said of the right-handed pitcher.
Since that first pro season, Pillar has begun a quick ascension to the major leagues.
In 2012, Pillar hit .322 with 51 stolen bases, finishing the year with the high-A Dunedin Blue Jays.
Pillar began this season with the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats – two rungs below the major leagues – but was promoted to AAA in June after some strong play.
When Blue Jays centre-fielder Colby Rasmus was placed on the disabled list with an oblique strain, Pillar was the one to get the call, and he has played nearly every day since his promotion.
“I figured that I would maybe get a chance to come up in September (when rosters expand) after my season in Buffalo,” Pillar said.
“But being here and playing what I felt was pretty solid, I figured I wouldn’t be [sent down to the minors] with [outfielder Jose] Bautista and Rasmus still out.”
That will give Pillar the rest of the season to try and prove that he’s ready to be a major leaguer. So far, he’s struggled: In 62 at-bats in his first 22 games, he was hitting a modest .161.
He did manage his first Major League home run, though, in a late August game versus Houston – a three-run shot. Prior to his call-up, he batted .307 in the minors and was known for his hitting and speed.
According to Jays Journal, Pillar is “known as a hard-working player that manages to get the most out of his abilities and has shown a general knack for hitting. He’s also made a couple of beauty plays in the outfield with both his arm and glove.”
Pillar is already looking towards next season. “I really want to show the organization, teammates and coaches that I belong here, and hopefully, I can make the opening day roster [in 2014] and be a part of this team moving forward,” he said.