For a famous athlete, Kevin Pillar is disarmingly open.
Pillar — one of about a dozen Jewish players in the major leagues — spoke to J. from the Giants’ clubhouse on July 18, in the middle of a seven-game winning streak just hours before he would start in center field against the New York Mets. Half-dressed, in compression shorts, a Superman T-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, he talked candidly about his move to a new city (and a new country) in April and his embrace of being identified in a select group, fairly considered heroes to a segment of American Jews: Jewish major leaguers.
“The first week, two weeks, three weeks I was here [in San Francisco], it seemed like the longest few weeks of my career,” Pillar, a 30-year-old Los Angeles native, said of his trade from the Toronto Blue Jays after just five games of the 2019 season. “I was trying to figure out why I’m here.”
Pillar grew up in the tidy, affluent San Fernando Valley neighborhood of West Hills. He was a three-sport standout in football, baseball and basketball at Chaminade College Prep, a Catholic high school, but his parents weren’t sports-obsessed; he said he put competitive sports aside during the summer and liked to ride motorcycles with his older brother, Michael. Growing up, he identified as a “half Jew”; his mother, Wendy, is Jewish, and his father, Mike, is Christian.
Both Kevin and his brother had bar mitzvah ceremonies, encouraged by their maternal grandparents. “We were extremely close with my grandparents growing up,” Pillar said. “My grandma, more so than grandpa, really wanted all of her grandchildren to have bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs. It was kind of a way of honoring my grandparents at a young age.”
He said religion did not “carry a whole lot of weight” when he was a kid. Back in 2002, preparing for his bar mitzvah “seemed like a pain in the butt,” Pillar said a few years ago. But when he took a religious studies course in high school, he came to value what he had achieved. “That’s where I learned what my portion at my bar mitzvah was really about,” he told J. “I was able to fully understand what I was able to accomplish at such a young age. I enjoyed that.”
And once he became a public figure, and realized how few Jewish players were represented in the major leagues, it became more apparent “that it’s something I need to embrace a little bit more.”
Pillar welcomed an interview by Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent in 2016, spoke in front of hundreds at a Maccabi Canada event that same year, said he was open to playing for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and embraced the recent opportunity to be featured in J.
“I try to take that responsibility for letting people know that there are people like myself, like [All-Star shortstop Alex] Bregman, like [veteran infielder and World Series winner] Ian Kinsler, that come from a Jewish background and have been able to be successful major leaguers,” he said.
According to the Jewish Baseball News, a website updated daily by Jewish sports enthusiast Scott Barancik, Pillar is one of 11 current Jewish major leaguers, along with Palo Alto native Joc Pederson, 27, Bregman, 25, a two-time All-Star who was a big part of the Houston Astros’ 2017 World Series title, and Kinsler, 37, a four-time All-Star second baseman now with the San Diego Padres. For what it’s worth, the collective batting average of all Jewish hitters as of this writing — compiled by Barancik, whose website tagline is “News and stats on Jews with bats” — is a respectable .242.
For a hundred years or more, Jewish pro baseball players have occupied rarefied air within Jewish American culture. Standouts like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax were perfect models of assimilation: expert at America’s beloved pastime, while holding close to their Jewish faith. Their decisions to sit out Yom Kippur — Koufax during the 1965 World Series and Greenberg in the midst of a 1934 pennant race — were principled statements during turbulent periods in American political history.
Greenberg, a two-time MVP with the Detroit Tigers and the original “Hebrew Hammer” (the nickname has since been given to other Jewish sluggers), was heckled with epithets like “Christ killer!” or “Jew bastard!” by fans and opposing players in the 1930s. Things are very different for Pillar, who is fully accepted in today’s game, he said. There is no team-wide Christian prayer before contests like in the NFL (though Baseball Chapel, an international ministry, is available on Sundays). “I think everyone’s kind of just entitled to their own thoughts or beliefs in regards to that stuff,” he said.
Pillar’s teammates know he’s Jewish, because he told them. Ordinarily religion doesn’t get much public attention, he said, “I guess unless you’re Jewish. Because there’s just so few of us in the game, so you kind of stand out.”
Introspective and thoughtful, Pillar sometimes wears his emotions on his sleeve. Three days after the interview, in the eighth inning of a tie game against the Mets, he took issue with a strike call by home plate umpire Mark Ripperger, and got himself ejected after some choice words. Teammate Pablo Sandoval helped guide the heated outfielder back into the dugout.
Drafted by the Blue Jays in 2011, Pillar spent all or parts of six seasons in Toronto, where he formed close relationships with teammates, coaches and other members of the organization, he said, and was embraced by the Jewish community (“They make sure I have somewhere to go for the holidays,” he told the Exponent). But less than a week into the 2019 regular season, and with Pillar again penciled in as the Blue Jays’ starting center fielder, he was abruptly traded to the Giants. In an interview with a Canadian news organization the morning of the deal, he held back tears explaining what was going through his head.
“I spend more time with people here than I do with my own family,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever known.”
Some fans in Toronto lamented the deal — Pillar was beloved, known for his durability and remarkable diving catches. When he returned to Toronto as an opposing player on April 23, he received a standing ovation. “Giant or Jay, Canada loves Pillar,” a fan’s sign read. Ross Atkins, the Blue Jays’ general manager, defended the move, made during a rebuilding year for the team, saying: “We’re not in a popularity contest.”
— San Francisco Giants (@SFGiants) April 24, 2019
For Pillar and his family, the transition wasn’t easy. He and Amanda, who married in 2014, and their young daughter Kobie had just moved into a new house. “I was just getting fully prepared to embrace another season in Toronto,” he said. “In four days we pick up and move across the country. To a different country.”
“A lot of these guys [on the Giants] were foreign to me,” he added. The Blue Jays play in the American League and hold spring training in Florida, so he had very little exposure to the National League Giants, who train in Arizona. “[I was] trying to make new friends with guys that I haven’t interacted with a whole lot.”
Ultimately it was baseball that helped Pillar get grounded. “Two, three games into it, baseball started to feel normal again,” he said. “Obviously there are some challenges changing leagues, facing new pitchers, positioning yourself against different hitters,” he said. “But baseball is baseball. Baseball was always my escape from everything that was going on. And I think once I was able to move my family out of the hotel and find a place, we began to settle in here.”
The Pillars are renting a house in the East Bay, marking a return to California for both of them. Amanda is from El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento, and she and Kevin were college sweethearts at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she played on the women’s soccer team. “Having both of our families a lot closer, it gave us a little bit more comfort,” he said.
Now that he’s settling in, Pillar is looking good in the orange and black — and posting some of the best numbers of his career. Since arriving in San Francisco, he’s batting slightly below his career average of .258, but has hit 13 home runs and driven in 56 RBIs — close to career highs, with about 50 games left to play.
He’s also made a flurry of highlight reel–caliber plays in the outfield, catching the attention even of opposing managers. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said that after the Giants swept a four-game series in Denver in July, Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black told him that “the play of Pillar out in the outfield changed a couple of those games.”
“For me, I think it’s potentially being in a new place and really wanting to make my impact be felt,” Pillar said of his performance, “in some way impress your new teammates.” Also, “I’ve been doing this for a while now. Sometimes it’s just a matter of time before things fully click.”
Pillar was always a talented athlete, but his rise to the major leagues was no certainty. He wasn’t far and away the best player on his Little League team, he said, nor was he recruited by a Division I baseball school. Cal State Dominguez Hills is a Division II school.
While most major leaguers get drafted out of high school, or after one or two years of college, Pillar graduated with a degree in math and business after four years. Right after, he was picked in the 32nd round — 979th overall — by the Blue Jays. He was offered a paltry $1,000 signing bonus.
“Pillar’s rise to the majors defies all odds,” bellowed one headline on a Canadian sports website during his 2013 rookie season in Toronto.
Once he got his chance in the minor leagues, he didn’t waste it. In 2011, with a short-season rookie league team in West Virginia, Pillar batted .347 with 27 extra-base hits in only 60 games. In 2012, a level higher in Class A, he batted .323 with 91 RBIs and 51 stolen bases. In 2013, he stayed hot, earning himself the promotion to the big leagues in August.
It’s fair to say that Pillar, who came to the Giants with a recently signed $5.8 million one-year contract, has arrived. But his identity as an underdog is still a part of him. The first sentence of his bio on Instagram reads, “From 32nd Round to the Show.”
“Similar to being Jewish,” he told J., “there aren’t a lot of people that have taken my path to the big leagues. Is it something that I think about and identify with every single day? No. I feel like I’ve moved past that, into a phase in my career where I’m an everyday player and I just kind of go out there and do my job.
“But it’s something that I will always identify with. Because I know the challenge and struggle it took in order for me to get here. I know how much hard work behind the scenes it took. For the youth, for the people in a similar position to mine 10 years ago, 15 years ago, even 20 years ago. I will always share my story. I will always try to be the poster child for that story.”
Later that night during the game, Pillar was the runner on first base around 11:30 p.m., nearly five hours after the first pitch. With help from two hits, an RBI and seven putouts from Pillar, the Giants had taken the visiting Mets into the 16th inning, the longest game of the Giants’ season.
With the score tied, both bullpens depleted, and thousands of fans having left the park (on a school night), Giants second baseman Donovan Solano stepped up to the plate. He knocked a single into right field, scoring Brandon Crawford from third — a walk-off, game-winning hit. Overcome with joy, Pillar threw off his helmet, ran toward Solano and wrapped him in an embrace.
It was the Giants’ sixth straight win, putting them squarely within playoff contention about two-thirds of the way through the regular season. A place nobody thought they’d be.