Kevin Pillar, centerfielder of the Toronto Blue Jays, who’s arguably the best of that current select group of major leaguers, said he’s honored to be ranked among notable Jewish athletes.
It’s not a long list. After all, what list of notable Jewish athletes is?
But Kevin Pillar, centerfielder of the Toronto Blue Jays, who’s arguably the best of that current select group of major leaguers — Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler notwithstanding — said he’s honored to be ranked among them.
That’s true even though he considers himself Jewish more through his grandmother’s heritage, rather than any religious conviction. It’s also true that he’s not well versed in the significance of various customs, having been raised in a split household while attending Catholic school. And it’s true that he never attended Hebrew school — unlike his older brother Mike — getting his Bar Mitzvah training through a tutor.
Still, the 27-year-old from West Hills, Calif., whom manager John Gibbons calls “a manager’s dream,” is willing to accept some of the responsibility that comes with being part of the Jewish community.
On June 20, he addressed some 500 attendees at a Maccabi Canada event in Toronto, a city that boasts a Jewish population of more than 200,000. That’s more than half the total in Canada and one of the largest in the world.
“The Jewish community there has kind of embraced me,” said Pillar, sitting in the locker room moments before he’d go out and blast two homers in the Jays 13-2 rout of the Phillies on June 16. “They make sure I have somewhere to go for the holidays and ask me to go to events or speak at certain things.
“I do as much as I can, but it’s hard because the schedule is so busy. For people who are strong with their faith, maybe it gives them reason to gravitate toward baseball if they have a guy who’s Jewish and plays in the major leagues. And it gives them an extra reason to be a fan of the Blue Jays.”
But the adulation goes well beyond Canadian borders.
“When we’re on the road, they don’t necessarily reach out, but I see them in the stands,” said Pillar, whose Polish great-great-grandfather originally settled in Uniontown, Pa., before moving the family to California. “I know they’re proud and watching and support me. That’s the special part, because there are not a lot of Jewish players. I just like being that role model for the kid who believes he can’t play a professional sport. I’ve become that for them.
“That’s pretty special.”
As a kid who played all sports, it wasn’t as if Pillar was searching for a role model. His father, Mike, was Christian, while his mom, Wendy, was Jewish. Like her sons, she was raised in a split household where they celebrated all the holidays.
“I didn’t consider myself Jewish,” admitted Pillar, who’s open to playing for Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. “I considered myself a kid.
“When you’re 13 years old growing up in a split household, a Bar Mitzvah seems like kind of a pain in the butt. It’s was something I had to study for — one of the first times in public speaking, going up reading from the Torah in front of all these people.
“But I knew how important it was to my grandma and my great-grandma, who was still alive then. It was something my mom expected from us. Kind of a way paying back my grandmothers.
“It was a tribute to them. It never really seemed important to me until I made it to the major leagues and realized how few [Jews] there were.”
According to most accounts, the current number is eight: Pillar, Braun, Kinsler, Danny Valencia (Pillar’s Toronto teammate last year), Joc Pederson, Ike Davis and pitchers Scott Feldman and Richard Bleier.
Pederson however, categorically denied his Jewish identity to the Jewish Exponent when approached last season, saying he knew nothing about the religion. So did Mike Lieberthal, a former Phillies catcher traditionally listed in annals as being Jewish.
Hitting .258 with seven homers and 27 RBIs through June 20, Pillar has established himself as a player on the rise. While his second full season hasn’t quite measured up to 2015, when he hit .278 with 12 homers, 56 RBIs and 25 steals, he feels on the verge of breaking through.
“Last year was the tip of the iceberg for me as far as reaping some of the benefits of the sacrifices and the hard work I’ve put into this game,” said the 6-foot, 205-pound Pillar.
“I try to outwork the struggles that come with this game. This is only my second full season. I’m learning a lot about what it takes to be an everyday guy in the big leagues and learning about my strengths and weaknesses. I was always taught to work hard, because you never know when it’s gonna pay off, but it will.”
Yet it took a while for the baseball world to start taking him seriously, even after he compiled a 54-game hitting streak at California State University, Dominguez Hills in 2010, just two shy of Robin Ventura’s collegiate record.
“You look back on it, and it wasn’t something where I thought about reaching a certain milestone,” said Pillar, who lasted until the 32nd round (979th overall) of the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, then averaged .322 with 32 homers, 144 RBIs and 109 steals in the minors before being recalled for good late in 2014. “As a player, every day you just try to get hits.
“This game’s surrounded by failure. The failure is the hard part and the everyday part of it is difficult. Even though it’s a noncontact sport, it’s tough.
“There’s just a lot of wear and tear on your body. And you’re pretty much in a new city every day, a new hotel. I always know where I am, but I don’t always remember what day of the week it is.”
When it’s Friday night, though, you’ll find Pillar at the ballpark. Even observant Jewish athletes find keeping the Sabbath difficult. For Pillar, religion is more choice than obligation.
“Religion doesn’t define me,” said Pillar, who had planned on going to Israel last year as part of an MLB-sponsored trip, before it was cancelled due to the unsettled conditions. “I have a very different take on it.
“It’s not your nationality. You have freedom of religion. You have a choice and I’m still determining what that is. We [he and wife Amanda] don’t have kids yet, but we’ll probably raise them similar to how I grew up. We experienced all the holidays — Christian and Jewish — because my parents wanted us to be well rounded that way.
“To me, saying I’m Jewish is not so much about religion. It’s about heritage.”
That’s good enough for the stat geeks and others who’ll proudly include him on the list of top Jewish athletes; where he’s steadily climbing. And good enough to please his mother and grandmother who taught him to be so open-minded.
Most important, it’s good enough for Kevin Pillar to please himself,