LOS ANGELES — At the end of an 18-hour day spent in two countries and on two different coasts, Kevin Pillar wandered through the bowels of Dodger Stadium after Tuesday night’s 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, looking for the manager’s office.
The stadium has changed a lot since the 30-year old Pillar — who grew up in nearby West Hills — went to “thousands” of games as a kid. The outfield scoreboards are now both high-def video boards, the seats have changed colors and the guts of the 56-year old park have been completely re-arranged. Not that he would know. Tuesday was the first time he’d ever played here.
“It’s a very sacred place to me,” Pillar said. “It’s a place I kind of really learned to love baseball.”
When Pillar was called upon as a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth, he glanced out to left field and realized a childhood dream: stepping into the batters box in Chavez Ravine. He’d always envisioned coming out of the home dugout. Instead, traded to the San Francisco Giants from the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday morning, Pillar was not only the visitor, but the rival, which means he has some work ahead of him to convert his Dodger-fan family.
“It’s going to take a while for my friends and family to come around,” Pillar said. “It was easy when I was drafted by the Blue Jays, a team that’s kind of forgotten on the map a little bit, the team was so far from home, it was easy to convert friends and family to be Blue Jay fans. It’s going to be a little bit harder to convert some friends and family to Giants fans, but I know they’ll be cheering for me, and ultimately, we’ll win ‘em over.”
During Pillar’s first session with the San Francisco media following Tuesday night’s game, manager Bruce Bochy poked his head into the locker room twice. He was as eager to speak with Pillar as his new outfielder was eager to find out his role with the club, one which will see him start in right field on Wednesday, play the corners regularly and spell center fielder Steven Duggar when San Francisco’s prized young leadoff man needs a day off.
“We’re real excited,” Bochy said before the game, and before he had even had a chance to speak with his new outfielder. “He’s been on our radar for a while, and we’re excited to have him here to help out. He’ll give us plus defense, another bat, experienced guy, and the energy level that he plays at, I’m looking forward to getting to know him and watching him … I think he could help out, especially in our ballpark. We’ve got a big outfield, and to have a couple center fielders out there is going to be pretty nice.”
The trade that brought Pillar, a .260 career hitter, to San Francisco was one that was months in the making. There was consistent, mutual interest on the parts of the Giants and Blue Jays in getting a deal done, said Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi.
“A lot of things from our offseason shopping list: Right-handed bat, center field insurance and depth, and just having good, all-around players on the team, he was a pretty natural fit,” Zaidi said.
Toronto, though, was reluctant to get rid of its longest-tenured player if they didn’t have confidence that their youngsters could play right away. That left Pillar in limbo.
“I think my antennas went up when we traded [Kendrys] Morales on the eve of Opening Day, that it can happen to anyone, at any time,” Pillar said. “Kind of got tired of answering the questions with the media there. I just enjoy playing. I don’t try to think about that stuff too much.”
Toronto’s reluctance changed with the performance of Anthony Alford — the club’s No. 11 prospect headed into this season who acquitted himself well in 16 spring training games and was recalled on Tuesday — and 24-year old Billy McKinney, who hit .252 in 42 games as a rookie last season between the Yankees and the Blue Jays and hit .260 in 22 games this spring.
After waking up at 8 a.m. on Tuesday in Toronto with his wife Amanda and a year-and-a-half-old daughter, Pillar headed out for a 10:30 appointment. He didn’t make it two blocks from home before his phone rang. It was Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. A deal had been consumated late Monday night. ‘
“I knew it wasn’t him calling to wish me a good morning, so I knew something was up,” Pillar said. “I picked it up and said, ‘Where am I going?’ In some way, it was definitely shocking. You don’t anticipate it happening so early in the year.”
Having been drafted by the Blue Jays in 2011 out of Cal State Dominguez Hills, it was difficult to leave the only professional organization he had ever known. He was emotional and his eyes watery as he addressed the local media at the Rogers Centre. Then, he jumped on a plane and few to Los Angeles. He landed at 6:30, arrived at the stadium in the fourth inning and was quickly fitted for a uniform. A Giants uniform.
When Pillar jumped into the on-deck circle on Tuesday night for his first time as a Giant, he took a peek at the scoreboard. His name was backwards (Pillar Kevin), but he didn’t notice. He’d never gotten to play in Dodger Stadium, and, before the trade, was excited when he saw that the Blue Jays were headed there to play this August for interleague play.
“A childhood dream for me [was] to step in the batters box at Dodger Stadium,” said the former star at West Hills-Chaminade, and holder of the longest hitting streak (54 games) in Division II history while at at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “I think I tried to take it in as quickly and as professionally as I could, and really just tried to focus on trying to get on base.”
Growing up, Pillar said, he “very much” disliked the Dodgers’ northern rivals. The fairytale would have been for him to be stepping out of the home dugout. He didn’t get that. That’s not to say he’s disappointed.
“It was kind of crazy being thrown into the fire, but obviously, I grew up not too far from here; I know how historic this rivalry is,” he said. “It’s just really cool to be a part of something like that.”
After his cross-country trek, the emotional highs and lows of playing at his dream stadium less than 24 hours after leaving his home of seven years, he did battle through an eight-pitch at-bat, which earned him respect from one of his new teammates who doesn’t bestow praise lightly.
“I’m excited about Pillar being here,” said starter Madison Bumgarner, who wasn’t asked about Pillar before he independently offered his own appraisal. “I think he’s going to really be good for us. I feel like we’re going to be OK [in the outfield]. I don’t think these first few games here are any kind of sign of what kind of team we are. I think we’re going to be good.”
Dodger Stadium was where Pillar, his father Mike and brother Michael would spend their summers. They weren’t able to get to the stadium for Pillar’s debut on Tuesday, but they, along with mother Wendy, will be in attendance for Wednesday’s series finale.
“It’s kind of where I, aside from playing in my backyard with my dad and brother, coming to these games really kind of sparked my interest to maybe pursue baseball as a career,” Pillar said. “I think any time you grow up being a Dodger fan, you grow up in this area, it’s easy to buy into the rivalry as a fan, but i think you learn to respect this organization. They’re known for winning, and I think that’s why the rivalry is so intense, because it’s two historic franchises that have a pedigree of winning.”
After Pillar’s Giants debut, he trotted back to the dugout, where Bochy was waiting. Bochy told Pillar he wanted to speak with him later, to clear things up about just what he’d be doing for San Francisco. So, once a bleary-eyed Pillar was finished with the cameras and microphones of a media crush for the second time in 18 hours, he asked where the manager’s office was, and followed a pair of writers to Bochy’s door.