Baseball is a Team Sport Played by Individuals or An Open Letter to Kevin Pillar

Kevin_Pillar_September_30,_2015

By Craig Fortier

Two weeks ago, I attended a Blue Jays game at SkyDome with my sister and brother-law and some of their friends.  We were seated in the first level near left field.  We could see Ezekiel Carrera’s terrible fielding up close, but it was also a great vantage point for us to watch Kevin Pillar be Superman. There is likely nothing more beautiful and elegant in all of baseball than watching a gifted, hard working, centerfielder track a ball in full stride and then leave the ground to float in the air in dramatic fashion to make a spectacular catch.  And Kevin Pillar, more than any other Blue Jay has gifted us with this.  I own a Kevin Pillar jersey – partly because of my sincere appreciation for his determination to emerge as a star defensive centerfielder after being drafted in the 32nd round who was given very little chance of making the big leagues.  Kevin Pillar has known struggle against adversity and long odds in his life.  I also own a Kevin Pillar jersey because of the strange coincidence that we bare somewhat of a likeness to each other (though admittedly I’m more like his shorter huskier older brother than his doppelgänger). 

And so it was to my disappointment that as a ball was hit to deep centre field, a large drunk white bro holding a small expensive looking purse about a dozen rows ahead of us decided it was time to stand up to encourage people in my section to do “the wave”. As a student of the game I have an irrational hate for the wave, but it is especially grating in times where a climactic moment in the game is about to take place. And as Pillar drifted deep in the outfield to make a great (not necessarily signature diving) play,  another large drunk white bro seated a couple rows behind me got up and screamed at the wave starter, “Sit down! Nice purse bro!” And…then in a more hushed tone that kind of tailed off… “Fag”.  I’m very sure that the wave bro never heard that last part, I’m clearly certain that neither Pillar nor Carrera heard it on the field. I don’t know that my sister or her friends heard it. And now I sit here typing this and can’t be sure if I even heard it…But I did hear it…and I slowly turned back and tried to identify the person who spoke those words in order to at least give a glare of disapproval.

The comment brought me back to all the times in little league that the word was used as the go-to pejorative on the field. Each time it would be spoken I would squirm and cringe from my position in centre field hoping that my gay father and his partner who were always seated up the baseline and away from the other parents at the game (they were the most likely to yell these homophobic slurs in the first place) didn’t hear it. I’m certain that they almost always did. And so it is with significant disappointment that I saw Kevin Pillar mouth that three letter word during a game with the Atlanta baseball team last night.  Let’s be clear, it was hard to hear what Pillar actually said with the continued racist “tomahawk chop” blaring from the speakers in the background as the predominantly white crowd (in a majority Black city) casually and deliberatively went through the hand chopping motion while singing a mockery of an Indigenous war chant.  But as this thoughtful column by Toronto-based baseball blogger Andrew Stoeten explained, Pillar’s post-game comments point to an admission of what he said and a knowledge that it was wrong, though perhaps, as Stoeten succinctly argues not necessarily an understanding of why it was wrong.

And herein lies the conundrum. Baseball is a team game played by individuals.  We succeed at baseball because we prioritize performing our individual roles to the best of our abilities (something that Pillar should be commended for) in order to support the greater team outcome.  That’s why my friend Umar is always preaching the virtues of small ball to me.  Bunting runners over, double steals, sacrifice flies may not always be statistically the best move to make, but these are plays that build the team-like environment that pushes all the players (and the fans cheering them on) to (in the spirit of 2016) #cometogether. But we also lose as a team and so when an incident takes place like the one last night, it’s perhaps just as important to reflect on our collective failures rather than any one individual’s egregious error.

So while Pillar’s transgression is an individual error that requires reflection, apology, and accountability and perhaps with last night’s post-game apology he’s at least on the way there,  we need to look at the use of the homophobic slur in terms of the culture of the game itself.  Baseball at the professional and recreational level continues to be a cesspool of toxic masculinity despite the significant work and progress made by feminist, queer, and trans* movements within sports.  So we need to certainly put Pillar’s use of the word “fag” in conversation with John Gibbon’s claim a couple seasons ago about ball players being forced to “wear dresses” or Yunel Escobar’s eye black that read in Spanish “Tu ere maricon”.  But we must also situate PIllar’s choice of insults in the stands of baseball stadiums. In the Major Leagues, minor leagues, recreational leagues, and little leagues fans use of racist, sexist, homophobic/transphobic insults are poured onto the field as frequently as beers are poured into their cups. But that’s still not enough. We also have to situate Pillar’s words on the fields of our recreational softball leagues where homophobic taunts are still prevalent, outfielders encroach onto the infield when someone read as women or femme comes up to bat or when teams are made fun of for having more than the minimum number of women on a team or having a team that includes trans* and gender non-binary folks. This was the experience of our recreational softball team, the Uncertainty, for 10 years in Toronto’s mainstream softball leagues.  And so after significant amount of work challenging these individual transgression in a culture of toxic masculinity, we decided it was time to form a league of our own. 

But let’s get back to Pillar for a moment.  Yes, we should ask that Pillar continue to do work to be held to account for the problematic nature of his statement.  We should reject the inevitable pushes from the mainstream media and MLB that will try to force this player to take the fall for something that is endemic and systemic not only on the field but in the media booth as well!  We should push back against the narrative that these words were “offensive” – that’s not the important thing here – these words were the toxic masculine heteronormative and patriarchal underbelly of baseball culture made visible.  The problem is why the word “fag” was on the tip of Pillar’s tongue in a moment of anger and frustration in the first place.  Yes, it was a hurtful thing said by a single person and addressed to a specific target (Atlanta pitcher Jason Motte) and Pillar did the right thing in apologizing to him.  But this is a cultural issue in baseball that because of this transgression Pillar is now in a position to actively challenge.  Adam Jones has been at the forefront of doing this work against the racist culture in baseball and perhaps Kevin Pillar can use this incident as a moment of action as well.  But we fans and rec players don’t have to wait on Pillar to be Superman for us here! We can start the work of challenging this culture ourselves.  All it takes is building the environments in our little leagues, our rec leagues, in the stands, and in the media that identifies and seeks to move beyond the cesspool of toxic masculinity. It requires some humility on the part of folks who have admittedly themselves used such pejoratives in the past – to be accountable and work for change. To transform a culture that pushes people out of sport, a culture that makes people feel like they can never develop the proper mechanics to throw a ball because they are genetically deficient, a culture that says that you can’t steal a base wearing a skirt.  In our new league, we can show you that none of these things are true.

So let’s leave this as an open invitation to Kevin Pillar or any other MLB player that you are welcome to come out to play in our queer/non gender binary recreational softball league.  We can’t guarantee you 95 mph fast balls, but we can offer it as a learning experience. Let’s also leave this as a notice to everyone else in baseball culture that we are organizing to change shit and y’all need to step up or cede space…because a revolution is brewing on the backfields of Toronto.