Photo Credit: Sportsnet

Deciphering Kevin Pillar’s cryptic comments about his time in Toronto

Depending on who you ask, clubhouse chemistry is one of the most overrated or underrated aspects of professional sports. Some believe that a team is more than the sum of its parts. They believe there’s an intrinsic value of locker room camaraderie.

During the 2014 offseason, the Blue Jays front office made sweeping changes to the roster. Gone was Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, Colby Rasmus and Anthony Gose. In came two noted playoff performers, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin.

Shortly thereafter, the Blue Jays won 93 games in 2015 and 89 games in 2016 to go along with two postseason appearances. There weren’t many reports of unrest within the confines of the Blue Jays clubhouse those two seasons. Winning often masks underlying issues and all anybody heard about was how electric those teams were.

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Years later, we may finally have a glimpse into what things were really like the last few years for the Blue Jays. It stemmed from some comments that Kevin Pillar made the other day after coming off a win with his San Francisco Giants. Whether it was intentional or not, Pillar may have thrown the Blue Jays under the bus with these remarks.

The first part wasn’t shocking in the least. Things are not fun in Blue Jays Land right now, so Pillar was probably slightly relieved to be removed from this situation. It’s the second part of his sit-down which perked my ear;
“Something I haven’t experienced in all my years in the big leagues” and “you just see guys genuinely happy for each other”, indicating this was not something he experienced during his seven seasons in Toronto.

Keep in mind, Pillar was around for those 2015 and 2016 storybook seasons. From the outside looking in, those years were about as fun as things could get for the Blue Jays. Yet, Pillar painted a slightly different picture of what things were really like.

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We’ve always gone off this assumption that Donaldson came in and became the leader the Blue Jays so desperately needed. After a deflating loss in May of 2015, he quite famously told reporters, “It’s not the ‘try league’, it’s the ‘get it done’ league. Eventually, they’re doing to find people who are going to get it done”.

Less than a month later, the Blue Jays went on an 11-game win streak. Those candid comments by Donaldson were portrayed as the turning point of the Blue Jays 2015 season. The narrative was that Donaldson somehow willed his teammates to get better. What if it was actually the opposite? To me, it seems demoralizing to have a veteran player come out and say something like that, not uplifting and inspiring.

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There are aspects within a baseball clubhouse that translate to any work environment. When things are going great, certain behaviours or tendencies can be overlooked or accepted. But when things so sour, that’s when the underlying issues become much clearer.

Anthony Alford also made an interesting comment earlier this spring. “You’re kinda walking on eggshells”, Alford said about the previous vibe in the clubhouse. With many veteran players out the door, surely the Blue Jays spring training environment this year was a complete 180-degree shift compared to last year.

With Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin, Marco Estrada, J.A Happ and most recently Kendrys Morales and Pillar among the departed, the younger players have some space to breathe in that clubhouse.

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From the fan perspective, all we saw was the beer-soaked celebrations of 2015 and 2016. We didn’t see what transpired behind the scenes. Everyone assumes it was a cohesive, put-together unit of soldiers, when in reality, it could’ve been just as bad as any dysfunctional group of co-workers.

There’s no reason to believe that Pillar made these comments maliciously or intended to paint his former teammates in a poor light. When shuttling from one team to another, players often talk about how their new team is a breath of fresh air. Sure, Pillar’s enjoying the fog machine in the Giants clubhouse now, but what if that team suffers the same fate as they did last year? Suddenly, those antics become a little less charming.

The same could be said for the Blue Jays a few years ago. They didn’t lose very often, especially in the second half of 2015 when they won 40 of their final 57 games of the regular season. You’d think every player in that clubhouse would feel like they’re invincible. Winning, as it turns out, does not cure all. It simply masks it.

As a result, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Blue Jays’ front office seemed to do everything in their power to remove any semblance of the old guard from the team heading into the 2019 season. Gone is Donaldson, Tulo, Martin, Estrada, Pillar and Morales. I’m not saying any of these guys were bad apples in the clubhouse, but it’s fair to challenge the narrative that these players fostered an all-for-one mentality.

If Pillar—the team’s closest thing to an everyday veteran player—wasn’t having fun, how are any of the younger players expected to enjoy themselves in that environment? Pillar was around during the peak of Blue Jays fever in 2015 and 2016 and he had more fun playing an April home game at AT & T Park. To me, that says a lot about how things went down the last few years in Toronto.

As a byproduct of the Blue Jays’ rebuild, there’s a whole new vibe in the Blue Jays locker room this year anyway. There are only remnants of those 2015 and 2016 teams on the 2019 Blue Jays roster. The fingerprints of Alex Anthopoulos’ tenure as General Manager have nearly vanished and the Blue Jays are a vastly different team compared to a few years ago.

With a much younger core in 2019, the Blue Jays front office staff has to work that much harder to create an environment for young players to flourish and more importantly, feel comfortable in their own skin. This is their clubhouse now. They run the show.

  • Buck's Hair

    “Pillar was around during the peak of Blue Jays fever in 2015 and 2016 and he had more fun playing an April home game at AT & T Park.”

    I think it’s worth noting that Pillar said it was the most fun he’s had on a baseball field THIS year. Not sure it necessarily casts previous years with Toronto in a negative light.

    • Abogilo

      Also, he was not under oath, and is not dumb enough to say “Giants suck, I wish I was still a Blue Jay” even if it were true. Veteran players on big free agent contracts may be more candid, but what does Pillar (an arbitration player who is a DFA candidate if if salary goes to high relative to his value) have to gain by saying anything other than he loves his new clubhouse and is ready to rock as a Giant?

      As Ian said in the article, this all should be taken with a huge grain of salt – just like the idea that the club house was some great example of cohesion when they were winning.

  • HNZ

    The Alford comments never bothered me. Came off as the ninth grader walking into the room full of seniors. Seniors that were almost all superstars. Tulo, Russell, Jose, Josh, Edwin, Stro, etc. Eggshells for sure. Anyone new coming into that situation would be walking on eggshells.

  • dolsh

    Players are coached for interviews – they know what to say that will appeal to the home crowd. That’s likely all this was – more meaningless drivel for the scrum.

  • Oz Rob

    I was hoping someone would address this. Pillar is always an open speaker and given his emotional departure and thank you I think these recent comments are fascinating. But is he referring to the past clubhouse as you describe or the present or both? I tend to believe it was the past. A lot of narcisstic egos amongst the dearly loved departed I’m sure. I did also note that in his thank you tweet that the present Front Office did not get a mention which could be telling or meaningless.