For the 22,691 in attendance at Truist Park on the evening of Monday, May 17, 2021, it was a ghastly sight, one that served as a stark reminder of the game’s inherently grave dangers.
In the top of the seventh inning of an eventual 3-1 New York Mets win over a slow-starting Braves team, one that would, of course, ultimately be crowned world champs, reliever Jacob Webb drilled Mets right fielder Kevin Pillar in the face with a 94-mph fastball. In a nanosecond, the veteran outfielder hit the deck, rivulets of blood spilling from his bludgeoned face for all the world to see.
Ultimately, the Truist Park grounds crew had to rush on the field and clean up the pool of crimson before play resumed. Had the pitch landed a couple inches in one direction or another, it could have struck one of his eyes or temples. Instead, the shellshocked journeyman, left with a swollen and deformed nose and bruising under his eyes, was diagnosed with multiple nasal fractures, which would subsequently require plastic surgery. Impressively, Pillar returned to the Mets lineup by month’s end.
Now, nearly two years removed from the gruesome injury and months removed from an injury-riddled 2022 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers that was spent primarily with their Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City, the 34-year-old Pillar is trying to revive his big league career for the Braves, whom he joined on a minor league deal back in January, immediately after which he tweeted, “Can’t wait to join such a historic franchise and help these guys get back on top!”
For the Braves to win a second World Series in three years, they will surely need some help rounding out the outfield. While the club is set in center field (reigning NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II) and right (a healthy Ronald Acuña Jr.), left field is up for grabs as both Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario are coming off underwhelming seasons. If Pillar has a solid spring training and is able to crack Atlanta’s opening-day roster, which could also mean snagging a spot on the bench, he would reportedly be in line for a $3 million salary—and a chance to continue cementing his legacy as one of the premier Jewish ballplayers of the 21st century.
Raised in the well-to-do San Fernando Valley neighborhood of West Hills, Calif., Pillar, whose mother, Wendy, is an observant Jew, had a Jewish upbringing and was bar mitzvahed to pay homage to his maternal grandmother. Although he did not maintain particularly close ties to Judaism as a teenager, by the time he blossomed into an everyday big leaguer for the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2010s, Pillar embraced his heritage, speaking in front of hundreds at a 2016 Maccabi Canada event and engaging in open dialogue with his teammates about his Judaic background.
And after establishing himself as an elite center fielder and solid contact hitter for Toronto, Pillar was abruptly traded to the San Francisco Giants a week into the 2019 season en route to joining a passel of other clubs (Boston Red Sox, Colorado Rockies, Mets, Dodgers) before landing with the Braves organization.
After the signing in January, Braves skipper Brian Snitker remarked, “I always have been an admirer of his [Pillar]. He’s one of them gamer-type guys that plays the game the right way.”
He’s undeniably a gamer. Literally days after the horrific incident at Truist, Pillar, appearing like a bruised and defeated boxer, fortified his Iron Man image when he delivered the following remarks to the media via a Zoom call: “I pride myself on being available so I think my immediate reaction was sadness that I don’t know what the extent of what just happened was and I know that I’m leaving a game. And I know we’ve already been shorthanded with injuries. It was frustrating. My initial reaction was to get up and go to first base.
“I don’t always enjoy the results of going out there every single day, but I do enjoy the challenge of being available every day and I enjoy playing and that’s the thing that hurts the most. My face will heal but my heart’s broken right now.”
A year later, in 2022, there was the need for further healing. On June 1, four games into his call-up with the Dodgers, Pillar fractured his left shoulder on an awkward slide into third base and was slated for (presumably) season-ending surgery. However, Pillar was not shelved for the entire 2022 season as after three months of rehab, he returned for the final week of Triple-A action. His final stat line at Oklahoma City (.315, 10 homers, 40 RBIs), coupled with his well-established durability, made Atlanta inclined to take a flier on him this offseason. In the weeks ahead, as a non-roster invitee to Braves spring training camp, Pillar hopes to stand out among a crowded field of candidates (Sam Hilliard, Eli White, Jordan Luplow) jockeying to be the defending NL East champion’s starting left fielder.
As Pillar told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a few weeks ago at the onset of spring training: “I wanted to be a superstar. That never happened. But I always tell people there’s nothing wrong with being a good big-league baseball player. It pays well, you can do it for a long time, you earn the respect of your teammates and the fans that watch this game.
“Still feel like I could be an All-Star if everything clicks but, at the end of the day, I do enjoy being a guy that plays the game the right way, that his organization and teammates value.”
- David Ostrowsky
- Truist Park
- New York Mets
- Atlanta Braves
- Kevin Pillar
- Los Angeles Dodgers
- Oklahoma City
- World Series
- NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II
- Ronald Acuna Jr
- San Fernando Valley
- Toronto Blue Jays
- Maccabi Canada
- San Francisco Giants
- Boston Red Sox
- Colorado Rockies
- Brian Snitker
- Sam Hilliard
- Eli White
- Jordan Luplow
- Atlanta Journal Constitution