Wednesday night, frustrated after being quick-pitched, Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar shouted at Braves pitcher Jason Motte. The incident ended in a benches-clear-and-everyone-stands-around situation, but the fallout continued as further examination revealed that Pillar had shouted an anti-gay slur at Motte. Early Thursday afternoon, Pillar apologized, and a few hours later, the Blue Jays suspended Pillar for two games, his salary to be donated to an as-yet-unspecified charity. (It’s possible that MLB will issue its own suspension, but unlikely given Toronto’s actions.)
Having to grade an apology for an anti-gay outburst is absurd, but as apologies go, Pillar’s stands out for its lack of equivocation. There’s no “if I offended anyone”; it reads as contrite, not just brand-savvy. It at least looks like Pillar understands not only that what he did was wrong, but why, and how important it is that nothing like this happen again.
Even so, it’s appropriate that the Blue Jays are sitting Pillar down. A two-game suspension isn’t much — the shame of his actions will probably hurt Pillar more than two days’ lost pay — but it’s a necessary message to send. (Taking into account the length of the season, it’s equivalent to the suspension the NBA gave to then–Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo for his anti-gay comments toward referee Bill Kennedy. Days after the incident, Kennedy revealed that he is gay.)
When Pillar says, “This is not who I am,” I’m inclined to believe that he acted out of character in a moment of frustration, but that’s not the most important part of this story. It’s never OK to use that word — even in anger — and even if Pillar’s outburst was merely thoughtless, an apology isn’t enough. In 2012, another Blue Jay, Yunel Escobar, was suspended three games for putting the Spanish equivalent of Pillar’s utterance on his eye black. Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo’s Big League Stew wrote at the time: “At best, it’s an insult that has become so common that its derogatory nature isn’t readily apparent to those who use it.”
That’s the real problem: Some players — most of them raised from childhood in the insular, macho environment of organized sports — haven’t internalized how toxic anti-gay language is, even when it’s used without specific malice toward gay people. To understand the impact of Pillar’s words, it helps to examine why certain words get used as insults. To a certain kind of man, to be gay is to be (at best) weak or (at worst) broken. It’s a message that LGBTQ people — and for all the bloodless but well-meaning references to “the LGBTQ community,” it’s important to remember that we’re talking about people — have heard their entire lives, and LGBTQ baseball fans just saw it repeated on television.
If the baseball community, whether in the form of other players, the Blue Jays, or MLB, hadn’t taken action against Pillar, it would have sent a clear message of condoning that behavior. It’s on that community, whose power structure is inhabited almost entirely by straight white men, to choose one of two paths: Either go out of its way to make sure all fans feel welcome, or do nothing and continue to send the message that they are not. It’s refreshing that the Blue Jays chose the first option, but disappointing that the culture of the sport is in a place where they even had to.