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Sports Former Blue Jay Kevin Pillar a big hit with fans in return to Toronto, just weeks after life-changing trade

Long-time Blue Jay fan favourite Kevin Pillar, traded in April to the San Francisco Giants, gets a warm welcome as he walks out to his centre field position at Rogers Centre in the first inning on Tuesday.

Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press

Kevin Pillar is proof that you can go home again – even if it is only for a brief visit.

A staple in the Toronto Blue Jays outfield for just over six seasons, Pillar had the artificial turf at Rogers Centre ripped out from beneath him on April 2, when he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants.

A change of teams, leagues and even countries. Goodbyes were said and tears were shed.

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Less than a month later, the 30-year-old was returning to his old digs with the Giants breezing through Toronto for a quick, two-game inter-league tussle against the Blue Jays, beginning Tuesday night.

Pillar said before the game that it would feel strange to watch the game from the visiting team’s clubhouse along the first-base line.

“It’s definitely weird,” Pillar said. “I was here seven years and I never really ventured into this dugout, never really saw myself sitting in this dugout, going in this batter’s box, going into this clubhouse.”

While Pillar continues to insist that the trade to the Giants – for a couple of minor-league pitchers and utility infielder Alen Hanson – caught him by surprise, it was considered inevitable because of the team’s desire to go with a younger, less expensive roster.

The Blue Jays entered the season in the midst of an extensive tear-down and rebuild. Pillar was one of the last veterans left from the back-to-back playoff romps of 2015 and 2016.

Pillar learned he was traded – and would be playing in his home state of California – on the way to Rogers Centre that morning.

It was a surreal day.

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After packing his gear, he was on a plane to Los Angeles where the Giants were playing the Dodgers that night. Russell Martin, his old running mate in Toronto, was behind the plate for the Dodgers when Pillar stepped into the batter’s box as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning.

And he struck out.

“I had a lot of emotions,” Pillar said, his eyes reddening even three weeks after the fact. “This is the only place I’ve ever known, this was the place I wanted to be at. That’s kind of all taken away from you in a matter of seconds.

“By the time I pick up the phone, I hang up the phone, my whole world, my whole life was flipped upside down.”

Pillar solidified himself as a Toronto favourite with the often-reckless fashion in which he played defence, fearlessly hurtling his body into outfield walls or laying it out on the playing surface if it meant making a catch.

His aerial efforts led him to be being dubbed Superman and many fans at Tuesday’s game wore Pillar’s Superman jersey, which the team handed out in a promotion last year.

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About 20 minutes before game time, as he jogged from the dugout onto the field to loosen up, he received a healthy round of applause from the sprinkling of fans who had already taken their seats.

There was a heartier welcome for Pillar as he took up his position in the outfield in the bottom of the first inning as the mandatory video tribute, capturing many of his great catches over the years, was being played on the giant video scoreboard.

Pillar turned and watched the video, and then tipped his cap and gave a big wave to his still loyal fans. And in the top of the second he received another standing ovation when he batted for the first time and drove in the Giants’ first run with a single.

It is shaping up to be a long season in San Francisco for the Giants, who arrived in Toronto with just nine wins to their credit.

Pillar has been their starting centre fielder since the trade and, apart from hitting a grand slam in his fourth game for the Giants, his offensive numbers will look pretty familiar with anyone who has followed his career: .226 batting average with just one walk, and 12 strikeouts in 18 games with his new club.

Pillar said it takes time getting acclimatized with a new team. Tight friendships, such as the one he had in Toronto with Jays first baseman Justin Smoak, don’t happen overnight.

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He said Evan Longoria, the Giants’ third baseman, has been a one-man reception committee since he arrived.

“After the first game he basically told me ‘I can’t replace what Justin was for you but I’m going to try to be your Smoaky,’ ” Pillar said.

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