Matt Shoemaker, Kevin Pillar, and the Neverending Search for Redemption

After getting involved in a rundown on the path between first and second, Blue Jays pitcher Matt Shoemaker twisted his leg as he applied a tag and tore his ACL during Saturday’s game against the Oakland A’s. The aftermath was painful to watch live on TV, and is more painful to watch back now that the Blue Jays have confirmed that Shoemaker is out for the rest of the season. A season that might well be his only one with the Jays, given that he’s on a one-year deal, though it’s worth noting that he’s eligible for arbitration at the end of the year.

I’m a Blue Jays fan who married a Yankees fan, so I’m very grateful that our subscription allows for multiple games to be streamed simultaneously on different devices. On Saturday, however, the Yankees game was scheduled for three hours before the Blue Jays game, so the timing worked out almost perfectly for a long evening of baseball. What didn’t work out so perfectly was the injuries in both games, adding to an already too-long list of currently injured MLB players. The Yankees are in a particularly bad place for injuries right now, and Saturday’s game against the Royals saw an unfortunate addition to this list: fan favourite and home run king Aaron Judge, who clutched his side immediately after hitting a single and ran slowly to first base.

Streaming baseball gives the impression that there’s nowhere in the ballpark that escapes the coverage of TV cameras, least of all the dugouts. This week’s games in Toronto’s Rogers Centre have seen the shot focusing regularly on first baseman Justin Smoak in the dugout, searching for the story his face might tell as he watches his old friend Kevin Pillar return to the Rogers Centre as Giant. Pillar’s trade, despite being one that made sense for the Jays as they focus on the young talent coming up through their system, was a shock to the fans and to the club. Pillar and Smoak’s families are close, their children similar ages, their wives good friends. Both Pillar and Smoak were tearful when talking to the Toronto media about the trade, Pillar focusing in particular on Toronto being the only club he’d ever known. Seeing both of these men showing emotion is a reminder of the game’s unseen effects on players and their lives, but most importantly, it reminds us that they’re vulnerable, just like us. They’re strong, powerful, rich men who play a game for a living, but they’re vulnerable like any of us.

This is never more apparent than when a player gets injured, as was the case with Aaron Judge on Saturday. The ever-present live camera followed him into the dugout, where the frustration on his face grew and the reality of his injury sunk in, leading him to shout “fuck” loud enough for it to be heard on the streaming audio. In that moment, he was reduced to a boy, and a boy whose hopes had been dashed, however momentarily. Baseball had taken something from him, as it always does. It’s a game that takes and gives, on both the grandest and smallest scale.

Having seen Judge expressing his frustration and showing his vulnerability, I recognised the same emotion a few hours later when I watched Matt Shoemaker twist his leg, hop around and then fall down. The cameras focused in on him as he sat up, and was joined by his teammates, coaches and Blue Jays trainer Nikki Huffman. He stared at the ground, and then, in a brief fit of rage, pounded it with his fists, his face red and contorted. Just like Judge, he reduced himself to a small boy in that instant. A small boy who knew his comeback, the wave he’d been riding of a 3-0 record with a 1.57 ERA over five starts, had been pulled from under him.

And his story is very different to Judge’s. Unless you’re an Angels or Blue Jays fan, you might not have known his name before reading this, as he’s had a career of promising performances derailed by injuries. In September 2016, pitching for the Angels, he was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Kyle Seager and had to have brain surgery. 2017 and 2018 saw him on and off with arm issues, so 2019 was supposed to be his big comeback year. And until Saturday, his hard work had paid off. He’d fully embraced Toronto, the team and the fans, and was becoming a cornerstone of the starting rotation. The redemption he’d been searching for looked like it had finally come his way.

It would be easy to hide or to step back in this situation, but since his injury, Shoemaker has been in the dugout for every game, and has continued to participate in the starters’ walkout with the rest of the rotation. The pre-game footage on Wednesday showed him chatting and joking with Marcus Stroman as if nothing was amiss. So perhaps his redemption story isn’t over yet, even if it seemed like it when he was laying on the ground in the aftermath of the rundown.

Kevin Pillar, meanwhile, hit the first Giants grand slam in two years in his first game as a non-Blue Jay, breaking out of his own slump at the plate. And on his return to Toronto this week, he received a tribute video and a standing ovation from the crowd each time he came up to bat. The Jays fans, myself included, didn’t mind when Superman robbed them of runs with superb outfield catches. Because he’s a redemption story, just like Shoemaker. Baseball takes, and baseball gives.

Plus, there’s another pretty big reason for Blue Jays fans to be cheerful right now.

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