The Subtle Pleasure of a Beard-Free San Francisco World-Series Victory

For a while in the postseason, it seemed like benched pitcher Brian Wilson would overshadow his more worthy Giants comrades. But then a new, more understated star talent emerged.

brian wilson 615 apimages san francisco giants.jpg
AP Images

On November 1, 2010, minutes after he threw the pitch that won the World Series, Brian Wilson was interviewed by a reporter who prompted, "You seem emotional right now, tell me what you're feeling." Wilson stared into the middle distance and shook his head. To the uninitiated it might have looked like the beginning of a sentimental moment. Then he turned. "I'm feelin' like I wanna rage," he said, looking directly into the camera. "Right now."

Wilson had played a huge role in the Giants' 2010 season, emerging as one of the most dominant closing pitchers in baseball. He is best known, of course, for his peculiar facial hair; it was widely imitated that season in the stands by fans sporting fake beards, and it inspired the battle cry "fear the beard." Equal parts great pitcher and eccentric, he became the linchpin of an exceptionally likable roster. On the field he could be counted upon to carry the team to victory; off the field he could be counted upon to say or do something amusing and outrageous that personified San Francisco's particular brand of sports fandom. Most important, he supported his teammates, giving credit more often than taking it, and embodied the underdog, "band of castoffs and misfits" spirit of the season.

Wilson's performance—in the most theatrical sense of the word—on and off the field throughout the 2010 season helped rebuild a collective identity for Giants fans. This campaign was successful because his pitching and his persona were separate and equal: His skill, which would have been noticed regardless, justified the coverage of his antics, which were merely an amusing bonus. "Fear the beard" would not have worked if Brian Wilson had not been a pitcher to fear.

But by the beginning of the 2011 season, Wilson had reached a plateau. Fans continued to talk about his beard, accepted "got heem," (his new trash-talking catchphrase) into common parlance, and found his appearance on Lopez Tonight dressed as a sea captain hilarious. But by midseason there was a palpable sense that the Wilson meme was for the most part played out.

Wilson has now not pitched since mid-April of this year when he was placed on the disabled list after injuring his elbow and undergoing Tommy John surgery. His reliable end-of-game pitching and colorful style have been missed, but now that he isn't playing there isn't any good reason to keep talking about him. In the Bay Area, Wilson coverage has been relegated to the arena of giggling local news anchors. And rightly so—what sports broadcaster would give airtime during a game to a person who is not playing?

Fast-forward to October 15, 2012. The Giants are playing the Cardinals in game two of the National League Championship Series, which is being broadcast on Fox. Gregor Blanco is at bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, and the camera suddenly, inexplicably, pans to the dugout. "There it is," Tim McCarver says as Brian Wilson's signature facial hair comes into the frame. For the next minute and a half, as the count goes from 2-2 to 3-2 and several balls are fouled off, the game itself seems a mere distraction from the real topic at hand. Joe Buck chimes in, "If Brian Wilson was pitching, a ball in his beard would be a ground rule double. They'd never find it!" "He's got his fingernails painted—painted red! Talk about a character." "You might find Andre Dawson in that beard, like in that commercial. He is just a walking reality show." And the camera stays trained on him, as if it is, in fact, The Brian Wilson Show, as he keys along to the stadium organ on a teammate's head.

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Hallie Detrick is an Atlantic editorial fellow.

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