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.

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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.

This dialogue is solely concerned with Brian Wilson the flamboyant caricature rather than Brian Wilson the baseball player. Nowhere in this exchange is there even a veiled reference to Wilson's actual skill. This type of fixation on Wilson belies a crucial misunderstanding of Giants brand baseball and Wilson himself. While it'd be foolish to assume that gaining a spot on the national stage would permit any club to export its own cozy self-image, the problem in this case is that national sportscasters' misled buy-in to the cult of personality that Brian Wilson has become is demeaning to active Giants players and their competitors whose skills and back stories merit attention. On a larger scale, it cheapens baseball by affirming the cultural notion that fame in and of itself is a quality to be discussed and emulated.

To take the dim view, this might have been Wilson's plan all along. He has been angling for cultural prominence, or at least a significant cult following, since long before the beard and long before the 2010 World Series. In 2009 he did, in fact, have a reality show. Life of Brian aired on Comcast Sports Net Bay Area and was a primarily self-filmed, video-blog style series of Wilson's musings on everything from music to the arcade games he uses to prepare for games. Other forays into off-the-field publicity included several appearances on Fox's The Cheap Seats with host Chris Rose. In both of these instances we see a now almost unrecognizable pre-beard Wilson trying out the affectation that would be the foundation of his public persona.

But even if we do adopt the dim view, it is to the credit of Giants fans that they didn't grant him the cultural prominence he apparently desired until his on-field performance warranted it. Though it had long stopped airing by then, Life of Brian was not widely watched until late in the 2010 season when some fans went back to it for their own amusement. The fact that this character existed and was accessible as early as a year and a half before fans got on board indicates that they weren't interested in the cult of Brian Wilson for its own sake.

It is certainly reasonable to expect that every so often when a particularly charismatic athlete like Wilson comes along an aura of celebrity will develop. And certainly assigning every worthy player the same cultural prominence would be impossible—not every athlete is endowed with inherent star-power. Consider Pablo Sandoval, who recently became the fourth player in history to hit three home runs in a World Series game. Now imagine Sandoval given the Wilson treatment and an odd picture develops. Though he's perfectly capable of shooting promotional videos or giving post-game interviews, he won't have is own reality show or a guest appearance on late-night television any time soon.

But then there's the curious case of Sergio Romo. A mere two games into the 2012 World Series an entirely new narrative developed: Romo is the heir apparent to the throne of Wilson. His magnetism is of a completely different order—talent unaccompanied by publicity stunts. He is loquacious, natural, and quick with a laugh. Two games later, after throwing his own World Series winning pitch, Romo received a familiar-sounding question: "You seem emotional right now, what's going through your head?" With tears in his eyes he looked at the reporter and said, "I feel blessed, very blessed. These guys let me tag along, I feel very blessed." In that moment, Romo seemed like the perfect antidote to Wilson.