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December 11, 2012

Punk Hits

Why Do We Fear The Beard?

by Ian Miller

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As you no doubt know by now, the San Francisco Giants opted not to tender a contract to their All-Star closer, Brian Wilson. He was due a league-mandated minimum of just under $7 million, and was probably hoping for something closer to $10 million. Apparently the Giants decided he wasn’t worth it, and Wilson is now a free agent. News reports have described Wilson as “angry” that the Giants chose not to re-sign him and he is likely to sign elsewhere. It remains to be seen what kind of deal Wilson will get on the open market. On the one hand, Proven All-Star Closer; on the other, those peripherals, and coming off Tommy John surgery. Intriguing hot-stove action!

When the news came down about the Giants' non-tender, there was some recrimination among San Francisco fans, but not a ton. He was the guy on the mound when they won it all in 2010. His numbers in 2010 were eye-popping: a 2.18 FRA and 1.7 WARP to go along with his 48 saves and World Series ring. He was really good. But then the Giants won the whole thing again in 2012, without Wilson, thereby “proving” that he wasn’t necessary. I heard and read the same thing over and over from Giants fans: Many/most/all said that, while they loved him as a player, they “wouldn’t miss his act.”

We all know what The Act is, of course. It started out innocently enough. Well, perhaps “innocently” is the wrong word, given that Wilson’s first prank on the national stage involved a man (rumored to be Pat Burrell) in fetish gear and a gimp mask. But that was merely a prelude to what would come.

There was the George Lopez appearance, with the dyed beard and meta-captain’s hats. Attending the ESPYs in a lycra tuxedo. That godawful Taco Bell BLACK AWPS commercial.  And, of course, the beard. The beard was always there, lurking. It haunted our dreams. It briefly co-hosted a show with Kevin Millar on MLB Network, which was canceled when the beard was found to be smarter and more popular than Millar.

The cumulative effect of these performances was twofold: they raised Brian Wilson’s profile to that of a bona fide celebrity, and they annoyed the living daylights out of every baseball fan I know. Even Giants fans. Wilson recorded the final out of the 2010 World Series, striking out Nelson Cruz on a high, tight fastball. He was the weird-bearded, crazy-eyed face of the franchise, and even Giants fans were admitting that they were totally over him.

I’ve thought a lot (way too much, if I’m being honest) about why this might be. Why do baseball fans, including me, have such violent reactions to Wilson’s harmless antics? He’s not hurting anyone. Yes, Wilson’s displays resemble those of a neglected child, someone who is desperate for attention. But why do I care?

By all rights, I should be delighted by this. I complain about how boring baseball players are in aggregate, and Brian Wilson is anything but. As an anti-authoritarian punk-rock type, I should celebrate him.

Rebels tend not to fare well in baseball, at least during their playing careers. Glenn Burke, Jim Bouton, and Bill Lee all paid heavy prices for stepping out of line. Wilson’s shenanigans thus far aren’t marginally as significant as those guys’, but the dynamic is the same: nails that stick up get hammered down.

And yet when we cast our gaze backward, we fondly remember the rebels and outlaws. Spaceman and Dock Ellis. Bert Blyleven and his FART shirt. These guys stand out. I wasn’t around back then, but I imagine that the baseball orthodoxy, fans and media both, didn’t have much patience for Bill Lee’s shtick either. But people make movies about Dock and Spaceman, and subsequent generations (i.e., me) venerate these guys, while thousands of competent, well-behaved ballplayers fade into the annals of history.

We need to allow for the possibility that Brian Wilson knows this. He might not simply be assuaging a rampant super-ego; he might actually be carving out his legacy and annoying us all a little in the process.

As of this writing, the Beard is still out there, unsigned. There’s still a chance he could play for your team in 2013! If he does (or even if he doesn’t), try this: The next time Brian Wilson does something eye-roll-worthy, don’t roll your eyes. It won’t be easy; I know because I’ve tried it. Take a moment and try to figure out what you’re reacting to. Is it simply that Brian Wilson is doing something he’s not supposed to be doing? If you are personally offended by something he does, then by all means, be offended! That is absolutely your right and I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of it. But in the event that you’re simply reacting to a breach of some hazy unwritten rule, it might be worth further study.

Try taking the long view. What will we think about Brian Wilson’s lycra tux in 2037? In 25 years, will we still insist that athletes “act like they’ve been there before”? Will we remain intent on depriving the actual victors of the same expressions of joy in which we, the fans, participate? Will that seem any less crazy than it does right now?

I suspect it won’t. The issue with these unwritten rules is that as long as they’re nebulous and undefined, their boundaries can be stretched to cover whatever behavior someone finds objectionable. Write them down (Closers shouldn’t be excited, hitters shouldn’t admire their home runs, teams stop trying when they're too far ahead) and they just look silly. Maybe that’s why they stay unwritten.
 

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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fawcettb

My favourite part of baseball is the loose cannons. And there are other possibilities than "a rampant super-ego" (sic.) or carving out a legacy and annoying people. He could simply be having fun.
The right to make smart-ass remarks is the right that guarantees every other right we cherish, and that makes guys like Brian Wilson superheroes in my eyes.

Dec 11, 2012 05:25 AM
rating: 9
 
roarke

I think part of the problem is that he's trying too hard to be weird and it seems transparent. There's a difference between guys whose goal is to win games and they happen to be quirky and guys whose goal is to be quirky. I'm not saying that Wilson isn't trying to win, but his first goal seems to be being quirky.

Dec 11, 2012 06:18 AM
rating: 8
 
Lastblues

I gotta agree with Fawcettb. Brian Wilson and his ilk are more important to the game that people realize. An intense, incredibly hard working professional who also recognizes that this is a game, life is short, so have some fun. F*ck with people. Now more than ever they need it.

I love the look in my kid's eyes when Wilson would walk to the mound or talk on camera. That confidence and insanity. I want my kid growing up with role models that are individuals. Otherwise it's all "thank you Jesus for giving us this win," ; "That's a clown question bro,"; "Hot dogs, apple pie and chevrolet," Bullsh*t. Think of what the Wilsons, Lees, Romos, Lincecums and others mean to kids who are athletic, love playing sports, but don't conform to the jock culture. These guys are living proof that if you can bring it on the field then everyone and their opinions can go get f*cked. That's what I love, love, love, about sports, it's a meritocracy.

I met Jose Canseco and I also met Bill Lee when I was kid. Guess who spent a half hour talking with us and who refused to sign autographs or even hang out? Maybe I've just become some weird, over passionate, fatherly dude who's making the role of a crazy closer more than it should be, but f*ck it. I'd rather lose with Wilson then win with the cookie cutters.

So if Wilson comes to your team and you roll your eyes at his schtick, well take a long look in the mirror, cause your probably old and uptight.

Dec 11, 2012 06:24 AM
rating: 11
 
jdeich

I think you're assigning your opinion of Brian Wilson's personality to too many fans. This article has a disappointing undertone of "Everybody agrees that..." I personally would prefer to watch a league populated by Wilsons over a league full of players who mumble through agent-approved answers like "God willing, I just hope I can help my team win some ball games." in response to nearly any question. Judging by the feedback at the McCovey Chronicles, a good number of Giants fans will miss him.

My impression of Wilson is that he finds baseball compelling, but the associated lifestyle absurd. Therefore, he mocks the "seriousness" of being paid millions of dollars per year to play a game. From his interviews, he struck me as a very bright guy. It's possible that the routine of answering "You got another save tonight. How did that feel?" just bores him, so he makes a game out of it.

At the end of the day, if I had to pick out professional baseball players to dislike, there is an unfortunately long list of players who have had encounters with law enforcement for drunk driving, spousal abuse, pulling a gun on people at a restaurant... and that's just the reigning AL MVP. Bizarre Taco Bell ads are way down that list.

Dec 11, 2012 07:14 AM
rating: 13
 
cooldude

I think roarke has a good point. I love the goofballs, but when you're trying too hard, sometimes it shows, and to a lot of people, that's not attractive.

Dec 11, 2012 07:42 AM
rating: 1
 
Vicmill1

I was taught years ago that there is funny and there is silly. Funny gives you a lifetime pass. Silly gets you the bird. (cf. Mimes)

Dec 11, 2012 09:03 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

Loving all the comments. Please keep 'em coming!

Dec 11, 2012 09:07 AM
 
Justin Pacheco

If any part of Brian Wilson's act seemed genuine it wouldn't be annoying. He tries to hard to be quirky and funny. It honestly seems like something of a PR gimmick to get him exposure and annoying Taco Bell ads.

I love athletes that are weird or at least show off their personality. As an A's fan Johnny Gomes and Dallas Braden's come to mind. As does Josh Reddick's obsession with pro-wrestling.

But they just seem to be being themselves, whereas Wilson seems to be putting on a show.

Dec 11, 2012 09:19 AM
rating: 2
 
tweicheld

I found Wilson to be very funny in his glory year of 2010. But like always seems to happen, it gets old pretty fast. He has a quick sarcastic sense of humor, but eventually seemed to prefer to ham it up every time he was interviewed. Personally, as a Phillies fan, I'm more ticked off when I see Ryan Howard drop his bat and admire his home runs (which decline in numbers every year), and of course I'm none too happy with Carlos Ruiz and Freddy Galvis gettin' busted. I guess we fans all have some code of conduct we like to see the players follow. I agree with Lastblues comment that it's cool to see some non-macho guys rise to the top every now and then.

Dec 11, 2012 09:34 AM
rating: 3
 
rweiler

The interesting thing is that Pablo Sandoval has his shtick as well, and that seems to bother nobody. Wilson's act does seem a little forced by contrast.

Dec 11, 2012 09:53 AM
rating: 3
 
Tynan

I respect anyone who doesn't shovel the same Bull Durham interview shlock/drivel every time they encounter the media. It's an act, sure, but here is at least one Giants fan that is definitely still entertained.

Dec 11, 2012 10:37 AM
rating: 2
 
yoshiki89

to be a real baseball anarchist, Wilson should shave the beard once he gets signed

Dec 11, 2012 11:32 AM
rating: 2
 
cdgarosi

This isn't just a baseball thing (though this is BASEBALL Prospectus) so...I digress. This happens in every walk of life. This type of judgment based on the outward appearance happens everywhere. Has it always happened? Sure. Whether it is the length of hair, color of skin or language spoken, we all make choices based on outward appearance.

Two short stories (about me of course). In high school, I had hair just long enough to escape the scissors-wielding priests. I hung out with the wrong crowd, but performed well academically and played sports. I was a conundrum to many. I applied to the National Honors Society and was rejected. Then, the following year, I cut my hair and submitted the exact same essay. I was welcomed with open arms. Appearances matter.

In college, I had a goatee (well, I had a ton of hair for a while too, but I was down to a goatee at this point). I interviewed for a prestigious consulting internship at a now defunct Big Six accounting firm. Only one student each from three local universities was chosen. I was shortlisted with another friend and he was chosen. I found out later from him (and the partner who hired him) that they really liked both of us, but when they had to choose they decided to go with the clean shaven guy. Appearances matter.
Why do appearances matter? Appearances are the short hand we give others to judge us on. Perhaps we are “trying too hard”, perhaps we don’t care what others think, perhaps we hope that someone will take the time to understand what is beneath the appearance. Are we too busy to take the time to try to learn about someone? Maybe. Maybe not. But, it’s a struggle to get past an outward appearance we perceive to be odd.

Maybe Wilson has done the calculus and he doesn’t care. He determined that his skills would give him the leeway to “act the fool.” Maybe time has caught up with him. I know I’ve done the same calculation my life and believed that my skills can overcome any misgivings someone has about my outward appearance. And if they don’t, maybe I didn’t need to work for that person or befriend that person.

Dec 11, 2012 11:48 AM
rating: 4
 
thedaves

I'm a Giants' fan and my response to the loss of Wilson was the opposite of what you you've heard and read. I'll miss Wilson's personality, but I won't miss him going 3 and 2 on every batter with 90% fastballs away. Fact.

Dec 11, 2012 13:18 PM
rating: 3
 
ahemmer

I think I echo many of the other people in the comments when I say there is a fine line between quirky/goofy and annoying. Many of the "weird" beloved players fall in the the quirky/goofy category (Turk Wendell?), while Brian Wilson falls squarely in the annoying category. It may be that Wilson seems to be "pushing" his weirdness on us rather than letting us accept that he is weird. When my parents tried to force me to eat broccoli, I hated it. When I got older and tried it on my own, I loved it.

Dec 11, 2012 13:24 PM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

This is a sport where, if you stay at the plate a second too long after hitting a home run, you're characterized as a guy who shows people up. Wait till something real controversial like the first openly gay player hits the majors...

Dec 11, 2012 14:24 PM
rating: 0
 
JimmyJack
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

That would be awesome. He would use the pink bat all season long!

Dec 11, 2012 16:01 PM
rating: -6
 
devine

Whether he's trying to hard is sort of beside the point, though. The question is why we even bother to notice, much less get upset.

Dec 11, 2012 14:28 PM
rating: 0
 
BHayes

I can't identify exactly when Wilson went from being quirky to annoying in my book, but it did happen. Yet still I watched interviews with him in 2012 where I came away with a ton of respect for the man's intelligence and character. Cut through the caricature for a second and what you've got is a standup guy who's earned much respect in his own clubhouse. Plus, he's a brilliant mind in a game that has more than its fair share of high school locker room types. As a baseball fan I'm anxious to see if he can again become the guy we saw in 2009 and 2010. I grew far more tired of his command issues in 2011 than I ever grew of his act, and I'm honestly kinda geeked to see his 2013.

Dec 11, 2012 15:47 PM
rating: 2
 
R.A.Wagman

Why do people think he is trying too hard? People are actually like that. If you don't like it, tune him out like you should with every other boring, thank-you-jesus conformist out there.
Wilson understands satire and I can respect that. I wouldn't get annoyed with any player's personality unless it interfered with his on-field play or unless he began to show up at my house uninvited every morning, demanding breakfast.

BTW, Ian - I am pretty sure that this was the article of yours that I have most enjoyed. Keep it up.

Dec 11, 2012 19:35 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

appreciate that, RA.

Dec 12, 2012 16:02 PM
 
EricJ

I love how people call him hard working,Where is this coming from? What I disliked about him was his lack of hard work and seeing or hearing him out drinking many nights of the week. I hated seeing him around the Marina while the Giants were playing. I realize he was rehabbing but for $10 million I'd like my stars to, I don't know, watch the damned game. Lastly his act was so tiring because it was so clearly contrived. We like our starts to be real. If they're odd and quirky like the Bird it's awesome.

Dec 12, 2012 09:17 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

I can say with near absolute certainty that there were fans and reporters leveling these same charges against Fidrych. It's all a matter of our perspective, I think.

Dec 12, 2012 16:04 PM
 
EricJ

That's probably fair, Fidrych is far before my time. I'm not so sure he was hated by his fan base as much as Wilson is, I could be wrong but I've always assumed he was beloved. Wilson appeals to the casual fan who buys into the closer myth and likes their players to be easily identifiable.

Dec 13, 2012 09:25 AM
rating: 0
 
Ted Duffield

My impression as a season ticket holde is that Wilson is well loved my a majority of fans, antics and all. He was also a big supporter of his teammates in the dugout this season. I'd much rather let Wilson be Wilson than let Manny be Manny. I don't look forward to the conversation I will have to have with my grandson if he signs elsewhere.

Dec 14, 2012 12:55 PM
rating: 0
 
AWBenkert

With the mess the Rays' bullpen is, I think they should sign Wilson ASAP.

May 27, 2013 16:59 PM
rating: 0
 
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