Brian Wilson knows he might seem a little out there. But behind his frighteningly black beard, the Giants' postseason hero is a deep thinker—and one of the game's best closers
This is an article from the Feb. 7, 2011 issue
The enduring mystery of baseball's 2010 postseason—Does Brian Wilson dye it?—was never solved. Nor is that the only pressing question surrounding the Giants' closer. Take, for example, a query that has nothing to do with the color of his seemingly shoe-polished whiskers: Does Brian Wilson diet?
Again, unclear. "I like to have five meals a day, from nine in the morning to nine at night," Wilson explains. "And I'm going to get a little specific here: They have to be 584 calories, 11 grams of fat, 70 grams of carbohydrates, 60 grams of protein per meal."
Five meals, that's a lot of—
"Or I can go days without eating. It's not healthy, I know, but I love the way it feels. You get away from your own mind, even though it's impossible. I'm thinking but not thinking. The endorphins are taking over. I live on a hill, and I get lazy sometimes. I don't want to drive down and get food. So I just drink water for a few days."
Wilson is expounding on his eating habits in the Soho House in West Hollywood, a strenuously hip private club off Sunset. The air is thick with electronica music and spa scents. The clientele is B-listers (Omar Epps! The girl from that show on HBO!) and Hollywood players decked out in this season's Zegna and Hugo Boss. Except for Wilson, who comes to Soho House neither to see nor to be seen but because of its proximity to his off-season home. Oblivious to the amused looks shot his way, he wears a pink Sex Pistols T-shirt, sweatpants and Reebok Pumps. His hat is adorned with a cartoon image of a Mohawk that, he says, "lets people know what my hair looks like underneath." The nails on his pinkies are painted black.
Then there's his beard, a thatch so spectacular as to merit its own paragraph. Wilson's famous facial hair is about to celebrate its five-month birthday. Still suspiciously black in coloring, it's at a length that draws attention from airport security. "It's not itchy," he says, "but it's so thick I lost my remote in there." To it, Wilson has added a Rollie Fingers--style handlebar mustache. "The curl out is festive and nonthreatening," he explains. "Let's be honest: You see a curl in a mustache, and you say, 'That guy isn't mean.'"
Opposing hitters might disagree. The 28-year-old Wilson, of course, played a scene-stealing role in San Francisco's unlikely run to a championship last fall. Quirky and quotable, he kept getting better as the season progressed, becoming one of the front men for an endearingly eccentric team. By the time he struck out the last batter of the 2010 season (the Rangers' Nelson Cruz in Game 5 of the World Series) and performed his signature victory gesture—crossing his arms and tilting his bushy face to the sky—he had, for the moment at least, rendered the Beach Boys' lead singer the other Brian Wilson.
Forget Disney World. Wilson went to Thailand after the postseason, accompanied by A's pitcher Dallas Braden, a frequent travel companion. They went for runs in the jungles. They socialized at night. They took last-minute side trips to Japan and Hong Kong. ("If you didn't guess," Wilson says, "I like to do things on impulse.") The pitcher was noticed everywhere, obliging every autograph and photo request.
Nearly three months later Wilson hasn't come off his Series high. "You know what it's like?" he says, theatrically stroking the beard. "You're 12 years old. Everything is great. It's Friday. The school bell just rang. You have no responsibilities. You get to have a sleepover. All you want to do is jump up and down and scream. You know that feeling? Now make it times a billion. That's winning the World Series."
It's around then that a smartly dressed host offers Wilson a menu. "Nah," he says without expression. "I'm going ninja today."
Children born into military families tend to go one of two ways. They either warm to the regimentation, or they rebel in the extreme, asserting their individualism at every turn. In Wilson's case he split the difference. Mike Wilson was a 22-year Air Force veteran, and the only child he and his wife, Donna, had was no one's conformist. Growing up in Londonderry, N.H., Brian was, as Mike Beeman, a former Londonderry High basketball coach and teacher, puts it, "Bart Simpson loaded with athletic talent." One story among many: When Wilson played basketball, he wore low-cut shoes and no socks, painting his lower legs instead. Once he got a sweat going, he dripped all over the court.
When Brian was 12, Mike received a diagnosis of brain cancer. He died five years later. But by then he had left a deep imprint on his son. "If you play a sport, go 100 percent; if you take a test, go 100 percent; if you're going to be mean, be mean 100 percent," Wilson says. "I've always felt like if I haven't worked my hardest, I haven't accomplished anything."
Wilson was particularly dedicated to baseball, spending innumerable hours hurling a ball against the family garage, refusing to go inside until he had thrown 100 straight strikes. When in elementary school he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded, It's not what I want to be, it's what I'm gonna be: a major league baseball player. Recalls Wilson, "Miss X—let's not use her real name—says, 'This is a classic example of dreams. It's good to have dreams, but we need reality too. One day you'll wake up and realize this.'"
A power pitcher with an on-again, off-again relationship with control, Wilson signed with LSU. After undergoing Tommy John surgery during his junior year, he went to the Giants in the 24th round of the 2003 draft. A year later Wilson was struggling as a starter at Class A Hagerstown, Md., when inspiration struck. "I'd come out [of the game] with the bases loaded," he says, "and I'd have to watch my guys get cashed in. At the end of the day the reliever had a 0.00 ERA. I felt like I could do that job: come in for a few innings, get a few outs, cash in some runs that weren't mine and, statistically, have an awesome day."
The conversion was easy. Wilson had the arm strength to be an effective reliever. He also had the constitution—a burst of intensity for an inning or two was no problem. And on the rare occasions he failed, his sense of perspective kicked in. When your dad battles cancer for five years and dies when you're in high school, how worked up can you get over blowing a save?
By 2008, Wilson was San Francisco's closer, and he's improved every season: His ERA dropped from 4.62 to 2.74 to 1.81 over the last three years, with a steadily rising strikeout rate and a steadily falling walk rate. On occasion his wildness still gets the best of him—witness the two ninth-inning walks he issued while protecting a 3--2 lead in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Phillies before nailing down the win that sent the Giants to the Series. But last season he led the majors with 48 saves and blew only five, the third-best conversion rate in the NL among relievers with more than 20 saves. "He'll keep you on the edge of your seat," says manager Bruce Bochy. "He's remarkable at creating a difficult situation, then keeping his composure and getting the job done. And he has that mental toughness. He dares to be different, but so be it."
A little context. There have always been odd ducks in baseball, pitchers disproportionately so. Wilson's place on the weirdness continuum? He draws high marks for the Day-Glo orange shoes that earned him a $1,000 fine from MLB last year, his SpongeBob socks and the leather-clad, S&M-themed character in the background during Wilson's appearances from home on Fox Sports's Cheap Seats show last season. His ability to knock off the New York Times crossword is a nice touch. Now Wilson leans back in his seat and offers his self-styled philosophy.
• On pitching: "I chuck the ball and see what happens. I'm not worried about what you do, I worry about what I do. Strike out the side? Well, I've been working my whole life at that. I'm happy because it's an accomplishment, but I'm there to dominate."
• On adversity: "I give up that lead-off double, well, who cares? I'm about to get nasty. I tell myself, Just do your job, Brian. You're getting paid a ton of money. Just do your job and don't mess it up. It's that simple."
• On athletes' getting into trouble: "I ask myself, What would this look like? Do I need to be in trouble with the law? Do I need to be at a bar after 12, even though I have a day off? No, because nothing good happens after 12. O.K., a lot of awesome stuff happens after 12. But you can't be falling into traps."
And so it goes. When the player some think of as the craziest man in baseball speaks, you don't shake your head in bewilderment; you nod in agreement. Wilson is the anti-Spaceman. If he weren't wearing a Mohawk cap and a black nest on his face, he could be giving these disquisitions for a corporate audience.
The most convincing proof that Wilson is less of a nutbag than he seems is his relationships with his teammates. Consider the sports eccentrics in recent years—Artest, T.O., Gilbert Arenas. While they've been colorful, they've also been disruptive. Yet go stall to stall in the Giants' clubhouse, and you'll hear teammates call Wilson "a good guy" or "a great dude" or "a leader." "What you see is what you get with that guy," says reliever Javier Lopez. "He's 100 percent genuine."
"If you're around him and see how he interacts, how engaged he is with everyone, you don't think of him as so off-the-wall," says general manager Brian Sabean. "He's eccentric but a good guy at the same time."
The son of a military man appreciates the sanctity of the unit, a group working for a common goal. But there's also an element of pragmatism. "Of course I want to say hello to you," Wilson says. "You're my leftfielder. If we're on bad terms, you're not going to dive into the fence for me. But if you're like, That guy has my back, says hello, plays cards with me, you say to yourself, I'm going to see what this wall feels like."
So why exactly is Wilson cited for having "a peculiar personality" on his Wikipedia page? Well, appearances obviously matter. There's also, Wilson reckons, the sports culture in which different automatically equals odd. "Anything a tiny bit quirky and next thing you know [here he switches to newscaster voice], He was born to cavemen and descended from Zeus." Wilson also notes that the Bay Area "must be the social media capital of the world" and thus every stunt or appearance—say, his off-the-wall Jim Rome interview last September—inevitably goes viral.
Then he settles on this: "Maybe I don't care what people think. I'm not following the norm, nor am I trying to be different. You can't be completely nuts. You can only be, like, three quarters nuts."
The drawback to Wilson's persona: It has obscured his achievements on the mound. For all the fans who know him for his beard and his footwear, how many also realize that over the last three seasons no pitcher has saved more games? Or that he's pitched in two All-Star Games? Or that he tied the Giants' single-season record for saves last year, mowing down batters with a fastball in the mid-to-high 90s and a sharp slider?
Maybe most impressive, last October, when Wilsonmania was reaching its apex, he went about his business with a ruthless efficiency. During the postseason he did a convincing Mariano Rivera impersonation, allowing no earned runs and just five hits in 112/3 innings. "It's pretty simple," he says. "I can't afford to mess it up. If we're winning a game in the ninth inning of the playoffs, we'd better win. I'm not going to be able to look at my teammates and say, 'Sorry, guys.'"
It was no coincidence that Wilson was still going strong late into autumn. He is a fitness freak whose workouts combine discipline with a personal touch. At the Equinox gym down Sunset from the Soho House, Wilson spent a Friday night in December going through a brutal regimen of lifting, stretching, sit-ups and running. His goal is to build core strength while getting his heart rate to 140, same as when he pitches. Other gym-goers snicker as the bearded man in Oakley music glasses contorts his body and sweats spectacularly. Wilson doesn't care.
Has he considered a trainer? "I respect trainers, but they're not me. They're not in my body."
Should he really be running 12 miles in Reebok Pumps that give him blisters? "No. But when I want to quit after mile two and finish, that's what makes me stronger when I pitch."
Couldn't he be just as good if he worked out less? "I don't want to find out," he says. "Because that would disregard everything my dad taught me."
Still leaking sweat, he returns to his car in the garage, a black Mercedes S65 with custom wheels but lacking a hood ornament. It's a vehicle that, you might say, is three quarters nuts. It's fun and wacky. And it is parked squarely inside the lines.
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