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.