PHILADELPHIA – One day midway through the baseball season, San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson(notes) decided to grow a beard. This wasn't a new impulse, he never cared much for shaving and the Giants had been on a long road trip, stretching nearly two weeks. He simply stopped shaving and the beard blossomed on his chin.
But Wilson is also a man of strange impulses. For instance, whenever he finishes a game, he turns away from home plate and makes an exaggerated crossing motion with his arms that he has said is to honor the MMA fighting culture, his rediscovered Christian faith and the memory of his father, who died when he was 17. He wore bright orange shoes this year until umpires told him to take them off. He has a mohawk. He seems unsettled upon entering games, as if at any moment he might emotionally implode. Those who follow the Giants every day say he is crazy.
Or at least he wants to give the perception that he is crazy.
And so Wilson didn't just grow a beard; he dyed it black without also dying the rest of his lighter hair, creating a variegated image of a brown mohawk and a midnight brown beard that looks as if he could have been colored with shoe polish. He said he did this because he ''thought it would be fun to have a ridiculously dark beard.''
Which he does. In fact, it is so dark that ''ridiculous'' is the word Giants general manager Brian Sabean uses to describe it.
''And [Wilson] knows it's ridiculous too,'' Sabean added.
Still, other Giants players have grown their own beards and San Francisco – being the kind of place where silly superficial dalliances become rallying cries – has embraced Wilson's beard. Fans now bring signs that say ''Fear the Beard'' to games, waving them in the air and dangling them over balconies.
At some point, everyone must realize this is all a put-on and that Wilson might not be as weird as he seems when he does things like pulling out a giant, early 1990s style mobile phone, which he did on television the other day. It's simply another gag from a mind that appears to work faster than most.
''He's a closer,'' Sabean said with a shrug, as if that explained everything. ''Closers are like placekickers in football. Maybe it's a way of dealing with the pressure and the mindset you have to put yourself in.''
And yet, on a Giants team that will try to win the National League championship series against the Philadelphia Phillies with pitching and little offense, Wilson becomes the team's most important player beside starters Tim Lincecum(notes), Matt Cain(notes) and Jonathan Sanchez(notes), the one who can finish the game. For this team, whose success depends so much on several pieces being perfect, any hopes the Giants have of reaching the World Series might well rely on a player with a mullet, blue eyes and a frightening black beard.
There are some who look at Wilson and see the past, a day when closers worked hard to intimidate. They make comparisons to Al Hrabosky, a closer from the 1970s who wore his hair long, grew a Fu Manchu mustache and did strange things like whip his head around and glare at hitters before throwing a pitch. Around baseball, they called Hrabosky ''The Mad Hungarian.'' And it opened an era in which closers became known as much for their ability to discomfort hitters as they were for saving games.
But baseball long stopped being a game of deranged closers who relied on their perceived insanity as much as their fastball. Closers who stand out today – including Mariano Rivera(notes) and Billy Wagner(notes) – are slight of build and devoid of gimmicks but are possessors of dangerous pitches which cut and dance at hitters' hands at frightening speeds.
Wilson himself insists his black beard and angry glares have nothing to do with intimidation.
''I don't try to scare you out,'' he said Friday at the Giants' workout before the start of the championship series.
''Look,'' he continued. ''The shoes, Nike gave me. The beard is the beard. I've worn the mullet since I was 7 years old.''
Maybe, he suggested, everyone looks at him differently because he appears so angry on the mound.
When Wilson pitches, he does look fierce. His arms ripple from the sleeves of his shirt. His neck tightens. His lips strain. He is a rugged man, especially with the beard. Sabean says his workouts are the best of anyone's in the big leagues, ''P90X kind of stuff.''
And yes, Wilson is filled with rage on the mound.
''I get angry thinking this guy is trying to ruin my career and get me to lose,'' Wilson said.
He is a complicated man, an only child who grew up in Londonderry, N.H. His father, Mike, was in the Air Force and left for long stretches, never telling his son exactly what he did for the service. And being a military man, Mike Wilson would sometimes yell at Brian, demanding more, exacting perfection, preaching hard work.
''It's very blasé to say 'work hard,' '' Wilson said, ''but it does pay off.''
When Brian was 12, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Brian immediately sensed this was not good. ''Back then, all you knew about cancer was on TV – and those shows never ended well,'' he said.
This opened a period in which he was forced to grow up quickly as his father's health slowly failed. There was suddenly so much to learn: how to take care of himself, his mother, the house and his life at a time when he still should have been growing up.
''He told me to prepare for the last day he ever took a breath,'' Wilson said.
On Friday, he was asked what his father would think of all this, what he would say about his son closing the final inning of the last game of the National League Division Series, putting him a series away from the World Series.
''I'm sure he would have been proud,'' Wilson said. ''But like any military father, he would say: 'Don't gloat just yet; it's just one game.' ''
Brian Wilson nodded. His fingers played with the dark whispers of his black beard.
Suddenly, he didn't seem crazy at all.