Fear For The Beard

On a family vacation in San Francisco last week, a few things became apparent. Stereotypes about the Fog City aren’t necessarily generalizations – they’re true. San Franciscans appreciate the bay, the same gender and, over and above all, their Giants.

By my estimate, one out of every five people was donning some form of Giants apparel.

The San Francisco baseball club are, just that, giants. Having won two out of the last three World Series (one a sweep and the other in five games), their dominance recently is unparalleled. Their success provides a cause for honor and pride.

During their successful run, the Giants transformed their image – hurt during the early 2000s by a dyspeptic Barry Bonds whose attacks on everyone around him made Lance Armstrong look like a philanthropist – into a fun-loving, idiosyncratic bunch that enjoyed being on the field with their teammates and interacting with fans as much as they did winning.

The 2010 World Series Champion Giants featured an amalgam of characters headlined by All-American boy Buster Posey, vegan ace Tim Lincecum with a contortionist pitching style as well as World Series MVP Shortstop Edgar Rentería.

There was one more man: Closer Brian Wilson who was as unshaven as he was effective.

Known for his facial hair, which likely requires the same amount of maintenance as a row of hedges, Wilson delivered. He closed out World Series games in a victory that brought the Giants their first title since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

The amount of San Francisco attire that featured the motto “Fear the Beard,” synecdoche for Wilson, was astounding and showed the popularity that Wilson had received.

When I attended a Giants-Padres game while in California I had to ask myself the question, “Self, what ever happened to Brian Wilson?”

Wilson, a native of the great state of New Hampshire, parlayed his success and new found notoriety into fuel for his unique engine. The sometimes odd, sometimes eccentric, but always entertaining act that he seems to put on for MLB fans has seen a wide array of material.

There was the spandex “tuxedo” that Wilson wore to the ESPYs that prompted host Seth Meyers to poke fun at him during his monologue. Then, the next year, he topped the spandex by bringing a six-and-a-half foot Sasquatch to the sports award show, who he affectionately called “Squatch.” Then, when asked about a $1,000 league fine he incurred, he simply explained the transgression was having “too much awesomeness.” He is also the league’s only self-proclaimed “certified ninja.” The apologues about Wilson could continue on for pages.

However, the sole reason those tales are well known is because Wilson was successful. Unfortunately for him, his elbow gave out at the close of the 2012 regular season and he watched from the bullpen, recuperating from his second Tommy John surgery, as his friend and fellow Beard, Sergio Romo, closed out World Series games and garnered saves in three tight San Fran wins.

Now not only is Wilson, a former three time All-Star, nary the most recognizable bewhiskered athlete in sports (James Harden, Guard for the Houston Rockets owns that accolade), but even in the Giants own bullpen.

To make matters bleaker, the Giants did not even offer Wilson a contract – so he’s out of a job. What could he do to get hired again at baseball’s advanced age of 32 years old?

Well, luckily for him, it seems as if 2013 is the year for reclamation projects. John Buck, who seems to personify the mantra “wrong place, wrong time” as he was on the Royals during their toughest years and the absolutely horrendous Miami Marlins squad a season previous, finally broke through. At the age of 32, he is finally hitting above the Mendoza line and in only April has just under half of his career highs in homeruns and RBIs. Vernon Wells, another recipient of MLB’s senior citizen-discount, has also rejuvenated himself and aided the ailing Yankees to second place in the tough AL East on the young season.

Another note for AARP-eligible Major Leaguers is the payday for 38-year old R.A. Dickey, whose rise from minor league journeyman, and co-owner of the inauspicious record of most homeruns allowed in a game (6), to National League Cy Young winner with the New York Mets is oft-told. Dickey’s transformation came about through his advent of the knuckleball and took his ERA from 5.21 in 2008 to an astonishing 2.73 last season.

Dickey isn’t even the first pitcher to accomplish such a feat. Rip Sewell, who debuted in the Majors in 1932, spent six years in the Detroit Tigers minor league system before being dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates where his first full Major League season was a disaster. He started 12 games and posted a 4.08 ERA (terrible during those times). Then, quite literally by accident (he injured his foot in a hunting expedition), he became great.

As a result of his foot, he had to rework his pitching motion and evidently it turned out alright. In 1940, at age 33, he went 16-5 with a 2.80 ERA and was nominated for the MVP award. Over the next eight years, he dominated going 103-65 with a 3-and-a-half ERA as well as three All-Star selections. A major contributor towards Sewell’s success was his looping pitch called the Eephus, which kept hitters off-balance. The Eephus was similar to former Boston Red Sox and Saibu Lion Daisuke Matsuzaka’s “Gyroball” – except in the fact that the Eephus seemed to work.

Another pitcher similar to Brian Wilson is former Anaheim Angel and current Boston Red Sox, John Lackey. Lackey who, in 2007, went 19-9 with a 3.01 ERA and two complete game shutouts dazzled the American League. Lackey who, in 2011, went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA did exactly the opposite. It was a tale of two pitchers. So he missed the entire 2012 campaign after Tommy John surgery, like Wilson. Already this season, Lackey looks changed, improved. Over 10 and one-third innings he has an ERA of 2.61 and 12 strikeouts. Then again, Lackey has pitching sage John Farrell guiding the way.

So if Lackey improved the year after Tommy John, but didn’t pick up a taboo pitch – then Wilson could do it too.

So to answer my original question of where had Brian Wilson gone, the answer is where all 30-plus year old Major League Pitchers go when the ligaments in their throwing arms are torn, twisted or bruised: the regular season Free Agent-list. The regular season Free Agent list (shudders) is a quick prelude to retirement, when players cite made up reasons rather than “I can’t pitch” as to why they’re out of the game.

The path that The Beard’s career is travelling on really is unfortunate. In a game that has been rife with PED scandals and ownership battles and sign stealing. The goofiness and comedic relief that Wilson brings to the game of baseball is a fun and light-hearted way to remember that baseball is to be enjoyed. His antics can turn the monotonous routine during Game 100-something into an entertaining day at the park. So even though Father Time and Right Arm oppose Wilson, it is possible for a comeback.

Under the tutelage of a good pitching coach, Wilson could return to form. Wilson could be a quality Major League pitcher again. Wilson could.

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