Man on the mound: Brian Wilson’s Andy Kaufman moment

Through his tenure with the San Francisco Giants, the phrase most often used by the team, media and fans alike to describe closer Brian Wilson was, “He’s a character”. The tatted-up Popeye muscles, the Mohawk, the raging on the mound after closing out a win, the beard — sweet jeebus, the beard.  The survivalist-meets-Rutherford B. Hayes facial hair seemed to spring up overnight, so bushy and so black against his dirty blond hair and freckles that we wondered if it was glued on (no) and dyed (yes). We loved the beard, and the beard became a star in its own right on T shirts,  in commercials, in foam facsimiles worn by fans at games. Somewhere along the way, the beard stopped being just a beard. It became The Beard. And The Beard ate Brian Wilson, as it raised expectations for more, bigger, badder outrageousness.

I’m not going to get into Wilson’s athleticism and competitiveness, which helped my G-men win a World Series in 2010. That speaks for itself.  What’s always intrigued me the most about Brian Wilson is his Andy Kaufman-esque ability to create surreal scenarios and weird, edgy alternate personas. Like Kaufman, Wilson loves to push people’s buttons;  no, he needs to push people’s buttons. Before The Beard, Wilson (at the time, only faux-hawked) caused a buzz with a stunt involving his so-called “neighbor,” “The Machine,” a scantily clad guy in bondage gear, who wandered into the background of the shot during a webcam interview between Wilson and Chris Rome on Rome’s Fox show. What was a guy in bondage gear doing in Wilson’s apartment?  Wilson feigned obliviousness through the interview, while Rome — who is to Wilson what Bob Zmuda was to Andy Kaufman — squirmed.   The following video is an indispensable recap of  Wilson’s appearances on Rome’s show, culminating in The Machine Incident.

Wilson was so strange, and so unlike any other athlete I’d ever watched, that I gave him the benefit of the doubt when others argued that he was simply a calculating attention whore. No, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that Wilson’s bearded, bad-ass eccentricity was a very clever and canny piece of performance art. Even now, I still half-believe that Wilson is playing a role, one that delights in messing with sports fans’ ideas about identity, fame, masculinity, homoeroticism and idolatry. His January 27, 2011 appearance on the George Lopez show, for which he inexplicably dressed as a “seaman”, his beard dyed gray, and worked in the word “seaman” at every opportunity, convinced me that I was on the right track.

The sexual ambiguity of the Machine piece returned in Wilson’s red carpet attire at the July 2011 ESPY Awards, in which he showed up, stag, in a skin-tight Spandex onesie tuxedo, with a rhinestone-studded walking stick and white gloves.

And then there was this commercial for NBA 2K12, in which he performed an extended homage to the Boston Celtics of the 1980s.

There are consistent elements to Wilson’s personae. He’s boastful and macho to the point of absurdity. He snaps off wordy sarcasm like nobody’s business. He dresses bizarrely and makes himself look as unkempt as possible. He introduces a note of sexual discomfort (“Stop looking at my shorts, it’s weird”), and then contradicts it in the next breath when he fixes the camera with a mesmerist’s stare and commands, “Look back at them.”

Now, flash forward to Wilson’s 2012 season with the Giants, which ended in May when he blew out his pitching arm and underwent Tommy John surgery for the second time. Wilson then, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from view. He spent his time recuperating and rehabbing. When he did surface in the dugout during the playoffs to cheer on his teammates, he kept a low profile. He rode a motorized trolley car during the Giants’ 2012 victory parade, barely visible to fans, while his teammates rode in convertibles, some hopping out to walk portions of the route  — as Wilson had done in 2010. To his credit, Wilson is only The Beard when he’s healthy and playing, when he can back up his comedy with a solid contribution on the field. In other words, he only talks the talk when he can walk the walk.

In July of this season, the Giants were unwilling to take a chance on Wilson’s twice-rebuilt arm for the amount of money they would have had to pay him. They declined to pick up Wilson’s option. A free agent, Wilson signed with the  hated Dodgers, the Giants’  arch-nemeses.  Full disclosure:  I was so upset at what I saw as a traitorous move, that I did this to my Brian Wilson garden gnome.

©Joyce Millman, 2013

I’m not saying my reaction was rational. The guy is entitled to make a living. But there’s a lot of emotion in the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. I’m obviously grateful to Wilson for what he did in 2010, I hope his arm holds up but … seeing him in Dodger blue is not my thing, and a lot of other Giants fans would agree.

Back to the discussion.  Thursday night, Brian Wilson did something very odd. Not Spandex tux odd, just odd. At the end of the Giants’ victory over the Dodgers, while the Giants were in their handshake line and fans were on their feet cheering for soon-to-be free agent Tim Lincecum, Wilson stalked over to Giants’ president Larry Baer’s box at field level, leaned over the railing and began a (by witness accounts) f-bomb laced meltdown, demanding the Giants hand over the 2012 World Series ring he was due.

The Giants say he was invited to the on-field ceremony last April, but never responded, and ignored several attempts by the team throughout the season to set up a date for a private ceremony. When the Dodgers got into San Francisco for their series with the Giants last Sunday, Wilson reportedly told Giants representatives to “leave the ring in my locker.” But a couple of days later, after being loudly booed by Giants fans when he made his first appearance in blue, Wilson allegedly changed his tune and was asking for an on-field ceremony. And then came Thursday’s blow-up.

I am not a beat reporter, I have no direct knowledge of the situation or of Wilson. I speak only as a fan. But several thoughts came to mind as I watched Wilson confront Baer. I think Wilson might have been surprised by the intensity of the booing and heckling directed at him by the fans who once adored him. I wonder how much Wilson might have been hurt by the fact that the Giants’ highly-touted closing prospect, Heath Hembree , now wears his old number 38 — a diss, given that uniform numbers of departed still-active players who made significant contributions to a team are usually put into cold storage for a respectful length of time before being recycled. (The Giants’ venerable clubhouse manager Mike Murphy is the keeper of the numbers, and you can bet he knew what he was doing;  you don’t cross Murph by going over to the Dodgers. And, did none of Wilson’s old teammates question Murphy’s decision?)

So, was the confrontation initiated by Wilson the other night a genuine meltdown from a sensitive player with a broken heart and badly bruised ego?  Did Brian Wilson simply snap, as many believe?

Or, was this the birth of yet another stage persona, the WWF villain in Dodger blue, taunting Giants fans with obnoxiousness and an even bigger, rattier, more intimidating beard — the Jake the Snake of our time?

Remember, Andy Kaufman had a pro wrestling altar-ego too.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013

UPDATE: (Oct. 27, 2015)  Nah, he’s just a jerk.