Commentary

Brian Wilson looking for a job

It's hard to imagine pitcher recovering from surgery will go quietly

Updated: February 8, 2013, 2:46 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

He's flown his freak flag for six seasons in San Francisco, a free-spirited place where being eccentric may actually help him blend in, not stand out. He and the city and the Giants always seemed like a perfect fit. "It's like Halloween in the stands there every night," Giants closer Brian Wilson once said with a laugh in 2010, back when the "Fear the Beard" rally cry first rose up around him and the Giants' team of "misfits" stormed all the way to a surprising World Series title over the Texas Rangers.

But now, with days to go before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, Wilson is 10 months removed from his second Tommy John surgery and the Giants didn't tender him a contract. He's still trying to get a job. And if you know anything about Wilson, that process is a bit odd to imagine, is it not?

[+] EnlargeBrian Wilson
Jeffrey Mayer/WireImageWhen Brian Wilson finds a new team, he'll undoubtedly cut a dashing figure.

How exactly would a job interview with the league's only self-declared "certified ninja" actually go? If some GM asks Wilson an obvious question -- say, "How's the arm feeling?" -- what if Wilson gives the same answer he did to a crowd of Bay Area reporters last April, shortly after he had the surgery: "I was lucky enough to get a ligament from Sasquatch. It was the least he could do."

At various times in his career, Wilson has described a transgression he committed to get a $1,000 league fine as "too much awesomeness" on his part, and he conducted an on-camera interview with Fox TV's Chris Rose while pretending not to know that a bare-chested man clad in S&M gear -- a black leather hood, halter and Speedo-like thong -- had just walked through the hallway behind him. "Yes, it was a total surprise -- and nothing hundreds of hours of therapy can't cure," jokes Rose, now the host of the MLB Network's "Intentional Talk" with Kevin Millar.

Two years ago, Wilson was asked to plug the MLB 2K11 video game in a commercial. After describing his Mohawk haircut as "something made from a slice of heaven and everything else that's sweet," he pointed to his eyes and unspooled this deadpan riff about "the ocean blues": "Go ahead and dive in. But they're deep. And they will swallow you."

Wilson has evolved into an interesting paradox as a three-time All-Star for the Giants and one of the best closers in the game: He's one of the most famous and least understood men in baseball.

People still aren't sure what to think. Is Wilson truly as eccentric or weird as his stunts -- such as wearing a spandex "tuxedo" to the ESPY Awards -- have suggested?

Or is he just fun-loving and highly disciplined about staying a character and playing an oddball persona who's sort of a cross between whackadoo comic Zach Galifianakis and two admitted influences, movie badass Chuck Norris and the Dos Equis guy in "The Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials?

Is Wilson a welcome breath of fresh air who breaks up the monotony of the long baseball season? Or a constant danger to get on teammates' nerves because he's too attention-seeking? And now that he's a free agent, will his shtick travel -- if it even is shtick, since some of the ways Wilson behaves date back to high school?

What is sure is that when Wilson was healthy, his act played in San Francisco, all right. After he decided to stop shaving and grow a "rally beard" in August 2010, the Giants got red-hot in September and tore all the way to the franchise's first World Series win since before moving to town from New York. By the time Wilson, the NL saves leader, closed out three of the four wins in typical amped-up, high-wire fashion, his untamed beard seemed liable to obscure his uniform letters soon. And everyone else in town seemed to be in on the joke too. You remember. Men, women and children -- even infants -- started showing up at AT&T Park wearing phony-looking beards.

Like Wilson, the motto seemed to be "the weirder the look, the better." And Wilson was often asked to try to make sense of it all.

TV host Jim Rome: "Is there power in the beard?"

Wilson: "I don't know. You be the judge. I think it's ranked third in the AP poll, right behind Boise State."

"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno: "I've gotta ask you now, the beard, it doesn't quite match the color of your head. Do you dye it?"

Wilson (blinking as if this was patience-testing): "Jay. We play the second-most amount of day games in the National League. It's tan.

"It's amazing. I know."

No matter where you fall on Wilson -- he's hysterical, he's grating, he makes you feel a big "so what?" -- it cannot end this drearily now, can it? Wilson has been staying out of sight and granting no interviews -- imagine that. His agent, Dan Lozano -- who claimed that nine teams were interested in his client as recently as December -- is staying silent, too. Detroit passed on his client, Milwaukee's presumed interest never materialized, the Marlins didn't make a move, and even the Mets -- another team that seemed to badly want a new closer -- passed after kicking the tires on Wilson by putting him through two pitching auditions in the last month.

[+] EnlargeBrian Wilson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBrian Wilson and his beard were present but relegated to cheering during the Giants' 2012 World Series run.

There is conjecture that Wilson, now 30, will not be able to bounce back from a second elbow reconstruction. But that's also premature. It's too soon into his recovery to know. The normal window to return from Tommy John surgery is at least a year. Wilson is still two months shy of that.

The other thing you find, when making some calls around baseball to ask why Wilson remains unsigned, is that only the state of his arm gets mentioned -- not his antics or vivid personality.

Some stubbornness on his part has played a role, too.

Wilson has been in no rush to take a minor league deal when he might get a better opportunity if he's healthier and auditions again in a couple of months. And that makes sense. But Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has also said Wilson has "pretty much advertised with everybody" that he wants to be a closer right now. "We're really not in a position to be able to make [Wilson] that promise at this time," Dombrowski said.

Giants GM Brian Sabean has said the same thing.

Sabean has admitted that parting with Wilson was a tough decision, but the GM has left the door cracked for the reliever to return. The Giants simply didn't feel comfortable tendering Wilson a contract by the December deadline that would have guaranteed him $6.8 million this season.

But Sabean's offer of an incentive-laden deal with a modest base salary that would reward Wilson for performing well landed on Wilson like a slap in the face. Though he may prompt a little eye-rolling at times, Wilson's reputation among his San Francisco teammates is actually very good. He's considered one of the brightest guys in the clubhouse, a pitcher who keeps himself in impeccable shape, a gamer who will always take the ball. He's a born-again Christian and the strictly raised son of a military man who died when Brian was only 17. The Giants are the only pro organization he has ever played for, and his frequent remarks about the loyalty and responsibility he feels to the club to close out wins seem to spring from a genuine place. He's often backed it up. Perhaps to his detriment.

Wilson's determination in 2010 and 2011 to pitch often for the Giants -- and often through pain -- looks somewhat similar to Robb Nen's willingness to pitch though what turned out to be a torn rotator cuff in the 2002 World Series that the Giants lost to the Angels. (Nen stayed on the payroll for two more seasons, rehabbing, but never pitched again after that.) Wilson battled arm problems after his World Series season and made only two appearances in 2012 before having the second elbow surgery. Meanwhile, the Giants won another ring.

Wilson is hurt that the Giants would cast him off after all that.

"It's one of those things where it's very difficult, trying to change somebody's mind, being [Wilson's], that the organization owes him -- and we do owe him a debt of gratitude," Sabean told the New York Post at an awards dinner last month. "[But] this is a tough business, and we have to be financially responsible."

At one point in December, Sabean described Wilson's recovery as moving at "a snail's pace."

And so everyone waits. The Giants. Wilson. The other teams that are now heading to spring training but might yet be interested in him.

The first time Wilson blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery, in 2003, he was a junior at LSU. There was no guarantee he'd ever throw 95 mph again, and he could have played it safe by staying in college, proving he was healthy and building his résumé to get a higher signing bonus the next time he was drafted. Instead, he signed with the Giants, even though he fell to the 24th round and was still rehabbing. He believed so much that he'd make it, he took their offer despite the salary hit that meant.

Was it a little crazy? Sure. But Wilson has a pet response when he's accused of that.

"You're welcome!" he says.

Knowing Wilson's past, it is hard to believe that quietly is how this is going to end.

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