A beard grows in Dodger Stadium. The beard is pitch black. The beard is so long it has a ponytail. The beard has held a one-million dollar bounty. The president fears the beard. You will fear the beard.
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brian Wilson is a pioneer in manscaping. His long black mane, a hipster staple run wild, has grown into legend. When Wilson took the mound in game three of the National League championship series Monday—after coming back from Tommy John surgery—casual baseball fans were reminded of the sartorial renegade. And the more hair he has, the better he pitches. (This year, when his hair was longer than it’s ever been, his ERA is a vicious 0.66.)
But long before the legend of his facial hair grew, Wilson entered the major leagues a bright blue-eyed kid from Louisiana State University. Yes, he had a beard. But it was a modest goatee topped with the mustache of an eleventh grader—a far cry from resembling that man on the Internet who made his beard into a bowl for ramen noodles. In his sophomore season, his beard evolved into lumberjack form. But it wasn’t meant to stay: Wilson appeared for the 2008 season cleanly shaven, a soul patch the only remnant of his hairy past. (In these three stages of beard, his ERA went from 5.40 to 2.28 to 4.62.)
After a few years of stubble, the lumberjack whiskers returned, now dyed black. A legend was born. Fans chanted “fear the beard” at games. Wilson pitched the final out of San Francisco’s World Series win. By November of 2011, the beard had grown to uncomfortable proportions. His mustache had a cartoonish quality. Soon, he looked like the anti-Santa Claus.
Wilson is an anomaly in sports. He enunciates well and doesn’t talk in cliché. Who is he? “I’m a certified ninja. It happened in a dream. Normally it takes a lifetime, but I did it in 12 minutes.” Does he dye his beard? “It’s dark because we play a lot of day games,” he has said. “It’s tanned. It’s focused.” How long can he grow it? "It's probably gonna become a problem if it gets below uh...my cleats might get caught." Does he trim it? "Let’s be honest here it's just doing what it wants and it…it just does what it wants.”
While certain players hone their personas into bland athletic stereotypes, Wilson is like the James Franco of baseball in his (sometimes successful) experimentation. He’s beaten a Gatorade bucket with bat on television. He’s known to do interviews with “The Machine,” a masked man in S&M gear, wandering in the background.
But what is the significance of the beard? It’s nothing like the trucker-chic /rugged laziness of hockey’s playoff beards. And it’s not a unifying symbol of scrappers like the Boston Red Sox. Instead, as Grantland’s Wesley Morris wrote, Wilson exudes “hair as a byproduct of exuberant self-regard.”
It’s not our place to question the beard, not to look for meaning in the beard, only to respect and fear the beard—and the pitcher underneath. As Wilson said in interview, as the mythology behind his mane first sprouted, he “thought it would be fun to have a ridiculously dark beard.'' It is.