The beginnings of Brian Wilson
Editor's note: Elizabeth Merrill's story on Brian Wilson marks the debut of "Curtain Call," a new weekly ESPN.com baseball feature that will spotlight a player, team or trend in the game.
LONDONDERRY, N.H. -- The yearbook is 11 years old and stored behind a counter at the public library. Years passed, dust formed and people forgot. These books usually aren't unearthed unless somebody does something. And when Brian Wilson was pitching the San Francisco Giants to a World Series championship this past fall, fastballs flaming, beard flowing, some people at Londonderry High School grabbed that 2000 annual and turned to a middle page to confirm that Wilson indeed was one of their own.
New Hampshire isn't known as a hotbed for major league baseball talent, but it does have a few notables. Chris Carpenter, who went to high school nearby in Manchester, is revered in these parts. So is Mike Flanagan.
Wilson, at best, is a surprising footnote. Most members of the current Londonderry High baseball team didn't even know he was an alumnus until this past fall. There is no wall of fame in Wilson's honor, no baseball field named after the black-bearded closer known as The Craziest Man in Baseball.
No, the most visible remnant of Wilson can be found in a sea of black-and-white mug shots. There's a preppy-looking kid in a striped sweater who, from the shoulders up, looks like everybody else: smiling, fresh-faced and slightly awkward. Maybe that day, Wilson was wearing his checkered shorts, the ones that looked as if they were borrowed from a senior citizen in Florida. He did strange things like that. Wilson wore shorts to school in the winter, with a foot of snow on the ground. He never cared what anyone else thought.
So this is his hometown history, two black-and-white photos. One caption. People in Londonderry still talk about that self-written caption. Most kids write something cheery and antiseptic on their way out, such as "Good luck in college!" or "Math, Lunch and Spanish were great." Wilson, as always, went a different route.
I'll be leaving this town, but I'll be successful ha ha ha. Too bad for you. For those who don't like me You'll be pumping my gas. July 31st -- miss you, don't ever forget that dad. I'm done.
'You think it's crazy'
Brian Wilson has three homes. One is in San Francisco, where he is so beloved that the city adopted a "Fear the Beard" rally cry in the 2010 postseason; one is in the warmth and weirdness of Los Angeles; and the other sits in the Arizona desert.
In the offseason, Wilson runs up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, elevation 2,706 feet. He waits until the afternoon, when the sun reaches its apex. He does the mountain in 37 to 40 minutes, then turns around and does it again.
He ran 700 miles, on his own, in the offseason.
"You think it's crazy," Wilson said as he leaned against a wall in the Giants' clubhouse one morning last month in Arizona. "I get it. But if you keep pushing yourself physically and mentally, your threshold keeps getting higher and higher."
The mountains might sculpt his body and test his mind, but the gumption to climb there comes from the cold of New Hampshire. Wilson doesn't talk much about his childhood unless it's about his father. Mike Wilson was an Air Force veteran, a man who, like most in his profession, was a perfectionist. He would make his boy shovel for seven hours on weekends. And raking was a lesson in detail. Young Brian had to bag the leaves, drag them into the woods, dig a hole and bury them.
Excuses weren't tolerated; whining wasn't allowed. Be punctual, Mike taught his boy. If you start something, finish it. But he also let his son think for himself and learn from his decisions.
They went to a barbershop when Brian was 7. There were four choices on the board: crew cut, men's cut, boy's cut, Mohawk. "Dad, what's a Mohawk?" he asked. "You want to find out?" his dad said, "OK."
So, no, he didn't exactly have a "normal" childhood. He was barely in junior high when his dad was diagnosed with cancer, and, five years later, Mike Wilson died. The day Brian found out his dad was sick, he had to become a man. At 12. While in little league. He says he had no choice.
If people didn't get him, didn't get his passion for baseball, his need to put everything into it because that's what his dad taught him, then tough. If they didn't get his odd sense of humor, too bad. Did he crack those jokes in class because the kid just needed, through all that pain, to laugh sometimes? Who knows?
He was an honor roll student at Londonderry, but clashed with various authority figures who didn't appreciate his occasional lack of a filter. Maybe, several Londonderry faculty members say, some teachers didn't understand what Wilson was going through.
"It happened at probably the worst time anybody could lose your dad," said Art Psaledas, an assistant principal at Londonderry High.
"Watching his dad deteriorate over the years was probably the singular thing that formed his personality."
But on the mound, there were no gray areas. Wilson was better than everybody else. First home game of his senior year, shortly after he had lost his dad, 29 scouts lined up along an 80-foot backstop to watch Wilson pitch. All of them had radar guns.
Wilson, according to former Londonderry coach Bob Napolitano, was completely oblivious. He got to the game, had a sandwich and something to drink in the dugout, and warmed up. He pitched a two-hitter, Napolitano said, and it was as if nobody was there. That's how focused he was at 17. It was no big deal.
Had Mike Wilson not leaned on him to do his best, would Brian have been able to take on that pressure alone?
"I think that's how you need to be raised," Wilson said. "It's not your friend, it's your dad. And he's going to be strict. And one day you're going to understand why. And sometimes, it's a little too late.
"They might pass away, and you might not get that chance to say thanks or understand why you did those things. But when you become a man, you understand why."
There is one other photo of Wilson in the 2000 Londonderry yearbook, in the senior tribute pages. It's an old snapshot of a young woman holding a baby. It's Brian and his mom, and below the picture is a note.
Dear Brian, Hard work, sacrifice, and determination do make dreams come true. Congratulations on all your accomplishments. Love, Mom.
From LSU to MLB
He went away to school at college powerhouse LSU and never looked back. He ran alone at night in Baton Rouge, at least four miles well past 10 o'clock, and told jokes in the dugout that former Tigers coach Smoke Laval wouldn't get until he was home that night and ready for bed.
Wilson could have fit right in with the free-thinking schoolies, but he didn't want to waste time. He had decided long ago that baseball was going to be his job, so when he was pondering a college major, he was blunt with his counselors. "Put me in classes that I can give no effort towards," Wilson told them, "and I'm going to focus on baseball." It irritated him when people said not to put all of his eggs in one basket. If the basket fell and broke, he said, he would make a new one. He had plenty of eggs.
"You can't be a pro unless you dive in," Wilson said. "You can't just put one foot in and say, 'Oh, well let's just test this out.' You've got to dive in and you've got to swim around in your dreams. You have to go for it."
And that's what Wilson did his junior season after he hurt his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. He decided to leave school and play professional baseball. It was a risky move, and Wilson wasn't drafted until the 24th round.
He entered the Giants organization on injury rehab in Arizona, and that's where he met pitcher Matt Cain. At first, Cain didn't know what to make of Wilson.
A quick rundown of some of Wilson's more modern-day quirks:
• He wore bright-orange spikes last year before the league fined him for having nonconforming shoes.
• He has a Mohawk hairstyle and a black beard that appears to be dyed.
• Occasionally during TV interviews, a person in leather fetish apparel will randomly appear while Wilson is talking.
"He's the same way all the time," Cain said. "It's not a 'You know, I'm just going to do this because the cameras are rolling.' Once you get to know him and get used to him and understand his humor, it's very interesting. Very funny.
"At first, it's overwhelming. It just takes time. You've just got to understand what he's talking about because a lot of times it's over your head."
On a recent spring-training morning in Arizona, before he injured his back and side and had his 2011 debut delayed, Wilson was midseason amped. He walked into the Giants' clubhouse with a couple of unrecognizable pouches of food. A teammate cringed. It looked like a cross between baby food and bad artichoke dip. "Yeah," Wilson said, "but you're looking at something clean right there."
He is meticulous about the food he eats and the workouts he keeps, yet his hair looks as though it lost a fight with a lawnmower. He is loose and jokey in the bullpen, but studies every batter intently in between wisecracks.
Crazy? Teammates say he is one of the most centered people in the clubhouse.
"What does crazy even mean?" Wilson said. "There's lots of characters out there who have somewhat of a personality. Is mine a little bit overboard? I think it's just right on. I won a World Series with it.
"For me, I don't go the judgmental route. Everyone's got their own story. I go about my life in my own way. I know where I'm going; I know what I want. With that being said, sometimes there's going to be a little humor involved. At first glance, second glance, third glance, you may not get it. That's OK. It's not for you to get. It's for me to enjoy."
As a teammate
Six people who play with The Craziest Man in Baseball were asked how he is as a teammate. All of them waxed on -- and on -- about his focus, intelligence and ability to keep things light. But he also was brimming with confidence. In the early, cold days of 2010, Wilson said the Giants were going to win the World Series. It seemed slightly nutty at the time.
He led the league in saves with 48 and blew just five opportunities. Every time Wilson flirted with danger in the postseason, he always seemed to escape.
Wilson's inaugural 2011 appearance didn't go as well Wednesday night. He threw 23 pitches and was charged with three runs in a Giants' victory. "Piss poor," is how he evaluated his performance to reporters after the game. But manager Bruce Bochy, who saw him hit 96 mph, said Wilson will be fine. He's glad to have his closer back.
In pressure situations, Wilson's the guy they want. With a 3-2 count, bases loaded and a one-run lead, Wilson doesn't get stressed out. He thinks about those days when he ran seven miles and wanted to quit after 15 minutes. But he didn't. Now he's prepared for anything.
"You can crack in that role if you get affected too much," Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "He can let things go a little easier because he's a little bit quirky.
"He's one of my favorite teammates. He has a crazy personality, and I like that. Because sometimes this game is so serious, anyway, and it's so pressure packed if the bullpen guys are serious all the time. Most of us are pretty comical guys; we like to mess around. But he kind of tips the bowl a little bit. He keeps everybody loose."
That's the greatest compliment Wilson believes he can get. That he's a good teammate. If you want to know about Brian Wilson, he says, the answers are close. Ask him. He'll go on about how he plays with a little inner rage, and how he doesn't hate the batter; he just hates the fact that the batter wants to make him lose.
Better yet, ask his teammates about him. They're his family.
"Every time I take the mound is one of the greatest things ever," Wilson said. "I get to be part of my team and do my job."
Back in Londonderry
There is a young pitcher on the Londonderry High baseball team who knows all about Brian Wilson. The boy had the chutzpah to wear a San Francisco Giants hat to tryouts, deep in the heart of Red Sox territory.
Ryan Moloney could end up being special. He's only a sophomore, but hits 88 mph on the radar gun. He's a legitimate prospect, coach Brent Demas says, and is known to be a little quirky. Moloney comes to school wearing shorts in the winter. He heard Wilson did that.
A few months before the Giants' World Series, the Lancers won a state championship.
"It's kind of helped him focus a little more," Demas said, "that a kid from Londonderry can make it to the pros. He looks up to him quite a bit."
Several members of the Londonderry staff say Wilson would be welcome back in town anytime, though they're not sure he would want to come. The place no doubt stirs up memories of losing his father. Memories of a time misunderstood.
Psaledas, one of Wilson's old teachers, says he's pushing for a wall of fame for Wilson. Maybe they could put it in the gym. Wilson used to play basketball, and made people laugh when he showed up with socks that didn't match. He didn't do it to cause trouble. He just never blended in with all of the black-and-white mug shots.
"If you talk to you him, send him my best," Psaledas said. "Tell him I have a lot of respect for what he's done. Tell him not to change. He's funny as hell."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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