One day in late August, the local Fox Sports channel in the Bay Area was conducting an interview with Brian Wilson, the San Francisco Giants' notoriously flaky closer, who was at his home on a Webcam. Wilson, holding his pet dog on his lap, was in the middle of an answer, when all of a sudden the TV host, and the entire viewing audience, got an unexpected eyeful.
A man appeared in the background, naked except for a leather thong, leather harness and leather mask. "What was that!?" gasped the flabbergasted host. After first playing dumb, Wilson finally deadpanned, "Oh, that's The Machine. He lives next door. He doesn't say much. He comes over for sugar every once in awhile."
If "torture" - the Giants' self-described style of play, which this weekend has them on the verge of the franchise's first World Series title in 56 years - had a face, it would be Wilson's: wild-eyed, mohawked, with a beard dyed jet-black for no apparent reason. And these days, it would also be wearing a huge smile.
Throughout this season, and especially the postseason, the Giants - who will seek to move one win closer to the championship when Game 3 is played Saturday night at Rangers Ballpark - have earned a reputation, well-deserved, as a ragtag band of "castoffs and misfits," in the words of their manager. But the Giants' roguish charms go beyond even that.
Their first baseman, Aubrey Huff, has been known to parade through the clubhouse in a red "Rally Thong" for laughs. Their ace pitcher, Tim Lincecum, has become a counter-culture hero in San Francisco, in part because of an offseason marijuana-possession arrest - which has led proponents of Proposition 19, a proposed statute that would legalize marijuana statewide, to use his face on placards and T-shirts that say, "Let Timmy Smoke."
"This club has a lot of character," said veteran outfielder Aaron Rowand. "Character and characters."
They have a hedonistic bent to them, these Giants, but Wilson managed to kick it up another notch with the introduction of The Machine, which has since become a minor sensation on YouTube. Some of the Giants may be wild and crazy, but even his teammates admit Wilson is in another league altogether.
"I don't think there's anyone out there like Brian Wilson," Lincecum said. "I don't think it's an act or anything. I think that's just his bright personality."
"He's a little out there," said Manager Bruce Bochy.
For the Giants, "torture" means nothing ever comes easily for them. (Forget for a moment that their wins in both Games 1 and 2 came with relative ease.) They generally play low-scoring games that hinge on late-inning drama. And Wilson has provided plenty of that this postseason.
He has made eight appearances this postseason without giving up a run, but he has allowed at least one baserunner in all but one of them. The ultimate expression of his high-wire act came in the ninth inning of the Giants' clinching win in Philadelphia in Game 6 of the NLCS, when he put the go-ahead runs on base with walks, only to strike out Phillies slugger Ryan Howard to end the game and put the Giants in the World Series.
"Nothing ever comes easy. That's the way this team has been. Nothing has come easy at all," Wilson said. "That's our baseball team. That's me."
But as with the entire Giants team, Wilson's eccentricities obscure just how good he really is. A former 24th-round draft pick out of LSU, by way of Londonberry, N.H., Wilson took over as the Giants' closer in 2008 and has gotten significantly better each year since.
In 2008, his ERA was 4.62 and he struck out 9.7 batters per nine innings. In 2009, his ERA dropped to 2.74 and his strikeout rate rose to 10.3, and this season - when his 48 saves led the National League - the numbers improved to 1.81 and 11.2. His fastball ranks as one of the best in baseball, averaging about 96 mph and occasionally touching 100.
"He looks stupid, but he's not. He's smarter than me," Huff said. "He's a great competitor."
And despite his menacing mound presence and bizarre personality quirks, Wilson takes seriously the duty of connecting with fans. He had his own reality TV show on a local sports channel, called "Life of Brian," much of which he shot himself. At one point, he described the Giants' visit to the White House during a trip to Washington, telling his viewers he was disappointed in the Obamas' dog.
Until 2009, he was a prolific Twitter user, tweeting frequently and insightfully about the life of a major league closer, until one particular tweet seemed to imply he had been out late partying on the night before a day game - in which he blew a save. He soon stopped tweeting.
"It gives fans an emotional attachment beyond drafting us for your fantasy team," Wilson said of his attempts to connect with fans. "Maybe now, they find out what we eat for breakfast on Thursday. When you sign for a million dollars, part of it is saying yes when a kid asks for an autograph."
Whether it's his fan-friendly efforts, or just the public's natural fascination with freaks, Wilson might be the most popular Giant of all back in San Francisco - where stores have sold out of Wilson-style fake beards and the stands at AT&T Park are full of Wilson look-a-likes and T-shirts that say "Fear the Beard."
Indeed, Wilson's beard is a marvel, seemingly reaching a new level of blackness each week. What is he putting on that thing, shoe polish?
"I don't know what you're talking about," Wilson said when asked that question. "It's dark because we play a lot of day games. It's tanned. It's focused."