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Charlie Wilmoth is the founder of Bucs Dugout, a writer at MLB Trade Rumors, and the author of the new book Dry Land: Winning After 20 Years at Sea With the Pittsburgh Pirates. What follows is an excerpt from that book, which can be purchased here. You can learn more about the book here, or follow Charlie at @WilmothC.
You’re not supposed to go to a carnival to feel miserable. And yet here I am, surrounded by thousands of baseball fans whose team has caused them two decades of pain. They’re here—at a carnival—to sit down, cross their arms, cock their eyebrows, and wait for their team to tell them next year will be different. Some part of each of them will believe it, but a bigger part won’t. They’ll go home distrusting the motives of the men in charge, questioning the talent of many of the players on hand, and wondering what they did to deserve a generation of awful play. They’re not supposed to feel miserable, just as you’re not supposed to go to a baseball game to feel miserable. And yet that’s exactly what many fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates say they do.
December 14, 2012 is warmer than it should be, one of those late-autumn days where you can pretend it’s mid-March. And in Pittsburgh, it might as well be. The Steelers are still in playoff contention, but they’re in the midst of a disappointing 8-8 season. The Penguins are caught up in the NHL lockout, their players banished to sparsely attended practices at Southpointe. And today, baseball is in the air. Or something like it, anyway.
I stand in line at PirateFest, the Pirates’ offseason festival, surrounded mostly by adults who wear their team’s gear but exhibit no real excitement. At 4:00, the doors open, and we spread through Pittsburgh’s convention center like a puff of smoke coughed into a room. Many line up to collect player autographs. Others glance at booths where middle-aged men sell baseball memorabilia and younger ones hand out 2013 schedules for the Bucs’ minor-league affiliates. There are T-shirts and game-used jerseys hanging from makeshift cubicle walls, and if you wander to the far end of the convention floor, you can find weirder bits of Pirates-related flotsam, like ancient unopened cereal boxes with Roberto Clemente’s picture on the front. Children climb on inflatable floats and eat free hot dogs. Players and announcers occasionally stroll by, usually with fans stopping them every few steps.
The line to get in was long, but the convention floor is huge, and the event isn’t yet nearly at capacity—it won’t fill up for another couple hours, when the nine-to-fivers arrive. A makeshift stage, where the Pirates’ front office will later answer fans’ questions, is now empty. Batting cages, bounded by black netting, go unused. The room feels like an airport at 5:30 a.m.—it’s quiet, and sparsely populated, but it’s clear that will soon change.
There are, of course, many Pittsburghers for whom a winter baseball carnival can simply be a winter baseball carnival, or for whom a night out at the world’s most beautiful ballpark can be uncomplicated fun, even if the home team loses. But there are also plenty who take all the losing seriously, and for whom the idea of a Pirates-themed celebration is an oxymoron. These are, naturally, the people most likely to come to PirateFest.
It is 2012. The Pirates have had 20 straight losing seasons. A 20-year losing streak is difficult to put into perspective, in part because no other major American pro sports team has ever had one. With their 17th straight losing season in 2009, the Bucs topped the 1933-1948 Philadelphia Phillies for the longest such streak in history. Since then, they’ve been in a league of their own. The Pirates tantalized us by competing well into the summers of 2011 and 2012, only to fall apart each time, nurturing their streak nearly to drinking age. And so here we are, celebrating a team that has been losing since before some of its minor-leaguers were even born. It’s party time in Pittsburgh.
I’m at PirateFest, in part, to talk to serious Pirates fans I wouldn’t find on the internet. I’m thinking these people are mostly older, which might be wrong, but when you’re trying to talk to random strangers, you have to have some sort of plan. I’m feeling apprehensive about approaching people—I’m not particularly outgoing, and PirateFest has just opened. I figure that if you’re going to stand in line to enter a carnival, you probably have better things to do immediately after you enter than to talk to some blogger.
That turns out to be wrong. The first fan I interview is a 70-something retired steelworker named Robert who I find sitting by himself near a concession stand. He seems ready to pounce, as if he’s been waiting years for someone to ask his opinion of the course the Pirates have charted.
I ask if he’s interested in seeing Pirates president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington answer questions later that evening.
“No,” he says, flatly. “I can give the same answers they give. It’s all P.R.”
He then launches into a long list of grievances against the Pirates’ front office.
“They just cannot evaluate ballplayers. They drafted a catcher, [Tony] Sanchez, number one three years ago. What happened to the guy?” Robert asks. The Pirates selected Sanchez fourth overall in 2009, and he’s still in the minors.
Coonelly and Huntington hadn’t yet been hired when the Pirates passed on Wieters in 2007, but I’m in no mood to stop Robert, who opines about the quality of shortstop play throughout the National League before bashing the front office yet again.
“The good players they got weren’t signed by this regime,” Robert says. “[Andrew] McCutchen, [Neil] Walker, and the third baseman [Pedro Alvarez] were all signed by [Dave] Littlefield.”
Littlefield, Huntington’s predecessor, did draft McCutchen and Walker, but Alvarez was Huntington’s first pick in his first draft in 2008. In fact, Alvarez, who was represented by the ultra-aggressive agent Scott Boras, was the sort of expensive, high-upside pick that Littlefield never would have made.
Robert is, in a way, very well informed – he can recall specific details not only of games and Pirates players (which you’d expect from a fan who’s been a season-ticket holder since 1994, as Robert has), but also of draft picks and bits of Pirates news that happened away from the field. He also plainly cares deeply about the team. Whenever he makes a mistake, though, it’s at the expense of the front office. And note the misplaced fascist/authoritarian connotations of the word “regime.”
None of this is accidental. Pirates fans are an argumentative bunch, constantly branding one another “apologists” or “yinzers” and characterizing Huntington and Coonelly as despots, as if they came to occupy their offices on Federal Street as the result of a military coup. (An objective assessment as of December 2012 would have suggested that, for all of Huntington and Coonelly’s faults, they merely were average executives not quite up to an incredibly difficult task. They weren’t exactly Chairman Mao and Idi Amin.) As I speak to more fans, I will find that, if I’m having trouble getting an interview subject to open up, I can simply ask what he or she thinks of the Pirates’ front office. Often, I find myself in the midst of a rant, and I know that eventually I’ll be looking awkwardly to the side, trying to find the right time to turn off the recorder and say my goodbyes.
Later, I speak to Simon, a former government employee now in his 60s who’s clinging to his season tickets, he says, despite a lack of interest in the current team.
“It’s not the modern-day Bucs,” he says. “You can see the alumni members, radio crews, nice guys.” Simon also cites the Pirates’ Field Days, in which season-ticket holders can take batting practice and shag flies on the PNC Park grass, as a reason he keeps buying.
Still, he often finds the ballpark experience itself depressing. “You go to PNC Park, Phillies, Cubs … there are more [fans of visiting teams] wearing their colors at PNC Park than Pirates fans wearing Pirates [colors].”
Of course, there may be some Pirates fans not wearing their team’s gear. “I was ready to break out my colors last year,” says Simon. But he ultimately decided not to. “I got these new logo leather jackets, hats. They ain’t earned it.”
For the most part, PirateFest is good, clean fun, and an outsider might be able to spend a half hour strolling about without realizing there’s a problem. It’s as close as many fans will get to some of their favorite players, who participate in game-show-style entertainments, sign autographs, and mill about the convention center floor wearing their Pirates jerseys over casual button-down shirts. The previous year, Bucs backup catcher Michael McKenry eagerly greeted fans at the door as I entered. He was so short that it took me a minute to realize who I was suddenly talking to, and it was a pleasant surprise once I did. Pirates fans have never really blamed the players, at least not on a personal level, for the way the last two decades have gone, and PirateFest offers a great opportunity for fans to meet them.
This evening, even the Q+A session with Coonelly, Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle turns out to be mostly polite, as it usually is, even though one of the papers has published a list of accusatory questions for fans to ask. It’s difficult to be impolite in front of a thousand people. But beneath the event’s surface swims anger and frustration and pain. And when the fans finally file out of the convention center tonight, they will head home not only with positive memories of shaking hands with Hurdle or Neil Walker, but also with a peculiar blend of hope and suspicion and bitterness that grows riper with each passing year.
Rooting for teams that represent particular regions feels natural to us as 21st-century Americans. But in the grand scheme of human existence, it isn’t automatic that we would root for sports teams at all, let alone teams like the Pirates.
Psychologists Benjamin Winegard and Robert O. Deaner link sports fandom to traditional societies, where there would be evolutionary benefit in aligning oneself with a local group. In traditional societies, male mortality due to warfare might range from 13 percent to 30 percent, and so, Winegard and Deaner argue, local coalitions are vital for self-preservation. It is no accident, they say, that our most popular spectator sports involve men undertaking activities relevant to warfare, like running, tackling and throwing. Warfare also generally involves defending or attacking a particular geographical area, and sports fans ally themselves with teams from a particular geographical area. And victorious sports teams enjoy elevated social status – as in warfare, to the victors go the spoils.
Sports and warfare were even more intertwined centuries ago than they are today in warlike sports like mixed martial arts and football. In Rome, of course, gladiators fought wild animals, and each other, to the death. And for medieval knights, the line between sports and warfare was blurry indeed. As Allen Guttmann explains in his book Sports Spectators, “The warlike features of the tournament were especially pronounced in the twelfth century, when the typical tournament was a melee composed of parties of knights fighting simultaneously, capturing each other. … Combats of this unregulated sort were apt to be deadly.”
Winegard and Deaner point to a psychological concept called moral foundations theory, which attempts to explain the innate beginnings of humans’ moral thought. There are five main categories of moral concerns: harm (whether an act helps or hurts), fairness, purity, authority (whether an act obeys, or respects, authority), and loyalty.
In males, sports fandom is strongly correlated with purity and respect for authority. In both sexes, though, sports fandom is most strongly connected to loyalty—if you’re the sort of person who values loyalty very highly, rooting for a sports team is likely to appeal to you. That’s lucky for the Pirates, obviously, since no other major American sports team has presented a tougher test of loyalty than the Bucs have.
The simplest explanation for why we root for sports teams, though, is that we want to define ourselves. “The brain really wants an answer to the who-am-I question,” writes the journalist Eric Simons in his book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, citing the sociologist Orrin Klapp. America’s social structure once provided more decisive answers to that question, Simons suggests – we were workers, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands. We had strong ties to our hometowns and religious institutions. But in recent decades, as former societal pillars like good jobs and marriages and civic institutions began to crumble, we’ve tried to steady ourselves with sports fandom. Rooting for a sports team provides us with a sense of identity, which can fuel our self-esteem.
It isn’t immediately obvious, though, how rooting for a sports team leads to self-esteem if that team doesn’t win. Simons points to an area of psychology called social defeat, which scientists have studied by inducing physical confrontations between male rats. Researchers place a dominant rat in the same cage with a less powerful rat, which suffers a serious (but non-fatal) beating, which scientists consider an instance of social stress. (Think your cubicle job is stressful? Be grateful you’re not a lab rat.)
The psychologist Kaj Björkqvist explains that, in social defeat experiments, the defeated rat is then subjected to chronic stress – it receives more beatings, or is housed near the dominant rat. The defeated rats undergo hormonal changes, including losses of testosterone and impaired immunological function. They lose interest in eating and sex. Defeated rats are also more likely to abuse drugs, more quickly turning to cocaine if it’s made available to them. The defeated rat, in other words, becomes beaten down, not only physically, but psychologically. “It just becomes this horrible, sad-sack rat that loses all the time,” Simons tells me.
The rats exhibit characteristics that researchers connect to depression in humans. Rats and humans both have a brain circuit called a reward system that releases dopamine when we experience something pleasurable, and defeated rats demonstrate decreased activity in their reward system.
Testing social defeat on humans is more difficult since, obviously, the tactics researchers use on rats would be illegal if used on people. But the idea is that the way rats respond to social defeat parallels the way humans respond to it. Simons, a die-hard Cal football fan, related to the idea of social defeat right away.
“I read this and I was like, ‘Here’s what happens to me when I watch Cal football!’” he says. “I think every fan out there in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Buffalo is just reading this like, ‘I’m that rat! That’s me! They put me in a cage with the larger, aggressive, territorial asshole rat from wherever, and I lose.’”
In the past two decades, scientists have taken steps toward learning what happens in our brains when we watch sports. In the early 1990s, a group of neurophysicists in Italy led by Giacomo Rizzolatti wanted to know what neurons fired when a monkey prepared to eat a peanut. So they attached electrodes to the monkey’s premotor cortex.
It worked. But the real discovery came later, when the researchers found that the neurons that fired when the monkey prepared to eat the peanut also fired when the monkey watched a human who was about to eat one. These are called mirror neurons, and humans have them too. The idea is that, when a fan watches Andrew McCutchen hit a baseball, mirror neurons fire as they would if the fan were herself the hitter.
“When you see me pull my arm back, as if to throw the ball, you also have in your brain a copy of what I am doing and it helps you understand my goal,” Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neurophysicist at UCLA, told the New York Times in 2006. “Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next.
“And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.”
But when we’re watching sports, mirror neurons don’t work the same for everything we see. Instead, our brains help us use our mirror neurons so that we empathize more with our favorite teams than their opponents. Iacoboni thinks that mirror neurons are organized this way, at least in part, by our reward system.
“If you’re a sports fan, you know that you may mirror Andrew McCutchen’s joy, but you could watch someone else get hurt on another team and not care nearly as much, so you’re not mirroring them as deeply,” Simons tells me. “By deciding that you’re a Pirates fan, you in some sense predetermine that your mirror neurons are not going to empathize with rival teams, [and] that you’re going to empathize more deeply with your own team.” When McCutchen hits a home run, we don’t just see him do it. We are him.
What, then, should we expect of fans of a team that never has a winning season? Simons points to B.F. Skinner’s midcentury experiments with operant conditioning. Skinner wanted animals to perform particular tasks, like raising their heads a certain way, and would give the animals food pellets once they did. After an animal learned that it could get a pellet by raising its head, though, Skinner began to experiment with when he dispensed the pellets. If the animal completely stopped receiving food pellets after raising its head, it would learn not to raise its head anymore. Which, of course, makes sense – the same principle, Skinner said, applies to humans. “If we lose a fountain pen, we reach less and less often into the pocket which formerly held it,” he wrote.
But if the animal received a reward irregularly, it would continue to seek the reward for much longer than an animal that stopped receiving pellets entirely. An animal conditioned to receive intermittent rewards for performing a task might perform that task thousands more times after rewards had stopped.
So maybe if the Pirates never won, all fans, or almost all fans, would give up on the team. But they don’t. Even in a bad year, the Bucs might win 60 of their 162 games, while teasing us with stretches where they play rather well. The Pirates effectively turn us into pigeons, raising our heads over and over in the hopes of receiving a bit of food. And then there’s the problem of what, in sports fandom, constitutes a reward. Winning isn’t the only food pellet we can receive. There’s also the reward of watching a favorite player succeed, for example. But it’s surely true that the fact that the Pirates continue winning at least occasionally helps keep us coming back, craning our necks over and over.
Another reason Pirates fans keep coming back is that our level of pleasure in a victory, or of pain in a loss, is calibrated by our expectation. During the streak, one would often hear Pirates fans say that the Bucs’ decades of losing would make the next winning season that much sweeter. It turns out that’s true, on a physiological level.
“[Y]our brain maps out a complex probability distribution for every reward it might get and then releases more or less dopamine depending on how predicted the reward was,” Simons writes. In conversation with me later, he compares the brain to “a big bookie” – when your favorite team wins, your brain analyzes how likely that victory was. If your team wins a game you didn’t expect it to, you’ll feel more pleasure due to the dopamine surge, and if your team loses a game you expected it to lose, you’ll feel less pain. So, in some sense, it isn’t actually all that fun to be a fan of a team that wins all the time, like the Yankees. Being a Pirates fan is, obviously, worse, but when the Pirates finally won, it should have felt amazing.
Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University, studies the connections sports fans feel to their favorite teams. Dr. Wann’s research deals with BIRGing, or Basking In Reflected Glory, and CORFing, which means Cutting Off Reflected Failure. Research shows that fans whose team is successful will tend to BIRG by, for example, wearing their team’s apparel after a big win, or referring to their team as “we.” Fans also CORF in response to losing teams, distancing themselves from losers as a way of managing blows to their egos. Hardcore fans appear to be less susceptible to BIRGing and CORFing than casual fans, and will maintain their associations with their teams through tough times.
But what will fans do when faced with a 20-year losing streak? Might hardcore fans be susceptible to CORFing in such an extreme circumstance?
“They get far more disgust and anguish and depression and frustration and violence out of the losing than the fair-weather fans do,” Wann says. “It’s just that being a fan of a team is so important to them [that] they’re going to stick it out, with the hope that things will turn around, if not this year, then maybe next year.”
Psychologically speaking, there’s no reason to expect there to be any limits to their loyalty. In fact, Wann suggests, the losing might bond highly identified fans to their team even more strongly. He suggests turning the scenario around, and looking at a team that wins consistently.
“The Braves had that run of 13 straight years in the playoffs, and they would have a hard time selling out their playoff games,” he says. “Because, in Atlanta, it got to the point of, ‘Oh, well, we always make the playoffs. Wake me when the World Series rolls around.’” Serious Pirates fans will be grateful for what they can get, he suggests, and they won’t give up on their team.
From an academic perspective, it’s tough to generalize about the fan base of a major professional sports team, because any sports fan base consists of a relatively large and broad swath of a market’s population. But Wann is a Royals fan, and he knows firsthand how constant losing can shape fans’ approach to following their team.
“You can’t really be a Pirates fans or a Royals fan … without having developed ways of justifying why you’re putting yourself through this misery year after year,” he says. “So maybe if you’re a fan of a long-suffering team, you’ve just perfected those strategies a bit.”
Wann’s research also deals with Cutting Off Future Failure, or COFFing. In one study, researchers organized small groups of undergraduate psychology students into “teams,” ostensibly for the purpose of participating in a “creativity competition” against a group of artists. Some subjects were told they would participate in one round of competition, while others were told they would participate in two.
After the first round of the “competition” (which involved selecting the most creative shapes from renderings on sets of cards), study administrators told both the one-round and the two-round groups that, surprisingly, they had defeated the art students. Both groups were then asked whether they would be interested in meeting the art students they had just defeated. Subjects who were to participate in one round of competition proved to be more interested in meeting the art students than those who thought they would have to participate in another competition after winning the first one. That is, subjects who faced the prospect of losing in a second competition were more likely to COFF, protecting their egos in the face of a possible loss in the second competition, and, in the process, declining to “bask in the glow of their current success.”
When I spoke to Dr. Wann in early September 2012, the Pirates still appeared to be headed for their first winning season in two decades, and I wondered how this research might affect Bucs fans if they did end up on the right side of .500. Might that cause some fans to COFF, and back away from the team?
Wann turned to his own experience with the Royals to answer that question. The Royals had a surprise winning season in 2003 after eight straight years of losing, and in 2004, their fans didn’t back away. “That’s not [the way] Royals fans thought,” Wann says. “Spring Training 2004 could not [have arrived] quickly enough.”
After a 7-14 April and a 10-17 May, though, it became clear that the 2004 Royals weren’t going anywhere, and that’s when the fans packed it in.
“There was so much optimism and so much hype, and then by June, you’re like, ‘Oh crap, here we go again,’” Wann says. The Royals’ attendance dropped from No. 10 in the American League in 2003 to No. 13, ahead of only the Devil Rays, in 2004. It then stayed at No. 13 until 2008, when it was dead last. So now that the Pirates’ streak is over, the effect of their 2013 winning season might be brief, unless they can repeat it.
Still, Wann says, hope springs eternal. “The beauty of sports is that there really always is next year. And every year, in just about every sport, there’s a team or two that has a season that makes you say, ‘Well, hell, why can’t that be us?’”
- “Basking in reflected glory, cutting off reflected failure, and cutting off future failure: The importance of group identification.” Daniel L. Wann, Michael A. Hamlet, Tony A. Wilson, and Joan A. Hodges. Social Behavior And Personality. 1995, 23(4): 377-388.
- Björkqvist, Kaj. “Social defeat as a stressor in humans.” Psychology and Behavior. 2001, 73: 435-442.
- Blakeslee, Sandra. “Cells that read minds.” The New York Times, 10 May 2006.
- Guttmann, Allen. Sports Spectators. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
- Simons, Eric. The Secret Lives of Sports Fans. New York and London: Overlook Press, 2013.
- Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Free Press / Simon & Schuster Inc., 1953.
- Winegard, Benjamin, and Robert O. Deaner. “The evolutionary significance of Red Sox Nation: Sport fandom as a by-product of coalitional psychology.” Evolutionary Psychology. 2010, 8(3): 432-446.
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