Chronicling a baseball season has been done many, many times.  Believe me, I’ve read quite a few.  As far as I can tell, they seem to come in two varieties: The Tale of the Winner (exciting and happy); or, The Tale of the Loser (tragic or mundane, depending on the scale of failure).  Often, it seems that the author decides that the book will be written before the season starts.  The author then goes about the process of writing much like a beat reporter, and ultimately compiles the notes into a book-length piece of work to be available prior to the next season.  If the year was remarkable, it sells; if not, it doesn’t.  But the book rarely stands on its merits alone.  Most often, the book lives or dies relative to the very team it followed.  Essentially it’s a diary.  The subject will determine its relevance, not the work itself.
Dry Land is different.
Charlie Wilmoth has made a real and meaningful contribution to the world of baseball.  He has done for the understanding of being a fan what Bill James (and others) did for the evaluation of baseball talent.  Wilmoth breaks through the judgment and stereotype within the strange world of fandom with a compassionate, objective psychological understanding of human nature.  And in this case, he sketches an understanding of human identity in the face of unimaginable team failure.  He explains exactly why we care so much when grown men succeed or fail at the endeavor of playing a child’s game.  Being a fanatic in relation to others’ achievements is absurd on the surface.  But Wilmoth shines insight on the subject through pointed interviews and generalizations of the psychology of human behavior in community with others.  He does all this while at the same time painting the depths of Pirates failure on the field and in the front office over the span of two decades.
As a new fan, the history part of the book was captivating.  I now have a better understanding of the jokes and references of the failed Pirates teams of yore.  And I would imagine, the recounting of memorable mishaps of years gone by taps into the real causes and conditions of how and why old-time fans make sense of their oft-pitied favorite team.  Unlike many factual histories of baseball, Wilmoth manages to pare down the information to the truly critical benchmarks of failure and misery.  It makes for engaging, lively reading rather than the textbook-like filler you can often find in longer-winded play-by-play.
Back to the psychology, though.  (After all, this angle is what really sets this book apart.)  Wilmoth clearly knows how to interview well.  His questions and summaries burrow into the inner landscape of Pirates fans with a forthright transparency.  He offers fans’ responses in a way that leaves room for interpretation but also offers a generalized categorization of the types of fans he found in his research.  When he detaches from the details and broadens into fan types, he is able to frame the collective reactions to perennial losing (and then finally winning) as, essentially, coping mechanisms.  And specifically, he frames most of them as coping mechanisms by people in a chronic state of abuse – yes, abuse inflicted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the very team we allegedly love.
And here’s what makes Dry Land such a powerful piece of writing: By pulling back layers of outward behavior, Wilmoth leaves room to ponder the fundamental questions of humanity.  What does it mean to succeed?  If I fail repeatedly, how does that shape my place in community?  Is there free will, or do the circumstances we’re born into determine our fate?  There can be unsettling answers to those questions.  And when we, as expressed by ‘our’ team, are on the losing side of things, how do we compensate for failure?
Wilmoth makes some connections to other fanbases of other franchises.  And this stuff is what makes a book like this potentially transformative.  Because there’s nothing unique about being a Pirates fan.  Let me take that back.  I understand (better now that I’ve read Dry Land) that there’s nothing else in North American professional sports like being a Pirates fan.  But Wilmoth makes clear that any fanbase that experienced the combination of ineptitude, bad luck, and poor performance of the Pittsburgh Pirates would react largely in the same way (as a group).  There would be different reactions individually, but fundamentally, it would be a community of people making sense of abuse.

All of this leaves me wondering a few things.  What if, after 20 years of neglect, the once loving partner comes home from work with flowers and tickets to Hawaii.  How exactly are we to make sense of that?  How exactly do people make sense of a gift from their abuser?  Is this a case of the random gift (read: one winning season) that momentarily quells disappointment and suspicion only to keep everyone off the abuser’s back for a while?  Or is this a genuine expression of ‘care’ in the midst of a larger change for the better (read: organizational competence)?  I suppose it depends on how you generally make sense of the world.  In Wilmoth’s terms, it may depend on whether you’re a Builder, an Anti, a Fatalist, or a Contrarian.  Or is there a new type of fan growing in Pittsburgh?  I guess we’ll have to keep watching to find out.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and click here.  Buy this book.  Heck, buy two.  I guarantee you’ll think of someone that needs a copy after you’re finished reading it.  And you won’t want to part with yours.

2 thoughts on “Dry Land: Winning After 20 Years at Sea with the Pittsburgh Pirates

  1. Dry Land sounds like a good read, but I would caution about drawing conclusions about an entire fanbase from a specific time period. Wilmoth is right about other franchises have down periods of play, even the mighty Yankees aren’t immune. But when we start talking about fan psychology, there are tons of Pirate fans who are also Pittsburgh sports fans. And that means during the losing streak, those fans experience plenty of success in football and hockey. As tough as the losing was to accept during baseball season, we had winning for most of a calendar year.

    And if we do an honest comparison with other MLB franchises, Pirates fans as a whole, have been very fortunate. We do have a huge contingent of fans who weren’t born in the 80s and 90s, and experienced the winning tradition of this franchise. If we’re talking about franchises who have had the support to remain in the same city, then the Pirates remain among the elite in terms of accomplishment.

    What I’m trying to say is the tendency to take recent events and make that the narrative. As tough as the losing streak was to endure, it wasn’t the whole picture, and I don’t know any Pirate fan who let the situation affect their life adversely. The coping mechanism Wilmoth mentions was frequently the success of other Pittsburgh sports teams.

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