Talkin' about the lost luster of the All-Star Game, with Bill James
An All-Star game or any exhibition is, in a sense, anathema to a sport
That's because All-Star games are essentially about putting on a good show
Joe and Bill are divided on home-field advantage going to the All-Star winner
We are back with the continuing evolution of an experiment that last appeared two weeks ago: a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James...
This week's talk is about the All-Star Game, and how somewhere along the way stuff like the Midsummer Classic stopped really mattering to all of us.
Joe: So, on Sunday, I was in my St. Louis hotel room, scanning television channels, when I came across a replay of an old Shell's Wonderful World of Golf program. The match was between Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead. It was at Pebble Beach, and it was in that beautiful, rich color of 1960s television.
So I watched that for a while, and I wondered why they don't do stuff like that anymore -- you know, match up the best golfers in fun exhibitions just for TV. I mean they do them every so often -- you remember the Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson-Annika Sorenstam prime-time thing -- but not very much. My first thought was that they stopped doing these because the players make too much money now, and quaint stuff like Shell's World of Golf simply doesn't fit in the new corporate sports world.
But after about five minutes of watching Nicklaus and Snead, I turned the channel. And I had a new theory. We really don't have much patience or tolerance for exhibitions anymore. We want -- we need -- our sports to count.
Bill: An All-Star game or any exhibition is, in a sense, anathema to a sport, in this sense: that whereas sports beg and demand to be taken seriously on a certain level, All-Star games are essentially about showing off.
Sports -- perhaps BECAUSE they are fantastically trivial events in which nothing really is at stake -- are fanatic, from the level of front offices on down, about taking the competition seriously. A football coach DEMANDS that you give your best effort every play, even if you're ahead 27-3 in the fourth quarter. Goofing around out there, acting silly on the field ... there is very, very, very low tolerance for that, no matter the sport, no matter the level of competition. You can be playing high school football in the lowest level of competition known to man, and the coach is still going to insist you give your best effort on every play.
It is a universal to sport: You take seriously the effort to win, always -- except All-Star games, which are essentially about putting on a good show. The thing is, when you take the effort to win out of it, it ceases to be a good show.
Joe: I wonder if this has changed through the years. You know, for 42 years (from 1934 through '76) the football season would kick off with the College All-Star Game -- a game between college all-stars and the defending NFL champion. Fans no doubt remember or are aware of the College All-Star Game ... but take just a moment to think about how WEIRD this was. Teams would draft a star player, only that player would not come to training camp right away. Instead he would go to his college all-star team's training camp. He would go to Chicago and would practice FOR WEEKS with some other coach -- someone like Otto Graham.* You think Bill Belichick would appreciate that?
*Remember, this was why Gale Sayers was late to Bears camp at the beginning of Brian's Song.
But meaningless exhibitions were very much a part of American sports. Home run derby. The Superstars competition. One of the biggest sporting events of the 1970s was that exhibition between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Another was that match race between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian. Muhammad Ali, when he was the heavyweight champion and the most famous athlete in the world, took on a wrestler (Antonio Inoki) in a now infamous exhibition. There was still an appetite for these things.
And, of course, it was during that time that the All-Star Game was really at its peak of interest. You hear people say all the time: "Oh, the All-Star Game used to mean something. Remember when Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse?" And then we will gripe -- and I'll admit I'm one of the gripers -- that they deadened the All-Star Game with interleague play and by using pitchers differently and all that. But maybe it isn't the All-Star Game that changed at all. Maybe we just no longer care about games that don't really matter.
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