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Talkin' about the lost luster of the All-Star Game, with Bill James

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.

Bill: Remember old-timers games? For a while in the '80s they were popular (and they have been played since the 1890s) where you bring back a few guys in their 50s and 60s so the fans can see them one more time.

The only thing is, after you've seen everybody, it's over. NOBODY cares who wins, and therefore it seems pointless to play the damn game. There is an inherent conflict between the notion of an All-Star game and serious competition.

Exhibitions are anathema to sport. Every exhibition will sooner or later be attacked by the "serious" elements of the sport as interfering with and putting at risk the "legitimate" competition. They used to have "field days" before major-league games or between the games of double headers, at which players would race around the bases in timed trials, try to see who could throw a baseball the farthest, and who could hit a ball the farthest off a tee and, occasionally, who could drive a golf ball farthest off a tee ...

But these field days were driven out of the game because "somebody will get hurt." We're paying Johnny Cash $1 million to sing the Star-Spangled Banner; we can't take the risk that he will hurt his voice singing Happy Birthday to some 9-year-old. He is only allowed to sing when he is SERIOUS about singing. No competitive singing for show.

But then you have an All-Star Game, which is essentially about putting on a show, so all of these things creep back in ... home run hitting contests and slam dunk contests, and three-point shooting contests, etc. But even so, the "serious" monitors are on guard. What do people say? Whoever wins the home run hitting contest ... it RUINS them as a hitter. They go up there trying to pull the ball, and ... it takes them MONTHS to get back in shape.

A sillier theory would be difficult to construct -- yet people advocate this idea in all seriousness. It's the conflict between show and serious performance.

Joe: Funny you should say that. I've been in St. Louis for a couple of days, and I've already run into a handful of people who are worried -- legitimately worried -- that Albert Pujols will ruin his swing by participating in the home run derby. It's actually hilarious if you think about. During the season we expect our favorite players to sacrifice their bodies in the most outrageous ways. Day game after a night game? Get in there! Catcher blocking home plate? Well, try to score anyway! Bases loaded? Well, turn up that fastball a little bit! We don't want them to get hurt or out of sync, of course, but we don't think much about it.

But as soon as it comes to an exhibition -- an All-Star Game, the World Baseball Classic, exhibition football games -- suddenly we're scared to death. We don't want these same athletes to leave their homes. Stay in bed. Put on a sweater. Make sure you're wearing sunscreen.

Bill: Here's something else. "Serious" competition, by its nature, tries to expand. The college football season, when I can first remember, was nine games; now it's 11 or 12 or something, everybody who didn't lose to Iowa State gets to go to a bowl game, and it's a matter of time until there is a multi-game playoff. The NFL used to be 10 games, then 12, now it's 16 and the playoffs go on for several more weeks. Baseball was 154 games; now it's 162 and there are three rounds of playoff competition rather than one, meaning that there's 181 potential games rather than 161.

Of course, back when baseball teams only played 154 games, they played lots of "exhibition" games during the season ... people forget that, but back in the 1920s and 1930s, major-league teams played as many as 30 exhibition games DURING THE SEASON. They'd be on a train going from New York to St. Louis; they'd stop in Louisville and play an exhibition game. When Sunday baseball was banned by law in many states, the players would organize informal teams which were essentially the same as the regular teams and go out of town somewhere where it was legal and play for the gate. As recently as 10 years ago it was still standard practice for major-league teams to play one exhibition game during the season, against their Triple-A affiliate. Bob Feller in the late 1940s organized a postseason tour, the "Bob Feller All-Stars", playing about 30 games in November and December in warm-weather spots for the gate -- which was sometimes huge. Mostly California; California had a lot of people and no major-league baseball, you could get 65,000 for a post-season exhibition. For 30 or 40 years the White Sox and Cubs played a postseason exhibition series for the city title.

But serious competition abhors exhibitions, and all of these have gradually been eliminated. All-Star games cannot grow, by their nature. A SEASON -- a serious competition -- is enhanced by growth; an All-Star Game is diminished by it. MLB tried two All-Star games a year from 1959 to 1962. It was a disaster. The public hated it.

The rule that the winner of the All-Star Game gets the home-field advantage in the postseason -- which I am 100 percent in favor of, enthusiastically -- is, in essence, an effort to "legitimize" the All Star Game by making it part of the "real" competition, rather than "just" a show. Yeah, you've got Pujols there and Ichiro and Greinke and Pedroia and Utley and I think Cy Young may show up and pitch a couple of innings, but ... it's just a show. The rule is necessary because exhibitions are anathema to serious competition. The "show" was falling apart, because it was just a show. More and more players were begging off. More and more managers were begging their players to beg off. YOU MIGHT GET HURT. You need the rest.

Joe: It's weird, I don't like the home-field advantage rule. I mean, I don't mind it -- I am aware that before they used to just ALTERNATE home-field advantage which is at least five times more stupid -- but I don't particularly like it because it seems fake to me.

I remember when I was a kid I would watch pro wrestling on the weekends -- this was the raw pro wrestling, the stuff that was held in small casinos and VFW Halls with about 50 people watching on metal chairs -- and I was always amazed how many belts they would give out. The world champion belt, of course. But they also had a North American champion and a tag team champion and an intercontinental champion and, if I remember right, a TELEVISION champion. They must have given out 20 different belts.

That's what the home-field advantage rule at the All-Star Game feels like to me ... it feels like some ridiculous wrestling belt they offer to give the game meaning.

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