Talkin' about the lost luster of the All-Star Game, with 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.
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
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.
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.
But meaningless exhibitions were very much a part of American sports. Home run derby. The
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.