All star games really make no sense. You squish together very talented individuals, give them two days to practice and then play a game with no real value except to show off their talent. The games barely qualify as games since players do not have time to practice or develop the nuanced expectations and communications good teams need to play at an elite level. Most all star games are not longer sport but cross over into marketing and entertainment; they are not real competitions.
The NBA gave up all pretense of this and turns the all star event into a show time gig, fun, game, dunks, circus play, and by the way, someone wins the game. The NFL game is fading into oblivion. No one wants to play and risk very real injury in a meaningless game. Baseball has tried a very different approach to overcome this meaninglessness; it works and I will talk about why in a minute.
The Olympic and World Cup teams are all star teams. But here the stakes are much higher. The teams carry the honor of their countries. Most players want to play on their teams and are honored and feel the obligation heavily. Most leave their pro careers and devote serious time and energy, and the coaches devote immense effort to meld the teams together. The World Cup demonstrates all star teams with devotion, practice and high quality coaching can exemplify sport.
The US learned this lesson the hard way in Olympic basketball. After three failed Olympics where rag tag groups of the best of the best were thrown together, grumbling the whole time, the greatest players in the world were skunked by the better teams from countries where players devoted time, energy, effort to become cohesive teams with philosophies of play and consistent coaching.
Under Jerry Colangelo's leadership Olympic basketball with NBA and NCAA support rethought the whole approach. He believed that being an Olympian was an honor and the stakes were high. He believed that the team needed time together to grow into a team. This required a true coach with a clear philosophy and a commitment from players to devote the time to become a team and attend to the coach. It worked. First, they convinced West Point graduate and highly respected coach Mike Krzyseski to be coach. Second, the coach demanded a true three year commitment from players and convinced them of the honor of play. Third, the players rethought their relation to the Olympic team. Fourth, the team broke up practices and limited competition over a two summers prior to the Olympics. Stakes, coaching, commitment came together and the Olympic embarrassment became an Olympic champion.
Now baseball. The sport takes a lot of flack for what it has done but I think it makes sense and should be honored. The palpable relief when the National League finally won yesterday as well as players comments suggest, the game does matter for pride but also for stakes. First and above all, baseball made the game mean something. The winner gets home field advantage for their league in the World Series. This took guts and I believe gives bite to the game that all other all star games lack. The All Star game has been around since 1933 and after the "tie" debacle, it needed to be rethought.
Second, the game really is perceived as an honor by players. The fans vote for months and turn it into a horse race that involve fans, players and give it a visbility and importance none of the other sports possess. Third, a group of players are voted upon by other players which engraves the honor such as the five starting pitchers. Fourth, the coaches are the World Series coaches who may have chance to return and know the real value of home field advantage. Finally baseball players are so mixed and matched by free agency mobility that most of them know each other and have played with each other. The nature of the sport isolates players in their positions and batting and this attribute enable teams to gather and play together much more coherently than rapid movement or structured sports like soccer, basketball or football.
So hurrah for baseball. Their All Star game means something. It is not just marketing. The game looks and feels like a game with real stakes and real competition.