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Rushin: The Ninth Month As The Ninth Inning

featured_34-Valenzuela, Fernando (Stewart:Getty Images).jpg
Fernandomania, the festive Dodgers Stadium atmosphere surrounding Fernando Valenzuela's early career began in September 1980.

September is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, of so many big league careers. Life begins as a September callup and ends 17 seasons later in triumph or tragedy or poignancy or all three. Ted Williams homered in his final at-bat in September and declined to doff his cap. Roberto Clemente doubled for his 3,000th hit one September day and died three months later. Nolan Ryan gave up a single, three walks and then a grand slam to the immortal Dann Howitt of the Mariners in his last start 25 Septembers ago, failing to record a single out in the Kingdome. Ryan was 46, having discovered that September is synonymous with middle age, what Frank Sinatra called “the golden warm September of my years.”

That’s because September, in baseball as in life, represents a drawing down, a slow fade. It’s a strange month for baseball, when the NFL and college football crash into the backyard uninvited, splintering the fence, laying waste to the barbecue, snapping the Wiffle bat in half. But September has its consolations: rosters expand and the kids get a chance to sit at the grownup table for a month—much longer if they’re lucky or great. Everyone remembers Fernandomania in 1981, but few recall that the fever started the previous September, when Dodgers’ rookie Fernando Valenzuela won two games, saved another and struck out 16 in 17.2 innings.

If September isn’t what it used to be, now that nearly as many teams make the playoffs (10) as once existed in the National League (12 as recently as 1992), that’s probably a good thing. For every dramatic pennant race of old, there was its boring, Bizarro World opposite. On the night I was born—Sept. 22, 1966—the Yankees and White Sox attracted 413 fans to Yankee Stadium. (There was a Biblical rainfall, and the Orioles had already sewn up the American League pennant.) The day before, the Cubs and Reds—a combined 51 games behind the first-place Dodgers—drew 530 customers to Wrigley Field. There were, of course, no playoffs then, and little at stake when teams played out the string in September.

You couldn’t tell that to Ernie Banks, of course. If Reggie Jackson was Mr. October, then Mr. Cub was Mr. September, a man who never played in the postseason, stood forever marooned in a cosmic on-deck circle, 40 feet from glory, yet still swinging the weighted bat, just in case.

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For Banks, September didn’t mean the end of the baseball season, just the end of his baseball season. And, odds are, the end of your team’s season as well. On Sept. 30, 1980, the abysmal Mets hosted 1,754 fans at Shea Stadium, a mere shadow of the previous day’s crowd of 1,787. These venerable ballparks themselves disappear in September: Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, old Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium and Comiskey Park, among many others, made their Irish goodbyes in September, leaving without fanfare or fuss, quietly avoiding the spotlight of October baseball. “The sun went out like a dying ember that September,” sang Sinatra, the bard of summer’s end (“Summer Wind,” “There Used To Be A Ballpark,” “September Song”). In September, Frank knew, “The days dwindle down to a precious few.”

You don’t have to tell that to Mets third baseman and captain David Wright, who has been physically unable to play for the last two years but was activated this September, so he could take the field one more time for the only team he has ever played for. Meanwhile, Cubs reliever Drew Smyly was “shut down” this September, and these baseball verbs—of activation and shutdown—treat the players as industrial machinery. And it’s true that ballplayers wear out and break down and have parts replaced. This gradual erosion is most visible in September. Stan Musial, in his later years, would reduce his bat weight as a season wore on, sometimes swinging a 30-ounce bat by September.

Baseball fans have to do the same when summer officially turns to fall and nights become school nights and Summer Ale is elbowed off the shelves by Oktoberfest. Like Musial, we have to shed a weight, ease our burden as the end of the year draws near, in baseball as in life. There may be an afterlife—October—but it isn’t for everyone. September is, and I hate to see it go

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