SEPTEMBER HITS BASEBALL LIKE A COLD SHOWER. After the jaunty optimism of spring—when even the Indians are allowed to think that this, at last, is going to be their year—and the casualness of summer, the sport is suddenly slapped awake. The arrival of September means that only five weeks remain in the regular season (baseball's Greater September includes the first week of October) and the pennant races shift into high gear. Long-rested injuries finally heal, or teams that were healthy all season suddenly fall apart. Deals are made, heroes are born and goats' horns sprout. Sometimes history is made.
If so far it has been a team's year, well, this month comes complete with every reason ever invented for choking (keep swallowing. Cardinals). For the contenders, which, history tells us, could be any team within 10 games of first place (are you listening Rangers, Mariners, Reds and Brewers?), September games have the potential to become nothing less than supernatural. Scoreboard watching becomes a sport unto itself—"The Angels have been up a long time in the fifth"—and the numbers in the loss columns become all-important.
On the field a September fervor grips the players. The Reds' Dave Parker calls it "panty-hose time."
"You know, no nonsense."
Last season all the races were decided early, but this September promises to be one of the most exciting in years, with hot chases in all four divisions. The Cardinals, first in the National League East since April 18, saw their lead shrink from 9½ games on July 23 to 3½ on Labor Day morning, and they still have 12 games, including their last six, left to play against the second-place Mets and third-place Expos. In the AL East the Tigers and Blue Jays will face one another on the final two weekends of the season, while the Yankees play their last seven games at home. In the NL West the Reds and Astros finish the season in Houston, although right now each team is more concerned about the rampaging Giants, the division leader by 5½ games. And while the AL West is always a couple of small losing streaks from being a six-team slag heap, every member of the division should remember that the 1973 Mets were last in the NL East on Aug. 28 and finished the season a mere three games above .500, but made it to the seventh game of the World Series.
"In September you keep thinking time is running out," says Red Sox catcher-turned-broadcaster Bob Montgomery, "and then you think about what you should have done in some game two months before." And then, suddenly, comes a final determining instant—a home run, a wild pitch, a diving catch—and what happened two months before becomes ancient history.
Ah, Bucky Dent. One can only guess who history's hero might be this September. Will it be Jack Clark, Will Clark, George Bell, Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Darryl Strawberry or even Reggie Jackson in his last hurrah? We know the Tigers will be in it to the end because their rotation keeps coming around to Jack Morris. Likewise for the Royals with Bret Saberhagen; the Angels with Mike Witt; the Mets with Dwight Gooden; the Astros with Mike Scott.
Certain stars flourish in September whether their teams are in pennant races or not. Twenty-year-old Stan Musial came up in September 1941 and batted .426. Six times he exceeded .400 for the last month; his September average was .344. During his career, the Cards won four pennants and made runs at four others. Eddie Murray, who has helped the Orioles win or almost win six division titles, is this generation's Musial, with a .318 average and 64 homers vouching for his September swing. Carl Yastrzemski hit better than .300 in four of his seven pennant races. His September in 1967—19 RBIs and .448 in the final 19 games, culminating in a 7-for-8 performance on the final weekend—was perhaps the best of all stretch drives. Among other things, it lifted the Red Sox to their first pennant in 21 years. Mike Schmidt clinched the 1980 division title for the Phillies with his 13th Greater September homer, including an amazing four in the four regular-season games of October. Joe Morgan, after being benched in August 1983, had four hits on Sept. 19, his 40th birthday, and four hits the next day; he batted .338 in his final month as a member of the Phillies. They won the division that year, too.
Then there have been the September flashes, the unlikely heroes (here's Dent again) who were just everyday ballplayers or minor leaguers in August. There was Dodger rookie Dick Nen, whose ninth-inning homer on Sept. 18, 1963, completed a series sweep of the Cards that broke their back. And utility infielder Ducky Schofield, who, while filling in for the injured Dick Groat, batted .403 in September '60 to lead the Pirates to that memorable pennant. In mid-August '64 the Yankees trailed the White Sox by 3½ games when, with Whitey Ford injured, Mel Stottlemyre came up from Richmond and went 9-3 to lead New York to the pennant. Marty Bystrom joined the Phillies from the minors in September '80 and went 5-0. Bob (Hurricane) Hazle came up to Milwaukee on July 28, 1957, batted .403 the rest of the season as the Braves cruised to the pennant and the next spring was sold to the Tigers. On Sept. 27, 1940, 30-year-old Detroit rookie Floyd Giebell beat Bob Feller 2-0 before 45,553 in Cleveland to eliminate the Indians and clinch the pennant for the Tigers. Giebell never won another game.