September baseball is all-or-nothing baseball. It is baseball that is played either in front of swelling crowds with palpable tension or in a cold ballpark sparsely dotted with paying customers where the peanut vendors are the loudest voices.
September baseball is either rich with meaning, where every pitch is hung on, or it’s merely an exercise of formality, played out because the schedule says so.
September baseball is either “must win” baseball or “must play,” nothing in between.
There is nothing more dreary and sad than baseball played in September when the pennant for the home team ceased being a reality in July, when the games lost meaning after the All-Star break, when the empty seats stretch for sections on end, when hot dog wrappers blow around the field, with people checking their watches more than the scoreboard.
But when it’s done right, when the playoffs are distinctly possible, when the mathematicians say so, September baseball is one of the most exciting, heart-stopping and gut-wrenching months of sport you’ll ever experience.
It’s baseball played with one eye on the pitcher and the other on the out-of-town scoreboard. It’s magic numbers and half games and a trade for a player with two weeks remaining. It’s when even a two-game losing streak seems like an eternity. It’s shouting obscenities when you find out that, out of town, the other guys came back and won with three runs in the bottom of the ninth. It’s when losing a game in the standings is on par with losing big at the casino.
September baseball is also when heroes are made, legends are furthered and legacies are cemented.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is filled with players who lived for September baseball.
It’s also filled with players who, despite their consistent greatness, seem to all have that one season that leaps off the page because of its superlative productivity.
Ted Williams had his .406. Joe DiMaggio had his 56 games. Bob Gibson had his 1.12.
Alan Trammell, the great Tigers shortstop, managed to combine his best September with his best season. Yet, he is no Hall of Famer. Not even close, according to the writers who vote.
Another Hall voting has come and gone. For the first time since 1996, there won’t be an induction ceremony in August. The writers pitched a shutout this year—a no-no of epic proportion. They not onlydidn’t elect anyone for enshrinement, they snubbed their noses at the three key players whose first year of eligibility had long been anticipated because of their link to performance enhancing drugs: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa.
The writers sent a message. None of the three exceeded 38 percent of the vote, when you need to appear on at least 75 percent of the ballots to gain entrance to the Hall with a plaque instead of an admission ticket.
Also down in the 30s, percentage-wise, was Trammell, who’s been on the ballot since 2002, but who is gaining about as much traction as a candidate as Herman Cain did for president last year.
There are many theories about Trammell’s Teflon candidacy, but let’s talk about 1987 instead.
That was the year when Tram plunked his best September into his best overall season, at a time when September baseball had all the meaning in the world for the Tigers.
On the morning of September 1, 1987, the Tigers woke up in first place in the American League East, a mere one game ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays. Both teams had 77 wins, but the Tigers had played two fewer games than the Jays and thus had two fewer losses—hence the one-game lead.
September ’87 would turn out to be the most thrilling month of baseball in Detroit since that phenomenal September twenty years prior, when four teams chased a pennant that could only be won by finishing in first place in a one-division league. Despite the Tigers’ recent foray into down-the-stretch baseball (2006, 2009 and 2012), 1987 remains the most exciting.
Trammell was hitting .323 on the morning of 9/1/87—already a phenomenal year for a shortstop, even for 1987, when baseball had long ago shucked the notion of a good fielding, no-hit shortstop as being the norm.
Trammell would play in 33 games down the stretch in 1987, starting with September 1. What he did in those 33 games was Williams-esque; DiMaggio infused; Reggie Jackson-like.
Trammell had 127 at-bats in those 33 games and sprayed 53 hits around American League ballparks, a .418 clip—an average that even Ty Cobb had to admire and look up to.
Trammell slugged seven home runs and smacked 20 runners to the plate. He had 15 multihit games, many with three or even four hits. Of those 33 games, Trammell hit safely in 29 of them, including an 18-game hitting streak when the games were ramped up in tension and importance.
Thanks to those numbers, Trammell lifted his average from the .323 it was on September 1 to a season-ending .343. For a full-time player with over 500 at-bats to improve his average by 20 points in one month is ridiculous. And Trammell did it when every night was a must-win night for the Tigers.
While Trammell was putting the Tigers on his back, his team and the Blue Jays came down the stretch like two prized race horses, neck-and-neck and jockeying for position.
Neither team could manage more than a two-game lead as the schedule drained. However, on the next-to-last weekend, the Jays took the first three of a four-game series in Toronto to forge a seemingly insurmountable 3.5-game lead.
The Tigers won a dramatic victory on Sunday in old Exhibition Stadium, thanks to Kirk Gibson’s heroics—another player who never met a clutch situation he didn’t embrace.
In the final week, the Blue Jays kept losing, even being swept in three games by the horrid Milwaukee Brewers, while the Tigers split four games in Detroit against Baltimore. By this time, the Jays' lead was sliced to one game, with a season-ending three-game showdown scheduled at Tiger Stadium between the first- and second-place teams.
This was September baseball at its very best: a packed house, shrieking fans and the division squarely on the line. It was, for all intents and purposes, playoff baseball, for whoever came up short in the three games would be going home, while the other team would play into October.
Technically, the three games on the final weekend weren’t September baseball; they were played on October 2-4. But that was no matter; the scene had been set by the 30 days prior.
The Tigers swept the Blue Jays and won the division. In the final week, Trammell went 9-for-27 (.333), as he put the finishing touches on a glorious season—for him and for the Tigers, who started the year 11-19 yet won 98 games and the division.
Trammell’s .343 with 28 homers, 105 RBI, 109 runs scored and 205 hits weren’t enough to win the league MVP that season. In cruel irony, it was George Bell of Toronto who won the award despite a final week in which Bell went 2-for-22 as his team folded like a tent.
And, in the end, Trammell’s career totals of 2,365 hits, 1,003 RBI, 1,231 runs scored and 412 doubles to go along with his .285 batting average haven’t been deemed Hall of Fame worthy in 11 years of eligibility. Not even close, really.
Unlike teammate Jack Morris, who continues to trend upward in voting but who is running out of time (one more year of eligibility before only the Veterans Committee can save him), Alan Trammell’s candidacy continues to be suppressed. There doesn’t appear to be any way that Trammell can come anywhere near the coveted 75 percent needed for election.
But they can’t take 1987 away from him, no more than they can take away Williams and DiMaggio’s 1941 or Gibson’s 1968. For what it’s worth.