SUMMER ends three times. For most practical purposes, it goes up in the smoke of Labor Day barbeques. On the calendar, it lingers until the equinox, Sept. 22. But on the diamonds of America's major league baseball teams, summer hangs on until the 162nd regular-season game ends just before Columbus Day. By even that last standard, Summer '90 is over. And the many boys of summer have become the few men of autumn.
Philosophers of baseball - writers like Roger Angell, George Will, and the late Bart Giamatti - like to extol the game for its measured and clockless pace, mirroring the languid timelessness of a July afternoon, and for its evocations of youth, of the nation's simpler past, and, in the deepest recesses of memory, of the Elysian fields of paradise lost.
But for post-season baseball - the two leagues' championship series and the World Series - you can stow the deepthink. Post-season play is, well, a whole new ballgame. It's taut, frantic, and tart as ripe Macintosh. If baseball's long, incremental summer is linked in the mind with patiently watching crops grow, autumn baseball is akin to the urgent harvesting of those crops before the killer frosts.
Post-season play sometimes isn't good baseball - the players are tired, pitchers' arms feel like sausages, batters blow on their hands between pitches to ward off the chill of October nights. Not good baseball; just great baseball. Playing on heart and adrenaline, players often rise to memorable heights, performing in ways all the more remarkable for the pressure they're under. And if ``It's never over till the last out'' is a baseball clich'e, it's never more true than in post-season play - as Mets and Red Sox fans who watched Game Six of the 1986 World Series will always remember.
This year the teams in the post-season glare are the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League, and the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox in the American League (so the World Series will pit the Heartland against the Coast). Millions of Americans are suddenly discovering that they are baseball fans, after all. We year-round addicts don't begrudge these foul-weather fans. There will be thrills enough to go around.