Kevan Smith could only watch, confused, when he didn’t make the cut.
It was the end of August in 2015, and Smith, then a 27-year-old catcher for the Charlotte Knights—the Triple A affiliate of the White Sox—figured he’d be a major leaguer once the calendar flipped to September. A seventh-round draft pick in 2011, he was finishing his first tour of Triple A, and his August (.316/.371/.439) had been strong. A call-up on Sept. 1, when major league teams expanded their rosters to 40 players, and a long-awaited MLB debut felt certain.
Yet as Smith and his teammates stretched on the field in Durham, N.C., ahead of a game against the Bulls, the call never came. Instead, three other Knights were picked to join the White Sox, including another catcher. Chicago ultimately called up six players that September; Smith wasn’t one of them.
“It was pretty disappointing,” he says now. “It’s just part of the game and the business, and as much as you want to try to play general manager or think you know what’s going on, you really don’t.”
After an April 2016 call-up was ruined by injury and following another season in Triple A, Smith finally got his golden ticket. Called up on Sept. 1, he became the 18,863rd player in MLB history when he entered a game against the Twins that same day in the ninth inning. The first day of September was also the first of his major league career.
For teams, roster expansion is a way to add arms to a tired bullpen or get a closer look at an intriguing prospect. For players, though, September is the last chance that year either to make a dream come true or to get a foot back in the majors. As the minor league season comes to a close, only a select few will move up to the highest level, while the rest will head home and wait until next year. As such, September is a month that can be full of joy for some, and a tough conclusion for others.
“It’s a wide range of guys excited and guys with maybe some anxiety building up a little bit,” says Smith, still with the White Sox, of those final days of August in a minor league clubhouse. “You’re at the tail end of your minor league [season], hoping it’s about to happen.”
“When you get called up, it’s a good time and fun,” says Yankees backup catcher Austin Romine, who made his MLB debut on Sept. 11, 2011. “When you don’t get called up, you kind of assess your life and baseball career and try to figure out where you’re at and how you can get better to get called up.”
Several factors influence which players get that much anticipated call beyond their performance. Teams out of contention want to spend September evaluating who could be part of the future, but teams in a pennant race are less likely to have roles or time for untested minor leaguers. Major league service time and its accrual must be taken into consideration. Those on the 40-man roster have a leg up on those who don’t, as do those who have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. And the odds favor pitchers, particularly relievers: Of the nearly 200 players so far recalled, close to half will work out of a bullpen this month. It ends up being a numbers game that can be tough to win.
“If you’re doing really well, you expect it,” says White Sox infielder Matt Davidson, who was called up in September 2013 when he was in the Diamondbacks’ system but was passed over the next two years in Chicago. “But we all know, coming up through the system, who’s their guys and who’s going to be called up at what positions. If there’s positions that are filled, you’re not going to get called up.”
A former first-round pick, Davidson knew that he wasn’t getting called up in either 2014 or ’15 because of how badly he’d played at Triple A. “I needed to figure some things out, so I’m kind of grateful that I didn’t come up here and struggle,” he says. He eventually did figure it out, sticking in the majors for good in 2017.
Others, though, don’t have the luxury of time, making that September call-up all the more important. Triple A is full of ex-major leaguers looking for a chance with a new club, as well as veterans who have never reached the majors. Tigers first baseman Jim Adduci was one such player: Going into the end of the 2013 season with the Rangers’ Triple A team, the 28-year-old had spent his entire nine-year career in the minors. But that Sept. 1, he got the news he’d waited a decade to hear.
“It was an adrenaline rush I’d never experienced before in my life,” Adduci says. “I could’ve run through a wall that day, I was so pumped.”
As in any other month, the September call-up is a rush of phone calls to wives and family members, followed by a trip to join the big league club and a chance at coveted milestones: first hit, first strikeout, first home run. Adduci didn’t have to wait long: He was in the starting lineup the day he got called up, in Texas against the Twins, and swung at the first pitch he saw in his first at-bat, collecting a single. “I almost fell out of the box, I was running so hard,” he recalls.
Beyond the joy of being there, September is also a financial windfall for players who have spent all year drawing tiny minor league checks. “There’s guys who are depending on that month,” Smith says. The current minimum salary in Triple A is $2,150 a month before taxes; the lowliest major leaguer makes $3,000 a day. “Shoot, man, for some of those guys, that’s money they’re never used to,” Romine says. “It’s life-changing.”
For both fringe major leaguers and prospects getting their first taste of the bigs, September is important beyond swelling your bank account. Whether receiving regular playing time or sporadic at-bats or innings, being with a major league club is a chance to impress the team you’re with, as well as whoever’s watching. “I think it gives them an idea of where you’re at on a comfort scale, how you fit in, maybe how you deal with big league pitching or hitters,” Smith says. A good performance can go a long way toward improving a chance at a roster spot in the spring.
If nothing else, September allows those call-ups to get used to major league life. For Romine, who wasn’t initially supposed to join the Yankees in 2011 but was recalled halfway through the month after an injury to backup Francisco Cervelli, he spent his time in New York’s clubhouse observing Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. “I kept my mouth shut and watched and learned,” he says. Adduci remembers keeping an eye on Adrian Beltre “because he’s such a professional. I always wanted to see what he was doing.” And success in September can be a huge boost for next season.
“You want to find any way you can to prove to yourself that you can play up here,” Smith says. “Find that confidence and ride that out into the offseason and take it into spring training.”
That will be the goal for the players filling clubhouses across the country. For some, the sensation is old hat; for others, it’s all new. No matter how long it took them to get there, though, getting to the majors in that final month can make it all worth it.
“I think we all feel the same thing,” Adduci says. “There’s always this sense of accomplishment and this high and this rush of ‘I got to play a [major league] game.’”