The cleanup crews at mid-night, creeping into the ghostly quarter-light of empty ballparks with their slow-sweeping brooms and languorus, sluicing hoses. All season, they remove the inanimate refuse of a game. Now in the dwindling days of September and October, they come to collect baseball souls.

Age is the sweeper, injury his broom.

Mixed among the burst beer cups and the mustard-smeared wrappers headed for the trash heap, we find old friends who are being consigned to the dust bin of baseball's history. If a night breeze blows a back page of the Sporting News down the stadium aisle, pick it up and squint at the onetime headline names now just fine print at the very bottom of a column of averages.

Each year, the names changes of those who have "lost it," and, probably, won't find it again. This year's list of those who are past 30 and into that inexorable state slide includes Sal Bando, Lee May, Ed Figureroa, Gene Tenace, Fred Patek, Manny Anguillen, Willie Horton, Bernie Carbo, Bud Harrelson, Bobby Bonds, Randy Jones, Dave Cash, Mike Torrez and Ross Grimsley. Not a bad Season's haul, once you consider that, when the seine is finally culled clean, it may also hold Willie Stargell, Bill Lee and Joe Morgan.

"I like a look of Agony," wrote Emily Dickson, "because I know it's true look, a glimpse beneath the mask, even if it be a glimpse of agony, then this is the proper time of year. Spring training is for hope; autumn is for reality. At every stop on the late-season baseball trail, we see that look of agony, Although it hides behind many expressions.

In Pittsburgh, "Pops" Stargell rides a stationary bicycle. A depressed giant sitting on a ridiculous toy, he pedals to rehabilitate an arthritic knee that has deteriorated for a decade. "Everything gets better slower each year," he says. "And, finally, it doesn't get better at all."

In Houston, Morgan helps the Astrops with the sad bits and pieces of those skills that are left to him. The back-to-back MVP, a .240-ish hitter for the past three years, says of his last career stage, "I'm still a ball-player, but you Couldn't really call me Joe Morgan . . . I'm used to laughing at other players. Now They're laughing at me."

In Montreal, "Spaceman" Bill Lee in bullpen exile, spends these pennant-race days exorcising the nervous energy that consumes him. Lee spends half the game jogging just beyound the outfield fence, his cap and prematurely grizzled hair bouncing at the edge of view like a bobber on the water's surface being jerked about by a hooked fish. "I'm not through. They can't get rid of me," he says. "I pitched hurt for 'em for months. That explains the (bad) stats. But they don't appreciate it. Just wait. You'll see next year." It's an old litany. Lee's ERA is 5.47. Even Spacemen get jettisoned.

Finally, the towns become a swirl.The player's face is familiar with its look of wounded dignity, but the uniforms change. Jim Kaat, 41, has won 270 games, but his uniform gets harder to remember as he bounces from league to league, hanging on. "It's tough to love the game," says Kaat, now a Cardinal, "after she's stopped loving you."

To a ballplayer, the game is a seed he planted as a child, a kind of beautiful creeping ivy that he was delighted to have entwine him. As an adult, he felt supported in every sense -- financial, emotional, psychic -- by his green, rich, growing game, just as ivy can strengthen a brick wall. But ivy, given time, can overpower and tear down a house.

So, in a way, the aging player, whose life seems to be a mansion, knows that he is in a strong and even dangerous grip. In the end, he may not know how much of his strength, how much of his ability to stand alone, comes from the brick and mortar of his own identity and how much is borrowed from the vine that engulfs him more each year, even as it props him up. No wonder he is so fearful when the time arrives to hew through the root and pull free.

Mickey Mantle, retired a dozen years, still has a recurring dream that makes him awake in a sweat. In the nightmare, he is trying to crawl under the center field fence in Yankee Stadium, but something is snagged and he can't move. The PA system intones, "Batting fourth...No. 7..." In the dugout, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin and Casey Stengel ask each other, "Where's Mickey?"

"And then," says Mantle, "I wake up."

This dream needs no interpretation. It epitomizes the nub of raw, disoriented fear, and the sense of nameless loss, that many fine athletes must feel if they were ever good enough to mesh their characters with their skills. How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

Even the most dignified and selfpossessed of former stars occasionally shows a twinge of what haunts Mantle. Returning from a USO tour of Korea, Marilyn Monroe told her husband, Joe DiMaggio, then retired, "Oh, Joe, it was wonderful. You never heard such cheers."

"Yes, I have," was DiMaggio's clipped reply.

The desire for applause, for camaraderie, for the hard coin of indisputable accomplishment is a powerful pull. The green of the field has so many rich connotations that it even makes the green of a dollar bill seem faded by comparison.

In all baseball history, there is perhaps only one case of a great player who cut the vine, stepped free and tested his legs long before he lost it. When Sandy Koufax was 30, he won 27 games. And after the World Series, he retired.

"I was looking for time," he now says for explanation.

Only after 13 years of casual wandering -- neither a recluse nor a public figure -- did his nest egg run low. He returned to baseball, as a Dodger coach, because it was a painless way to make a buck as a pitching professor emeritus.

Koufax is simply the exception that proves the rule. Far more typical are Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn, the top home run hitter and winner in modern, lively-ball times. The former Brave teammates never faced each other in their careers, but they did this spring in San Diego when the 46-year-old Aaron came to bat against the 59-year-old Spahn. They weren't kidding.

Not since Babe Ruth faced Walter Johnson for charity when both were in their 50s have such legends met. The pretext for this time-warp freeze frame was a Padre-vs.-Pirate home run-hitting contest. But the real curiosity was watching Aaron and Spahn face each other from opposite ends of the tunnel of middle age. Aaron looked like he hadspent his four retirement years locked in a bakery. Spahn might have spent 15 years prospecting in a desert, his skin weathered to rawhide, his bandy limbs and barrel chest shrunken.

The scene was elegantly set. Warming up, Arron missed half-speed pitches.

The crowd murmured its collective embarrassment and empathy as though an innocent prank had turned ugly. Meanwhile, thanks to aluminum bats and Japanese rabbit balls, Dave Parker, Dave Winfield and Stargell were having a tape-measure orgy. Aaron was mercifully forgotten.

Once the contest started, Aaron whiffed meekly twice against the Padre batting practice pitcher. Then, on the third of six allotted swings in the round, Aaron conked a homer. The crowd cheered with relief. Then, while their pitying applause was still in the air, the next pitch had already been dispatched even further into the left field bleachers. The crowd was rising and roaring. Reporters scrambled back into the press box just as players popped back out of runways into the dugouts to watch. The next pitch also went over the wall, delivered there by a sweet slash of the wrists. And, on his fourth consecutive swing -- all this in 30 seconds, or so, as emotions had gone from depression to glee -- Aaron smashed his last pitch off the top of the center field wall 430 feet away, missing a fourth homer by a yard.

For the final round of the contest, Spahn pitched, lobbing in mushs balls for the monsters to mash. Aaron hit last, needing just one homer to beat all the active stars. Spahn peered in, grinned and threw. Aaron swung and missed. He smiled back at Spahn. Spahn repeated the ritual and threw again. Aaron looked at the pitch as though it was a rotten mackerel. Although he was due five more swings, Aaron gently laid down his bat, turned his back on Spahn and walked away, ending the contest by fiat.

Back in the dugout, Aaron was asked, "Why'd you quit? Hurt yourself swinging?"

"No," said Aaron brusquely. "Spahn was throwing screwballs."

And they say Walter Johnson threw sliders to Ruth.

In baseball, you see, no one ever believes he's really lost it. No American team sport is half so fascinated with the process of aging as baseball, perhaps because none of our games is so based on skill and timing rather than brute force. Nor does any sport offer prospects for an athletic old age that is so rich in possibilities for either humiliation or the greatest fame.

Every athlete in every sport deteriorates. But in baseball that battle against time -- where a standoff means temporary victory -- can be extended for as much as a decade by a dogged will and an analytical mind. Perhaps no sport encourages its men to rage so nobly against the erosion of their youth.

The ultimate cases in point are Aaron and Spahn, statistically the greatest old hitter and the best old pitcher ever. They alone among Hall of Famers actually got better after they turned 35. Aaron hit 245 homers and had his two best slugging-percentage years after that supposed watershed as he actually became a better pull hitter with age.

After Spahn turned 35, and concurrently mastered the scroogie, he won 20 games seven times and won 180 games. No one is close to either mark.

Baseball, it seems, rewards stubborness and indomitability, as long as those qualities are mixed with a basic humility, self-knowledge and willingness to adapt. Baseball's highest, and most apealing, type may be the veteran. No sport is so full of 10-,15-and even 20-year pros, or is so defined by them. n

"I disagree," John Keats once wrote in a letter, about the world as a "vale of tears . . . Call the world, if you please, 'the vale of soul-making.' Then you will find out the use of the world."

Only with age do athletes discover that their playing fields have become vales of soul-making. Only as they become vulnerable, flawed and afraid do they seem truly human to us and most worthy of our attention. Nothing can stop the slow bleeding away of talent and confidence, but character is the best tourniquet.

"The player who ages poorly is the one who lets his vanity get in the way of his judgement," says Yankee Coach Charlie Lau. "Making 'adjustments' is another word for having the good sense to know you're getting older."

As an example, Lau cites those good friends, George Scott and Reggie Jackson. Each, with age, showed a hitting flaw. Scott, proud of his strength, could no longer manage his huge 38-ounce bat. Jackson had trouble with high and outside fast balls, popping them harmlessly to center. Scott, for three years, refused to use a lighter bat. Despite humiliating reverse shifts -- with defenses playing him as though he were a weak lefty hitter -- he persisted in his persona as "The Boomer." Now, he's out of baseball and doesn't understand. Jackson, on the other hand, worked with his stance and weight shift until that troublesome pitch suddenly became his bleacher meat. Now, at 34, he has his highest homer total since he was 23.

"Even after everybody else told Scott he needed to change, he wouldn't," summarized Lau. "But before anybody said anything to Reggie, he already had."

No better text could be asked to illustrate baseball's capacity for allowing age-with-dignity than the performance in the past month of the New York Yankees. Of all champions, they may well be the oldest, the most infirm and the most emblematic of what we mean by vetern fortitude.

If ever a team ought not bear inspection, it is these Yankees with a pitching rotation of Gaylord Perry (42), Luis Tiant (40), Tommy John (37) and Rudy May (37). Yet they are 20-3 in September. Autumn must be their proper season. More than half this team has, at one time or another, heard the words, "You've lost it." Names like Piniella, Nettles, Jackson, Watson, Murcer, Spencer, Rodriguez and Stanley have, among them, an average of 35.

Look below the Yankee dollar signs and New York headlines. This is a team familiar with the look of Agony. Its players been forced to look in the mirror. For most, their baseball world long ago became a vale of soul-making. m

So, demands for September character have been within their reach. When the cleanup crews come to sweep out darkened Yankee Stadium this year, there will be no human refuse. All those aged expendables who were management's list for replacement with shiny expensive new parts have, by banding together, made themselves indispensible for at least a few months.

Age, with his broom of injury, will sweep them out someday. But, until then, these Yankees are a standing lesson of how old men, who are really young, can staunchly refuse to go gentle into that good night.