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Retirement: Some who have gone through it shed light on the twilight years of a standout career that await Cal Ripken.

May 18, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baseball history is filled with the slightly tarnished images of players who stayed too long at the party. No one wants to remember Babe Ruth as a bloated Boston Brave or Willie Mays as a miserably miscast New York Met, but there is no easy answer to one of the age-old questions of professional sport:

When is the right time to say goodbye?

NBA legend Michael Jordan went out on top -- twice. Quarterback John Elway announced his NFL retirement after winning back-to-back Super Bowls. NHL hero Wayne Gretzky decided that he would rather leave too early than stay too late.

Everybody wants to go out that way, but not everyone is ready to leave when age or physical infirmity begins to infringe on the ability to perform at the highest possible level.

Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken certainly isn't. He was struck down in April by a painful back injury that prompted intense speculation about his future as a player. He has worked hard to rebound from the injury and re-establish himself as a contributing member of the Orioles' lineup, but he'll likely have to deal with the nettlesome issue of retirement for the remainder of his career.

"It happened to me, it happened to Brooks Robinson. It's nothing personal," Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said recently. "It happens to everybody."

It happens for a variety of reasons. Robinson would be the first to admit that age had eroded his skills significantly by the time he moved from third base to the broadcast booth after the 1977 season. Philadelphia Phillies legend Mike Schmidt, who succeeded Robinson as baseball's best all-around third baseman, was still at his competitive peak when a rotator cuff injury sent him into a two-year decline and hastened his retirement.

Most marquee players go reluctantly. Most still feel that they have something left. Most go through a painful period during which they must decide if they can live with a diminished level of performance or -- worse -- a diminishing role.

"It's a very difficult time," said Palmer, who was released by the Orioles early in the 1984 season after refusing to go on the voluntary retired list. "My decision was made for me. I was the fifth starter on a team that wasn't going anywhere. The Detroit Tigers had gotten off to a 35-5 start, and the Orioles were going in another direction.

"I knew I could still pitch, but I wasn't going to get the chance."

Palmer talked to several teams about continuing his career -- including the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and California Angels -- but eventually decided to retire. He attempted a much-publicized comeback in the spring of 1991, but quickly re-retired after a hamstring injury ended his hope of becoming the first player to return after election to the Hall of Fame.

"Reggie Jackson used to ask me, `Diamond Jim, how am I going to know when to retire?' " Palmer said. "I said, `The pitchers will tell you.' If you're a pitcher, the hitters will tell you. But you want to play as long as you can. I told Reggie to make them tear the uniform off your back if you're enjoying what you're doing."

Jackson eventually decided that advancing age no longer allowed him to be the same brash Reggie who was the dominant baseball personality of the 1970s. He retired after hitting the final 15 of his 563 home runs in 1987.

Brooks' sad goodbye

Robinson had come to a similar conclusion 10 years earlier, but financial problems left him little choice but to stay around a few years after he ceded the everyday job at third to Doug DeCinces.

"I just knew my career was over," said Robinson, who played until he was 40, hitting .211 and .149 his last two seasons. "The fire was gone. Part of the fire goes when you don't play well, and part of it goes when you don't get to play. It just reached the point where I lost interest. I wanted to play, but DeCinces was the third baseman. The last few months, I couldn't wait to get out.

"I never thought that would happen. I couldn't wait for the season to get over and for me to get on with my life. The TV job helped make the decision easy for me. Maybe if I had had to go back to Little Rock and do something else, it would have been different."

Former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey may come closest to being able to identify with Ripken. Garvey owns the National League record for most consecutive games (1,207), but his streak ended when he tore ligaments in his hand sliding into home in 1983. He had three more solid seasons, but his declining performance and a serious shoulder injury persuaded him to retire.

"I think there are a couple of decisions you have to make at that point," Garvey said. "Do you want to continue playing, and, if you do, do you feel you can compete at the level expected of you?

"In my case, the shoulder was repaired, and I felt I could come back. I talked to the Dodgers and the Padres, but both of them said you can come to camp and try out. I just didn't want to end that way."

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