ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Two months ago, Cal Ripken looked like everything he never wanted to be.
He was batting a meager .210 on the June afternoon when he announced he would retire at the end of this season, a part-time third baseman playing out the string on a team with nowhere to go.
It just didn't seem like an appropriate finish for a figure of such historic stature, though few athletes have the foresight and self-discipline to go out on top. Ripken, by all appearances, was just another guy who had stayed too long at the party - until he decided to write a new ending to his tremendous career.
Ripken has been a different player since that June 19 news conference. He began his summer salvage project with a 15-game hitting streak and marked the halfway point of his final season by becoming the first American League player ever to be named All-Star Most Valuable Player for a second time. If that wasn't comeback enough, he recently built a 16-game hitting streak that came within one game of matching his career high.
Now, as the Iron Man prepares to celebrate his 41st birthday tomorrow, he is within seven points of his .277 career batting average and he has re-emerged as one of the most productive players at his position.
So, what happened?
Did the decision to retire lift some great psychological weight off Ripken's shoulders and allow him to return to a more characteristic level of performance? Or did the decision simply coincide with the logical rehabilitative timetable for his return from the rib cage injury that cost him most of spring training?
Ripken says it was a little of both.
"Probably I'm hitting pretty well because I know it's the right time," he said. "I feel good, I feel relaxed. It [the retirement decision] has given me an opportunity to really enjoy playing. I'm looking forward to the remainder of the season, but then I'm looking forward to doing something else."
This is a luxury that few professional athletes ever experience. The final days of a great career usually aren't so great, though a few sports icons - NFL legend Jim Brown and NBA great Michael Jordan stand out - have walked away when they were still at the height of their physical talents.
Ripken, who went 0-for-5 last night, certainly isn't in his prime, but he has put himself in position to go out with a burst of offensive energy that will further validate his status as one of the true greats of the game. How likely did that seem when his batting average was in the .100s and his playing time was in question early in the season?
"I thought I could come back and meet the challenge without spring training ... I was wrong there," Ripken said. "I was going back and forth in my own mind about the decision on retirement, so that made it hard for me to focus. Then all of a sudden I made the decision, I started to get enough at-bats and started to feel comfortable swinging the bat again. So it's a combination. I started to swing the bat good two weeks before the All-Star Game."
There are some other possible explanations. Ripken already had a reputation for rising to the occasion and silencing his critics.
When his sagging offensive production in the final month of the 1989 and 1990 seasons put his consecutive-games streak under a microscope, he responded with a wire-to-wire performance that earned him the AL Most Valuable Player award in 1991.
When he should have been fatigued by the tremendous off-field responsibilities that came along with the final stages of his quest to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record, he punctuated the record-tying and record-breaking games with home runs.
When a back injury cut his playing time in half in 1999 and 2000, he proved he could still produce by hitting well above his career average and exceeding his career ratios for home runs and RBIs in relation to at-bats.
And, just for good measure, he hit a home run and won MVP honors in his farewell All-Star appearance last month in Seattle.
"It's a testament to his athleticism and his work ethic," teammate Jeff Conine said. "If you know how to work and take care of your body, I think you can prolong your career. Obviously what he's doing now proves that theory.
"What better way to go out, on your terms and knowing you weren't forced out because of diminished skills or somebody better has your position. He's going out right on top."
Consider the alternative. Hall of Famer Willie Mays is considered by many to be the most talented player ever to put on a major-league uniform, but he went out as a sad shell of his former greatness. Closer to home, Orioles legend Brooks Robinson was forced by financial problems to remain in the game even after he knew it was time to quit, hitting .149 in 24 games his final season.
Ripken has spent the past two months making sure that doesn't happen to him. Since the day of his retirement announcement, he is batting .333 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs. If this keeps up, he could finish the season with more than 80 RBIs.