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McGwire left yard for good

The knee creaks. The back aches. The swing was growing longer and the doubts were looming larger. All that remained, it seemed, was pride.

And so Mark McGwire walked away before time and circumstance could pilfer that, too.

Herein lies the beauty of McGwire's act. A move motivated not by further riches, nor by additional fame. He left millions of dollars behind and the chance to further his baseball legend.

You might proclaim it a selfless choice, but that is not completely accurate either. For what McGwire decided was ultimately in his best interests. It only looks perplexing because it is seen so rarely _ an athlete who understands priorities have a proper descending order.

For nearly a year, the Cardinals waited for McGwire to sign a two-year contract extension that would pay him $30-million starting next season. And for just as long, McGwire kept the document in a drawer at home because he was unsure he could perform well enough to justify its numbers.

What he eventually sent to the Cardinals, instead, was a midnight fax declaring his immediate retirement.

It is true that, as farewells go, this was less graceful than it could have been. It did not captivate like the throat-catching sight of Wayne Gretzky gliding one last time across the Madison Square Garden ice. It did not have the staged splendor of Cal Ripken in a packed stadium in Baltimore with a former U.S. president leading the applause.

The drama of this retirement is in the impact.

The emotion is in the cost.

Say what you will about size, speed, strength and skills. Believe, if you like, that elite athletes are always born and never created. But understand that no player ever reaches the pinnacle of his arena without tremendous pride. Without believing that, the greatest part of who he is, will be shaped by the performance he delivers on that day.

It is from that perspective that you can appreciate McGwire's decision. For, no matter how much wealth he wrapped himself in, McGwire understood that he must first be able to live within his skin.

In his first public comments Tuesday night on ESPN, McGwire said he was merely fulfilling a promise to himself. A promise few are able to keep.

"I've seen players hang around too long I just don't like that," McGwire said "I expect a lot out of myself. If I can't do it to that level, I'm not going to hang around and do it. I'm sorry."

Strange how pride propels people in different directions. It kept Ripken on the field longer probably than it should. Now it has removed McGwire from the game, perhaps sooner than expected.

There is a small part of me that wishes we had not already seen the last of McGwire. That when winter gives way to spring and his body feels refreshed, McGwire, 38, might put retirement on pause.

That he might consider returning for lesser pay and on a lesser stage. Taking a job with an American League team that would not require him to play first base and would not build its payroll around him.

He insisted Tuesday night that possibility does not exist. That his vision is clear and his decision is irreversible.

And so, if there is a sadness in McGwire's departure, it is simply because his final struggles remain fresh in our minds.

In a sport ruled more than any other by numbers, McGwire leaves with none to call his own. His record of 70 home runs in a season was surpassed last month by Barry Bonds. His quest to join Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays as the only players with 600 career home runs fell short by 17.

His last act as a major-league player fell just short of humiliation. Trailing the Diamondbacks in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa decided he did not want to see McGwire at the plate. So he called him back from the on-deck circle and sent up pinch-hitter Kerry Robinson, a career minor-leaguer, for a sacrifice bunt.

As time passes, that moment will fade. So too will the talk of numbers and questions of what might have been had McGwire enjoyed better health.

Instead, we should remember the way a ballpark felt when McGwire was in it. Because that is where his magic resided. With McGwire, there was always a sense that something dramatic would happen. That you might be witness to a home run like few had ever seen.

This is a ballplayer who hit home runs with greater frequency than any who has lived and now McGwire has dramatically left the yard one last time.

The marketing folks at the credit card company should be ready to pounce. The script for their next commercial already has been written.

Playing first base in St. Louis with a guaranteed contract for 2002-03:

$30-million.

Maintaining one's pride and dignity:

Priceless.

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