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Mike Schmidt's three-hanky adieu from baseball the other night calls to mind the story of the only athlete who ever did the retirement bit just right.

The guy's name was Pheidippides, a messenger who played for Athens in the old Greek Martial League. When Athens knocked off the visiting Persians on the Plain of Marathon in 490 B.C., Pheidippides ran 25 miles back to Athens to announce the news. Whereupon he dropped dead.Nobody's ever topped that for going out in style. Not that anyone would ever want to. Even so, ol' Phido got short shrift when the Greeks decided to commemorate his run by instituting a long race for the modern Olympics, which is why you have Olympic Marathoners today instead of Olympic Pheidippiders.

You'd think there'd be some way short of dropping dead for an athlete to end his career in style.

Ted Williams suggested one by hitting a homer in his last at-bat for the Boston Red Sox. Sandy Koufax bowed out a winner, but only because arthritis made him. Lou Brock orchestrated his own exodus by coming back to hit .300 one more time. But among ballplayers, nobody else has ever come close.

Babe Ruth ended his career as a curiosity in a Boston Braves uniform. Henry Aaron wound up as a designated hitter. Willie Mays dropped a fly ball in the World Series. Pete Rose, who seems to have trouble admitting things, has still never formally acknowledged retirement. And Steve Carlton, let's not even mention the painful way he dragged it out.

Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench, the newest Hall of Famers, each went through prolonged farewell tours, a self-indulgent exercise at best. Most guys just fade away, and "fade" is the operative word.

They hang on, trying to nurse one more productive year, one more year in the sun, one more big contract.

And really, why not? If it ain't, as you may have heard, over till it's over, why make it over until it has to be? If tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life, as you also may have heard, and if tomorrow is not likely to be remotely as pleasant or lucrative, why rush it?

Ballplayers insist that they, and only they, can know when they can't hack it anymore. Retirement, they say, is a personal decision that is nobody's business but their own.

No one cares more about their images than they themselves. And so if they want to listen to the whispers in their heads that say, "You've still got it, kid," then why should anyone else get a vote?

The only reason that can be suggested here is to avoid the maudlin schmaltz of the sort that surrounded Mike Schmidt's retirement, or the unpleasantness that surrounded Tommy John's release.

Here are two guys who have their tickets punched for Cooperstown, Schmidt with 548 home runs, John with 288 victories.

And Schmidt winds up breaking the news by breaking down in a seedy football locker room in San Diego, a continent away from the city he thrilled for 17 years. And John gets a pink slip that says, in effect, "retire or be fired." John took the latter route. At 46, he's still convinced he's throwing like a 40-year-old. There may yet be a team that can use a wily ground ball-throwing lefthander as a spot starter.

But the endless summer is over for Mike Schmidt, maybe the greatest all-round third baseman ever to play, an athlete who always reminded you of a tiger - incredible grace, incredible ferocity, incredible power.

Schmidt listened to the whispers.

"The elbow's OK, Mike," they said. "You can still get around on the 90-mile-an-hour heater, you can still go to your right for a screamer up the line." He couldn't, of course, and finally his pride admitted it.

"My skills have deteriorated," he said, becoming the last person to realize it. And then Schmitty wept. But at least he didn't drop dead.