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Great players know when and how to leave

Seventy-seven years ago, Lou Gehrig stood before a packed house in Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July and set the gold standard for retirement speeches. The Iron Horse had played 17 seasons, including 2,130 straight games, before he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break,” Gehrig told the crowd that gave him a standing ovation. “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. … I might have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

Less than two years later, at age 37, Gehrig was dead. You know an athlete made an impact when the disease that killed him carries his name. He was known for his class and character as much for his talent. Fans, shocked upon learning his illness, couldn’t have been surprised by his graceful and dignified departure.

Only a lucky few leave sports on their own terms. While he was felt fortunate to have played for some of the best teams in baseball history, Gehrig was not one of them. Still, he fought through his emotions before taking the microphone, found the right words and delivered a message that lived long after he did.

The end comes for everybody at some point, as they say, but athletes have taken numerous routes toward retirement.

Willie Mays was a picture of beauty for most of his 21 glorious seasons with Giants before exiting the grand stage after two ugly seasons with the Mets. He became a symbol for great players who became shells of their former selves and were dragged away after staying too long.

Mickey Mantle’s final stretch with the Yankees came with little fanfare. Only 5,723 fans attended his last game in Yankee Stadium in 1968. Three days later, in Fenway Park of all places, only 25,534 watched the 2,401st and final game of his career. He batted .237 that season, dropping his career average from .301 to .298, and he was unprotected for the expansion draft.

“I can’t see the ball anymore,” Mantle said. “I can’t steal second when I need to anymore. I can’t go from first to third anymore. I think it’s time to quit trying.”

Of course, there are others who realized they retired too early, came out of retirement and retired again. Michael Jordan retired from the NBA to play baseball, retired from baseball to play in the NBA, and retired from the NBA after two forgettable seasons with the Wizards.

Bo Jackson retired from football and baseball after a career-ending hip injury, returned to baseball two years later and retired from baseball two years after he returned.

Mario Lemieux retired after 12 seasons, sat out three seasons, unretired and played five more seasons before retiring for good at age 40.

Dominik Hasek threatened the Sabres with retirement unless they traded him after the 2000-01 season. The Sabres buckled and traded him to Detroit, and he won a Stanley Cup the following season with the Red Wings in 2002. He retired after the season, came out of retirement and played four more seasons after he retired.

These guys have nothing on George Foreman, who was retired from boxing for 10 years before climbing back in the ring. He won the heavyweight title at age 45. Sugar Ray Leonard retired five times. Floyd Mayweather retired in 2006 and again in 2008. He has a 9-0 record since he retired.

Brett Favre, after years of speculation that he would retire, officially announced his retirement from the Packers in 2008. He played the 2008 season with the Jets, retired again, and played two more seasons with the Vikings. He retired so many times that he retired from retiring.

Larry Bird didn’t play the last game of his career with the Celtics. He retired with an ailing back after winning the gold medal with the 1992 Dream Team, knowing there would never be a better one. Magic Johnson showed up to his ceremony wearing Bird’s jersey, but it’s difficult to imagine Bird doing the same for Magic.

It has become chic for great players, individuals far luckier than Gehrig, to announce their retirements in advance.

It evolved into a trend, farewell tours that give fans a chance to see their favorite players one final season, or one final time. It has become an exercise in curtain calls before the curtain falls.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar announced in advance that the 1988-89 season would be his last, prompting the first farewell tour for a superstar athlete.

The Celtics gave him a piece of the famed parquet floor, for example, while the Charlotte Hornets gave him an oversized rocking chair.

What did the Big Fella do with the aforementioned gifts and more than 400 pieces of memorabilia he collected during his career? He sold them.

The money was sent to his charity, which was his way of being generous, thanks largely to the generosity of others who celebrated his retirement.

In his last season, Cal Ripken stayed for hours after games signing autographs for fans lined up near the dugout.

Mariano Riviera took time during his final season to meet with adoring fans, starting with special-needs children. Derek Jeter conducted a lesson on how to leave the game with class, which is one reason he’s in a class with Gehrig.

Kobe Bryant loved the attention that came with his farewell tour, allowing him to smile and laugh his way through a miserable season while making $25 million and throwing off the Lakers’ payroll.

Kobe Fatigue was an epidemic before he scored 60 points on 50 shots, the most in 30 years, in a meaningless final game against Utah.

Tim Duncan retired in anti-Kobe fashion. He took a pay cut that allowed the Spurs to transition without him. He played fewer minutes and accepted his role on a good team trying to win a title. With his typical grace and dignity, he released a simple statement announcing his retirement. He left without saying a word, making his the second-best retirement in sports history.