Cal Ripken won't actually retire until the Orioles complete the 2001 season, but the announcement this week that signaled the end of his 21-year major-league career left friends, teammates and opposing players to ponder a baseball world without the legendary Iron Man.

"He was the one player I enjoyed playing with and learned more from than just about any player," said Texas Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who spent five seasons playing alongside Ripken in Baltimore.

"Just the way he approached the game, especially during times he was under stress with the streak; the way he handled that and prepared for each game even with all the ups and downs you go through. You watch a player like that and you can't help but admire him."

Ripken announced his impending retirement at an afternoon news conference yesterday at Camden Yards, but the story broke a day earlier and - even then - the news did not come as a major surprise. The 40-year-old third baseman had missed half of each of the previous two seasons with a back injury and arrived at spring training seemingly resigned to the likelihood that he was embarking on his final season.

He even allowed a Major League Baseball camera crew to chronicle the 2001 campaign, just in case it was his last.

"I can't say that I was surprised," said Orioles coach Sam Perlozzo. "What I've seen is Cal smiling on the bench a lot and enjoying the games. We all speculate about Cal. He's such a complex guy, you never know what he's thinking.

"But he was really taking everything in this year. He's been enjoying himself on the bench when he's not playing, rooting for the guys and talking to people. ...

"It's like he had it in his mind that he was going to enjoy this year and do the best he could. I wasn't quite sure what he was going to do after that, but I saw a difference on the bench."

Of course, the fact that Ripken was spending more time on the bench may have influenced his decision. He struggled at the plate after missing much of spring training with a broken rib, but insisted yesterday that he would have come to the same conclusion even if he was putting up characteristic offensive numbers.

The important thing, according to some of his teammates, was that he was able to go out on his own terms.

"He's the only one who can make that decision," said pitcher Sidney Ponson. "I guess it got to the point where he decided he wanted to stay home with his kids. You can still see in his eyes that he loves baseball, but everybody has to make this decision.

"He played 21 years. ... It's longevity that a lot of people don't have. I'm really going to miss him. He's helped me a lot."

That warm feeling for Ripken reaches well beyond the Orioles' clubhouse. He has long been revered throughout major-league baseball for his tremendous work ethic and his All-American image.

"There are certain people who, when they ask you to do something, you mark it on your calendar. He would be one of them," said Cincinnati Reds star Ken Griffey. "I hope this is the way he wants to go out. Certain players, you let them go out the way they want to."

Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa also saw a silver lining for the rest of baseball in the news of Ripken's decision to retire.

"Every time we see a legend leave the game like Cal, it's a great example," Sosa said yesterday in St. Louis, where the Cubs were playing the Cardinals. "It's a great example for a guy to follow. All those things he did in the field and outside the field, that's motivated a lot of other players. For him to make this decision, especially the way he loves the game, is something that for him is very painful right now."

Home run king Mark McGwire, in an interview with CBS SportsLine yesterday, praised Ripken, but chalked up yesterday's announcement to the inevitable march of time that catches up with every athlete.

"One thing people have to understand is that the second half of an athlete's life is a lot longer than the first half," McGwire said. "There are times when you have to move on. You can't stay and play sports your whole life. There never will be another Cal."

Maybe Ripken won't exactly go out at the top of his game - very few athletes do - but the early announcement allows him to finish the season without creating the unseemly appearance that he is hanging on too long.

"It's the right decision," said Orioles coach and longtime friend Elrod Hendricks. "I think it takes a load off his mind. This is something that all players have to face and I'm glad he's doing it at this time, when he's not embarrassing himself.

"He's worked way too hard to be a perfectionist and to be good at what he's done. He's been a teacher to the other players without having to say it day in and day out. No one has ever played with Cal who did not leave being a better player, with a better knowledge of the game."

Ripken said yesterday that it was all about spending more time with his family. He remembered what it was like when baseball took his father away for long periods. Now, he can stay home and watch his kids grow up.

"I'm not sad at all," said Hendricks. "In fact, I'm happy for him because he can spend more time with his family. He knows the importance of his dad not being there when he was a kid and his mom had to do all the traveling and the teachings while his dad was working. But you haven't seen the end of Cal. He'll be involved in baseball in some capacity."

He may make himself scarce at the end of the year, but he won't be forgotten by the group of young players who have looked up to him during a sometimes difficult Orioles rebuilding project.

"He's been our team leader," said up-and-coming second baseman Jerry Hairston. "It's sad for us but positive for him. He's done everything you can do in this game. More power to him. He's got to be proud of what he's done. I can tell my grandkids one day, 'I played with Cal Ripken.' They're going to be like, 'Yeah, right,' but I'll have proof.' I don't think it's a sad day. I think it's a positive day."

Reports from other newspapers contributed to this article.