Mom knew.

Vi Ripken was puttering around the house in Aberdeen on Saturday when the phone rang. Her eldest son was calling.They spoke briefly, family chitchat. Then Cal took a deep breath and swung.

"I just wanted you to know that I've made my decision. This is my last year," he told his mother.

"Oh?" Vi Ripken said.

"I'm sure you've put a lot of thought into this," she offered.

"Yes," was all the Iron Man said.

Vi didn't cry. "You feel your chest swell a little bit," she said. "My eyes watered for two seconds, but that was it."

Cal didn't need to call his three siblings; his mom, the family conduit, would spread the word.

One call was to Cal's sister, Elly Ripken, 41, an accounting manager for a contracting firm in Towson. Elly said she saw his adieu coming: "I wasn't totally caught off-guard."

On her last trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Elly scouted prospective accommodations for Cal's induction, perhaps six years hence.

But the news apparently floored Cal's brother, Fred Ripken, a mechanic in Havre de Grace. The R-word hadn't come up last week when the two men spoke.

"We all knew the clock was ticking, but I didn't think it would be this year," said Fred, 39.

He reckoned the decision to retire was Cal's alone.

"It was a battle within himself," said Fred. "Cal is methodical; he thinks about things a long time before he does them. Nobody influenced Cal but him."

Ripken's other brother, Bill, a former Oriole, was traveling in Indiana yesterday and unavailable for comment. Their father, Cal Sr., who managed Cal and Bill when his sons played together in Baltimore, died of cancer in 1999.

"I'd like to think Junior thought of his father while making this decision," Vi Ripken said. "Or that he said, `Dad, this is what I'm going to do.' "

She said she feels "a good sadness" over Cal's departure, buoyed by feats that reflect, in large part, a familial work ethic.

"From Day One, I've never understood all the hoopla," she said. "I mean, isn't this what life is all about - you go out, do a job, come back tomorrow and do it again?"

Save her a seat at Camden Yards for the Orioles' final home game Sept. 23, Vi Ripken said, "because I like to cry - and I'm sure Junior will make me cry."

Ditto for his entry into Cooperstown, circa 2007, "if I live long enough," she said. "On second thought, why not just induct him this October? You know he's going to be in there; why wait and tempt fate?"

Ripken's legacy is a no-brainer, his sister said.

"There are many great athletes, but there are a lot of negative things associated with some of the best," Elly Ripken said. "Calvin will be remembered as one of the good guys, on and off the field. He has done very well at being a role model, for adults as well as children.

"I'm proud of the ballplayer, and I'm proud of the brother."

So is Fred Ripken, provided he receives passes to some of Cal's final games.

"I'm going to get on the horn with him to reserve me some seats," Fred said. "You know Cal's going to get hit up for tickets now. Everyone will want to see him now. Some records he put up will never be broken. Consecutive games? Ain't going to happen in my lifetime.

"They say that every time a superstar retires, a new breed comes in. Well, I don't think the NBA has picked up since Michael Jordan left. There are some class acts out there, but they've got a big pair of shoes to fill now - which is kind of funny, because, as big as Cal is, his feet ain't that big."