KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT Considering all the ups and downs of life, sometimes it's tough to know when your've reached your peak and it's time to hang it up. Consider Michael Jordan.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You're Michael Jordan.

OK, you're not -- he has a better jump shot -- but let's pretend.

You have enough money to fill every swimming pool in America with Gatorade. You are recognized as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. You have just drained the game-winning shot to lead the Chicago Bulls to a sixth NBA championship in eight years.

There's only one thing left to do.

Quit.

That's right, hang it up, pack it in, call it a day. Be that rarest of athletes. Go out on top.

Mike Eruzione did. He scored the game-winning goal in one of the greatest sports upsets ever -- the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Then he hung up his skates without even trying out for the National Hockey League.

"To me, that was the greatest moment of my life as an athlete," he says, "and it was time to move on."

Knowing when to quit is one of life's great riddles -- and not just for athletes. There are experts to help you find a job, or change a job, or cope with job burn-out, but when it comes to pulling the plug on a career, you're basically on your own.

Timing is critical. It's the difference between "Seinfeld" and "Murphy Brown." This was the last season for both television shows, but the finale of "Seinfeld" was treated like a national tragedy, while "Murphy Brown's" demise was seen as long overdue.

"Always leave them wanting more," Jerry Seinfeld said.

Or take pop music. The Beatles quit while they were on top, critically and in popularity, while the Beach Boys seem determined to linger as long as there's a backyard picnic that will pay them to perform.

Frank Sinatra represents both sides. He quit too soon the first time he retired, then hung on too long after his comeback.

Sticking around too long is almost an occupational hazard in some professions -- U.S. Supreme Court justices, baseball announcers, rural doctors, child actors, feature writers (just kidding there). But it's most obvious among athletes because their careers are so compressed.

Who can forget the sight of the great Willie Mays dropping fly balls and batting .211 in 1973, his final season with the New York Mets? Mickey Mantle batted .237 in his last year; Babe Ruth hit just .181.

Steve Carlton pitched 24 years, won four Cy Young Awards, but spent his last two years bouncing from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Chicago to Cleveland to Minnesota, trying desperately to latch on with a team. Any team.

Sad, isn't it?

"I grow so weary of hearing that," says Tim McCarver, the former baseball star, current baseball announcer and author of a new book, "Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans."

"That's not sad. That's not sad at all. It's his call."

An athlete's call

McCarver caught most of Carlton's game, and here's his point: Nobody knows what's inside the hearts of superstar athletes. If they believe they can still play, they have earned the right to try.

"You train from the time you put on a jockstrap to be a fiery competitor, and now all of a sudden people are going to tell you to quit?

"I don't want Michael Jordan to step down. I want him to play some more."

Jordan has said he would quit rather than play without his coach, Phil Jackson, and teammate Scottie Pippen. Both have said it's unlikely they will return to the Bulls.

"I have another life, and I have to get to it at some point in time," Jordan said after winning another NBA crown.

Yes, sure, but when?

At 35, he can still play; that's obvious to anyone who saw him win yet another Most Valuable Player award this season or watched him score 45 points Sunday night.

But Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns could still play when he retired in 1965, after leading the NFL in touchdowns scored and yards rushing.

And Sandy Koufax could still pitch when he retired in 1966, after leading the National League in wins, strikeouts and earned-run average.

And Eruzione could still play hockey when he retired after the Olympics. He now works in the alumni development office of Boston University. He also gives motivational speeches and plays in celebrity golf outings.

Has he ever regretted the decision?

"Not one iota."

Granted, Eruzione acknowledges that he was no Jordan (who is?), but he could have played in the NHL for a few years, made some money, hung on like so many others. He says it's harder for athletes to leave today. There are major-league baseball pitchers who struggle to record an out -- we could mention Norm Charlton's name here, but he's only one of many -- but still bring home million-dollar paychecks.

"Hanging on for the dollars is an issue," Eruzione says.

Jordan makes enough money outside of basketball to merit Bill Gates' respect, so money isn't a snag. He has accomplished every goal imaginable as a professional basketball player, so the motivational cupboard is dry.

Starting over

And starting over is scary. Maybe not for Jordan, but for most of us. "It's the fear of not having something that brings income, prestige or a role," says Ruth Luban, a California consultant who specializes in professional burnout issues.

"When there's a loss of meaning or when it doesn't feel purposeful anymore -- that's when it's time to reassess," she says.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to change your perspective, Luban says. Jordan quit basketball and attempted professional baseball for two years after his father was murdered. Bill Berry, the drummer for the rock group R.E.M., left the group recently after 17 years. He suffered an aneurysm and underwent brain surgery in 1995.

"Lying in a hospital bed for three weeks made me kind of look at things a little differently," he said.

Speaking of hospitals, doctors often work into their 70s, especially in rural areas where there are no ready replacements. "As long as they're competent, they can continue," says Harold Rose, who receives complaints at the state Board of Physician Quality Assurance. If complaints begin rolling in, "we'll talk to them."

Going out on top requires a conscious decision. Death -- at least in most companies -- is a perfectly acceptable reason for ending a career, but you can't say that James Dean, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were retirement role models.

Then there are injuries. Koufax retired because he was afraid he'd do long-term damage to his arm. Larry Bird still averaged more than 20 points a game when he retired from the Boston Celtics, but a bad back forced his hand.

Jordan has no such excuse. He has health, money, prestige. If he retired, he would be most comparable to Brown, the Hall of Fame running back, who walked away in his prime to begin an acting career.

If you've seen "Space Jam," you know Jordan might prefer a different second act. All that's left for him is adding to his athletic legacy. How does he want the story to end -- with a game-winning shot, or with the possibility of something less magnificent?

What next?

"He can make $35 million a year doing what he seems to enjoy doing and doing well," says Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University. "That's a pretty heavy weight for coming back.

"The storybook ending is terrific, but he's going to have the rest of his life to do other things."

But think of it. John Elway of the Denver Broncos finally wins the Super Bowl this year after three horrible failures. He could retire on top, with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands and his knees still functional. Isn't that the dream of every professional quarterback?

"Hell, no," Johnny Unitas says.

He and McCarver agree: That's a fantasy concocted by writers who have read too much bad fiction. Most athletes want to keep going as long as they're able and the game's fun. Elway must agree, too. He has announced he'll return for another season.

"It just depends on how you feel," Unitas says. The former Baltimore Colt great played his final year with the San Diego Chargers in 1973, throwing three touchdown passes and five interceptions in just five games.

He believes he could have continued playing, but the Chargers no longer wanted him and he didn't want to bounce from team to team. "When every practice and game becomes a chore, that's when you quit. I didn't have any problem throwing the ball."

Baltimore sports fans have watched their heroes fade through the years. It hasn't been pretty.

Brooks Robinson batted .149 in his final year.

Boog Powell slugged no homers in 50 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977, his last season.

Jim Palmer left baseball in 1984 with an 0-3 record and a 9.17 earned run average, then tried a comeback in 1991 that went nowhere.

But McCarver says that's not what fans remember. They remember Robinson saving the World Series and Powell's massive clouts and Palmer's mastery on the mound. The decision to retire belongs to the players, not to the fans.

Eruzione agrees. "Peace of mind is the most important thing."

If athletes have a fantasy, McCarver says, it's of proving 'N everyone wrong. He played for 21 years -- a career that spanned four decades -- long after others said he should have retired.

Or consider Dan Jansen, the Olympic speed-skater who finally captured the gold medal after several heartbreaking failures. Reaching the top the first time is grand. Getting there again -- or when nobody thinks you can -- is sublime.

"I can't tell you what a great feeling that is," McCarver says. "To prove everyone wrong. It almost makes it all worthwhile."

So come back, Michael. Win a seventh championship. Do it for the Bulls -- or the Clippers or the Timberwolves. Remember, though, that there's a risk. Your next game-winning shot might clank off the rim. And then you would no longer have the serenity that Mike Eruzione exudes when he describes his brief but glorious career.

"I won the last game I played."

Know when to fold 'em

Should John Elway return for another football season? Do we need to see Ed Asner in another situation comedy? Does the world really clamor for a George Foreman-Larry Holmes boxing match?

You, too, can play the new parlor game, Knowing When to Quit. Feel free to add your own candidates. It's a great way to start an argument.

Quit on top: Ted Williams (batted .316 in last year, hit a home run in final at-bat), Walter Cronkite, boxing champ Rocky Marciano (49-0 career record), Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo, Johnny Carson, the first "Mary Tyler Moore" show, Derek & the Dominos, Cream, the Police, Jane Fonda, Led Zeppelin, boxer Gene Tunney, Sen. Bill Bradley.

Stayed too long: Madonna, Muhammad Ali, David Letterman, presidential adviser Clark Clifford, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau's buddy movies, Burt Reynolds, Juan Peron (but not Eva), Harry Caray, Deep Purple, Sugar Ray Leonard (five comeback attempts), Diana Ross, Macauley Culkin, Bob Dylan, Mel Brooks, "The Nanny," the Four Tops (now touring as a trio), Norm MacDonald.

Destined to stay too long: Peter, Paul and Mary, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, Barbara Walters, Dennis Rodman, Milton Berle, Aerosmith, Carol Channing, the Rolling Stones, Mary Tyler Moore's other shows, Elton John's tributes to dead friends, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Brent Musberger, Fidel Castro, boxers George Foreman and Larry Holmes (scheduled to fight each other sometime soon), mystery writers Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark; hockey great Gordie Howe (the only professional athlete to play in six decades), Norman Mailer and Chevy Chase. Oh, yeah, and Cal Ripken.

All-time champion for not knowing when to quit: Harold Stassen, perennial presidential candidate.

Runner-up: Kenneth Starr. Never should have started: pop group Hanson (sorry, kids, but a cheap shot is the best shot).

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