- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- In his last baseball game as a 30-something, Derek Jeter got a base hit.
He will probably get a base hit in his last game as a 40-something.
And he will no doubt get plenty of hits in the 80-something games he is likely to play in between the two.
But don't tell Jeter he is playing well for a 40-year-old, don't say he looks good for his age and, for goodness sake, if you happen to run into him at a Starbucks, don't wish him happy birthday. Jeter spent 8½ minutes discussing his 40th birthday, which arrives Thursday, with the Yankees media before Wednesday night's 5-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, and believe me when I tell you, it was the worst 8½ minutes of his day. Suffice it to say, the conversation was not his idea, and by the end of it, he looked even more unhappy than when he took a Rob Rasmussen pitch off his foot later that night.
There are a few things Jeter hates and one I can say for sure he absolutely loves.
He hates talking to the media. He hates being asked to think about things that might interfere with his single-minded focus. He hates being reminded of his age.
And he loves playing baseball.
It sometimes makes you wonder why he has chosen to make 2014 his final big league season, since he loves the game and seems to hate the prospect of being too old to play it anymore.
Not that he is. Jeter isn't having a great season -- by his or anyone else's standards -- but he isn't having a terrible one, either. His .268 batting average is 15 points higher than the team's. His .322 on-base percentage is not that much lower than that of Jacoby Ellsbury (.357) and Brett Gardner (.348), both of whom are a decade younger and make a living largely with their legs.
And despite the fact that he has brain locked on the field a couple of times this season, it is remarkable that at 40 years old he is even playing shortstop, the most demanding infield position, virtually every day, and playing it more than capably.
"It’s pretty incredible," manager Joe Girardi said. "You just don’t see people do that every day. You don’t see people play until they’re 40. If they are, it’s usually in a different league. But it’s pretty remarkable, the career that he’s had and what he’s been able to do, and I tip my cap to him."
Jeter will not tip it back. Those are not the type of compliments he wants. In fact, all he does want is to see his name on the lineup card. Every day.
When he was asked before the game how he felt about Girardi's habit of resting him at least once a week and, when possible, giving him an occasional DH day, Jeter practically snapped at his questioner: "That’s on him. You’ve got to ask him that question. I don’t like days off. I don’t want days off."
Jeter then went on to point out that two seasons ago he played in 159 games before breaking his ankle -- an injury that cost him most of last season -- in the playoffs. It was clear he felt he was capable of no less this season.
"I just don't focus on age," he said. "I don’t think about it. I think the mind is very important, and when you start thinking about [age], you’re in trouble. My mindset is to treat it no differently than any other age. That’s just how I cope with it. I think if you sit around and start talking about getting older and getting old, you cause yourself some problems. So I don’t do that. It's just another birthday."
You can call it denial if you wish, but it sounds to me more like willful defiance of the reality that he is asking his body to do what no human body has ever done in the history of baseball, and for that, he deserves respect.
So, too, does his candor in not wanting to play along with the daily journalistic game of we ask the obvious question, you provide the pithy response. That, too, would get in the way of what Derek Jeter is here to do: play baseball, now for his 20th season, and in the company of men nearly 20 years his junior.
"It’s taken a while to get back in the swing of things," he said of the comparatively slow start to his final season. "You play this game every day for a reason, and when you miss an entire year, it takes a while to get back into the flow of the game. I thought it would come quicker, but it didn’t. It’s taken a while, but I feel good."
Not surprisingly, Jeter would not say what his birthday plans are -- he remains among the most private of our public figures -- but was more than happy to reveal what he will be doing next year at this time.
"I will not be sitting here talking to you guys," he said. "You can write that down."
He will not be playing baseball, either, and you don't have to know Derek Jeter very well to know which one he will miss more.
On deck: It's a day off, for the Yankees and for me, but the incomparable Ian O'Connor has a Jeter birthday column, and the one and only Andrew Marchand will have you covered for the rest of the day. I'll rejoin you in the Bronx on Friday for the series opener against the Red Sox.
17hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com
19hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com
21hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com