Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Birthday? Just another game for Jeter

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

Derek Jeter doesn't do introspection much. At least not publicly. He loathes talking about himself, too. So you can imagine how thrilled, absolutely thrilled, Jeter was to see a little crowd of reporters advancing toward his locker before Tuesday's game against Cleveland to ask him about turning 38. And he had a point. This being New York, the very first question to Jeter was something of a velvet hammer:

"How does it feel to be old?" someone needled him.

"You tell me -- you're older than me," Jeter smirked. Then he looked around and fell silent, waiting out the next question.

"Did you bring me a gift?" he said before long.

Jeter was in a teasing mood the rest of the conversation. But sentimental, or interested in taking a stroll down memory lane? No.

Old-Timers Day doesn't come to Yankee Stadium until Saturday. Jeter, now in his 17th season, is still the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees and as he once said, "There is only one person that gets to have that job."

The closest Jeter came to nostalgia Tuesday was when he volunteered one mention of The Boss, George Steinbrenner, not being around anymore. But the context that Jeter chose to couch it in without prompting was interesting. Because it was the closest thing to a peek into his soul that Jeter gave all night. And what the glimpse betrayed was a certain wariness that made you wonder how much Jeter wonders how it is going to end for him with the Yankees.

Will it be as fondly as it did for Paul O'Neill, who walked away on his own terms and still gets a huge roar at the Stadium? Will it wind down as awkwardly as it did last year for Jeter's best friend, Jorge Posada? Who's to say it won't be as ugly as things turned for Jeter in 2010, when he was admittedly irked to hear his own general manager, Brian Cashman, tell him to "shop around" if he didn't like the Yankees' contract offer (this at around the same time an anonymous Yankees source told ESPN New York's Wallace Matthews that Jeter should "drink the reality potion" when it came to his contract demands).

And all of that happened before Jeter got off to a horrendous start at the plate that convinced him to ditch the new hitting mechanics he had been open-minded about trying, as a supposedly "necessary" concession to his advancing age.

Big mistake.

When Jeter went back to his old hitting mechanics, he started hitting again.

So don't be surprised if that's the last time Jeter abandons everything that got him this far.

Or tolerates any talk about his age.

Derek Jeter
"Age is just a state of mind," said Yankees captain Derek Jeter, who turned 38 on Tuesday.

"I never took anything for granted," Jeter said, his face growing serious and all kidding aside now. "I never assumed that just because I'm 30 [or whatever age] I'd be back playing the next year. I just never had that mindset.

"I've always had the mindset that you have to prove yourself and you have to do your job. That's what I've had since I came up, because you guys are aware when The Boss was here, if you didn't play he'd get rid of you. So that's what my mindset has always been. … I don't come in here today thinking about what I did yesterday. I don't come in thinking about what I'm going to do tomorrow. It's just what you can do on this particular day. Otherwise, I don't think you can play this game. Because it's a game of ups and downs. And I've always tried to take it one game at a time."

"One game at a time" isn't as joyful a personal mantra as Ernie Banks booming, "Let's play two," once upon a time. And it isn't likely to echo through history like Lou Gehrig saying, "I'd like to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee," even if Jeter says playing shortstop for the Yankees is all he ever wanted to do.

But Jeter is being true to Jeter when he says it.

Jeter could let himself lap up compliments now that things are going well for him and the Yankees again. Despite a cool June at the plate, Jeter still began Tuesday's game with a .304 average and the most hits in the American League (93). The Yankees also began the day with the best record in the majors, and they got a gift call in the seventh inning of their 6-4 win over Cleveland when Dewayne Wise, making a rare start in left field, went tumbling over the railing and into the stands in pursuit of Indians third baseman Jack Hannahan's foul fly ball.

Wise got an out call from umpire Mike DiMuro even though replays showed Wise didn't come up with the ball because DiMuro inexplicably never asked Wise to show it to him. "What was I supposed to do? Run back to left field?" Wise said, with a sheepish laugh after the game.

Jeter was the lone Yankee still waiting on the infield to congratulate Wise after he clambered out of the stands. "He's always been a great teammate," said Johnny Damon, the former Yankee who started in left for Cleveland on Tuesday night.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said when he looks at Jeter at 38 compared to Jeter as a younger man, he sees a player who maybe isn't as "silly" or boisterous enough to sing in the clubhouse anymore, and a guy who gets a lot more ribbing now "about his [receding] hairline." But as a player, Girardi continued, Jeter is pretty much the same as he ever was: A guy who just loves to play the game.

Beyond that? Jeter is just clearly uninterested in drawing attention to his age. For all the great things he has done as a Yankee, he has seen how the appraisals can pivot on a dime. Even for him.

So Jeter just keeps on blocking out what doesn't help him play better, like birthday talk. And he narrows things down to dwelling on what does.

"Well, it's a discipline -- I think it's discipline. It's my job, you know?" Jeter said with a shrug.

Jeter didn't speak to reporters after Tuesday's game. But he had to like it when the Bleacher Creatures serenaded him with chants of "Hap-py Birth-day!" in the first inning rather than chant his name as usual during roll call. Later, the TV cameras showed Jeter's parents watching the game from a sky box, perhaps because it's fine for him to avoid all the age talk, but they can't be sure how many birthdays he'll still be the shortstop for the Yankees, either. For all the records he has set, there's no denying now that every birthday Jeter passes feels like a sort of milestone.

Jeter was 2-for-5 Tuesday night to move just one hit shy of tying Cal Ripken Jr., the greatest Iron Man shortstop of all-time, for 13th on the all-time hits list with 3,184.

But Jeter made it clear he's dwelling on tying Ripken right now about as much as he cared to talk about being 11 hits ahead of the pace that Pete Rose was at his age on the way to becoming the all-time hit king with an unfathomable 4,256 hits.

When asked if he thought about how he compared to Rose, Jeter said, "Not at all. Not unless it can happen today.

"Can it happen today?" he said, breaking into a playful smirk again.

Jeter knows other guys mark their careers a birthday at a time.

But he's going to stick with disciplining himself to taking everything one game at a time.

"Age is just a state of mind," he said.