At 38, Derek Jeter continues to show up and get the job done for the Yankees

Things have changed for Derek Jeter since he joined the Yankees. But as he celebrates his 38th birthday five championships later, things are still the same.

By Filip Bondy
The Daily News
June 27, 2012

Derek Jeter leaps to avoid the slide of Johnny Damon #33 of the Cleveland Indians to complete the double play at Yankee Stadium on June 26, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America)

His teammates kept coming by his locker Tuesday in the clubhouse, patting the old shortstop on the back, wishing him a happy 38th birthday, until Derek Jeter could take no more. “This isn’t grade school,” he grumped, only half in jest.

Jeter doesn’t particularly enjoy such milestones or timelines, although he’ll begrudgingly tell you, “When people give me gifts, I don’t mind it.” He has been this successful, in large part, because of an uncanny ability to live in the moment while dismissing all the background noise and falling calendar leaves. Jeter doesn’t require perspective, because his brain is wired to eliminate context. He concentrates only on the spin of the baseball as it approaches the plate.

“I don’t come in here today thinking about what I did yesterday,” Jeter said, before leading off against Cleveland one more time. “I don’t come in here thinking about what could happen tomorrow. It’s just what you can do on that particular day.

“It’s my job. That’s the way I always looked at it.”

Certainly, a bit of the crazy, spontaneous joy and mischief has left the game for him over the years, if only because of lost friends and friendships. He once snuggled between Joe Torre and Don Zimmer on the bench between at-bats, inhaling their tales, disarming them while playing provocateur. His best pal, Jorge Posada, no longer dresses in the same uniform, no longer drives with him to or from games. He doesn’t even get to love/hate George Steinbrenner, or all the maddening fuss that came with the Boss.

Jeter doesn’t sing in the clubhouse anymore, Joe Girardi noticed, doesn’t tease guys quite as much as they walk past. His hairline is receding, along with his gaudy, early season batting average. But say this for the Yanks’ national treasure: He shows up for work every day, fields his position with enduring, leaping grace and still hits those inside-out doubles into the gap when the pitcher makes a mistake.

Jeter still follows the path of a pitch, uniquely, all the way into the catcher’s mitt, whenever he takes a ball. When he gets on base, he still smiles and banters with opponents as if this were his rookie season.

Things are different. Things are the same.

“When you’re young, you show up, you don’t have batting practice, you don’t even stretch,” Jeter said. “You spend a little more time getting ready. I don’t know if you can say it’s harder. It gets longer. There’s days, there’s little things. But when I feel good, I feel good. There’s no noticeable difference, I don’t think.”

There are plenty of things to celebrate and savor, if Jeter ever steps outside of his own laser focus for a moment.

He went into the game on Tuesday with 3,181 career hits, 14th highest in history and the third-most at his age behind Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. Jeter was 11 hits ahead of the pace of all-time leader Pete Rose, although of course the Yankee shortstop will not even consider Rose’s mark. As he pointed out, he didn’t figure to catch Rose’s mark on Tuesday, so what was the point of such ruminations?

Unlike his partner on the left side of the Yankee infield, Jeter has always been able to deflect difficult queries stylishly. He has the ability, still, to identify safe and dangerous questions from interviewers and treat them appropriately. You want to talk about his hitting stance? Jeter will sit down, discuss it at length. You want to dissect his relationship with Alex Rodriguez? He’ll politely decline. Not going to happen.

His fellow Yankees marvel at Jeter’s single-mindedness, his ability to shed all distractions with a shoulder shrug. He is still this way, at 38, even after five titles and two stadiums.

“It’s all gone by so fast,” Andy Pettitte said. “Blink your eyes and it doesn’t feel so long ago we won our first World Series.”

There’s that perspective thing from Pettitte, which only gets in the way. Maybe that’s why he retired for a year. For Jeter, this career of his has been a string of 2,948 regular-season games, plus 152 playoff games. A string of pearls, to be cherished one at a time.

“I was always aware that you can’t play forever,” Jeter said.

Just play the game tonight. Ignore the birthday cake.