As he closes in on his 40th birthday, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Gary Gaetti seems to think he's still in his prime.

The Cardinals appeared all set to give away Gaetti's job this spring or at least turn it into some sort of job-share. John Mabry was tutored at the position, and David Bell got an audition.

Guess what? Gaetti, who turns 40 in August, has started all but a handful of games in the first month or so. The major leagues' second-oldest everyday player _ by only months behind Wade Boggs _ has no intention of stepping down anytime soon.

``Spring training was kind of a mystery,'' Gaetti said. ``A couple times if they went strictly by numbers I shouldn't have made the team.''

Manager Tony La Russa has long been an admirer, from the days when Gaetti's Twins and La Russa's Oakland Athletics locked horns. Eventually, he'll have to replace Gaetti, but he's in no hurry.

``He was the guy on the other side that you always just admired,'' La Russa said. ``He's every bit as good as you think from the other side, he's just a really good pro.''

Because he takes better care of himself, Gaetti says his body feels better than it did a decade ago.

``I don't probably run as well as I used to,'' he said. ``But I feel my arm's in better shape and my glove mechanics are better.''

A daily dose of pain medication also fights off the demons of age, and becoming a student of the game as his career winds down hasn't hurt a bit.

``If I knew in my early years what I know about hitting ... '' Gaetti said. ``But I didn't learn how to hit a breaking ball for 10 years because nobody could throw a fastball by me and not a lot of people would try.''

Pitchers still don't challenge him that often.

``Carlos Perez, is he going to throw me a fastball on 2-0 with a guy on second base? Not.'' Gaetti said. ``So what do I want to do, do I want to take or sit on the changeup?''

Gaetti was a dedicated party animal earlier in his career, but became a born-again Christian in the 1990s. His beverage of choice these days is water.

At the same time, he's decidedly old school. When he was with the Twins, Gaetti and players such as Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett started a club for the hard nosed only. When they arrived at the ballpark with minor aches and pains, they'd ask themselves one question before they considered begging off.

``You'd say, `Do you think Pete Rose would play today?' '' Gaetti said. ``If the answer was yes, then it was a no-brainer, you just went out and played.

``We learned to play every day, unless you're extremely injured.''

At the same time, Gaetti has always known the limits.

``You don't take unnecessary risks,'' he said. ``You don't hit the wall if the game is out of control.''

If Gaetti talks more like La Russa's second lieutenant than just another player, it's with good reason. After he retires, he wants to stay in the game as a manager or coach.

``I enjoy the teaching aspect of baseball, I like the clubhouse scene and I'm not really qualified to do anything else,'' he said.

La Russa thinks Gaetti would make a good manager.

``This guy has tremendous knowledge of the game and has a terrific personality, and I think he likes being around the game,'' La Russa said.

Gaetti said managing isn't as easy as it looks. Once, when he was with Minnesota, manager Tom Kelly let Gaetti take care of the defensive signs and call the pitchouts.

``It was happening too fast for me,'' Gaetti said. ``Making the double switch, that's one thing, but managing the defensive part, I wasn't ready for that.''

Perhaps, soon, he will be.