Commentary

Jeter may be more like Ali than he thinks

The Captain could have something other than greatness in common with the Champ

Updated: March 2, 2012, 2:02 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Derek Jeter took the podium wearing a Muhammad Ali T-shirt, and if his intention was to send a message, consider it received.

The shirt read "THE GREATEST" over a picture of Ali in his youthful prime, and you can make a strong argument that both of them fit the description: Jeter the greatest shortstop the Yankees have ever had, and Ali the greatest fighter the world has ever seen. (Personally, I go with Sugar Ray Robinson No. 1, Ali No. 2).

But the two may wind up having more in common than greatness.

Ali, like Jeter, was a proud, extraordinarily confident and almost unnaturally focused athlete.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Matt SlocumHow long can Derek Jeter be the starting shortstop for the Yankees? And will we know he's done before he does?

It was those qualities that enabled Ali to overcome the monster that was Sonny Liston, the injustice of three years of professional exile, and the terror that was George Foreman.

It was those same qualities that caused Ali to carry on, long after his remarkable skills and reflexes had deserted him, resulting in beatings by Leon Spinks and Trevor Berbick, and, many neurologists believe, destined him to his fate as a prisoner in his own body, a victim of advancing Parkinson's disease.

Thankfully, Jeter faces no such physical peril, only the embarrassment of attempting to play on beyond the expiration date of his skills. That date does not appear to have arrived -- Jeter had an excellent bounce-back season in 2011, especially after his return from the disabled list in July -- but there seems little doubt that like Ali, when the time comes, Jeter will be the last to know.

Jeter's extraordinary self-belief, his unmatched focus and limitless optimism -- he was perhaps the only one who truly believed he would bounce back from his difficult, and at times horrendous, 2010 -- are the reasons why he is Derek Jeter in the first place.

They are also the reasons why, when the signs of real decline set in, Derek Jeter will be the last to recognize them.

Said Joe Girardi: "That's one of the things that has made him such a great player, the belief in himself that he can always right it if something's going wrong."

Asked if those same qualities might blind Jeter to his own regression, Girardi said "that he has that ability, the confidence in himself, I'm not so sure if he'll believe it."

Jeter's belief in himself is so strong he continues to maintain that the three-year, $51 million contract with an $8 million option for 2014 that he signed in December 2010 will not be his last with the Yankees, even though he is already the oldest starting shortstop in baseball.

And although Jeter said he would stop playing voluntarily, even in the middle of a contract -- "If I didn't think I was capable of playing the game at a high level, I would go home" -- it is hard to believe that his mind would ever take him to so negative a place.

"I have a lot of confidence, I've always had a lot of confidence," he said. "I always try to be positive."

The unpleasant subjects of aging and athletic decline were recurrent and inescapable themes of Jeter's news conference on Friday, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Yankee regulars in training camp.

Andy Pettitte, a teammate of Jeter's on five World Series championship teams, retired before last season. Jorge Posada, a member of four of them and Jeter's closest friend on the team, packed it in this winter. And Mariano Rivera gave strong indications this week that after this season, the so-called Core Four will be down to Just One:

Jeter, who is signed through the 2014 season -- which he will begin as a 40-year-old.

The question is, how good a player will Jeter be three years from now? Or two years from now, for that matter? Or even this season?

Remember, it was only a little more than a year ago that a lot of people thought Jeter, coming off the worst offensive season of his career in 2010, might be lucky to be offered a new contract for 2011.

And that season didn't begin so well, either, with a failed attempt at swing-remodeling by hitting coach Kevin Long that not only left Jeter confused and frustrated at the plate, but mired at .242 after the first month of the season.

Then came a calf strain, a trip to the disabled list, a few sessions in the cage with minor-league hitting instructor Gary Denbo and a rejuvenated Jeter in the second half of the season, highlighted by his transcendent five-hit game at Yankee Stadium on July 9 in which he smacked a home run into the left field bleachers off David Price for hit No. 3,000.

From there on, Jeter at times looked like the player he had been in 2009, when he hit .334, or 2006 when he narrowly missed winning the AL MVP, or even back in the 1990s, when he batted as high as .349. Jeter's second-half performance -- he hit .327 with a .383 on-base percentage -- enabled him to finish 2011 at a more-than-respectable .297/.355 and obscured, if not erased, many of the doubts his previous season had raised.

"I don't know if you ever put those questions aside," Jeter said. "I was happy with how I finished up last year, especially after I got hurt and coming back. I felt as though I had some time to fix some things away from game, and I looked at it as a blessing in disguise when I was down here in Tampa. The results showed when I went back, but I've got to continue to do it."

A closer look at Jeter's 2011 stats reveals that while his overall numbers were improved, many of the difficulties he encountered in 2010 remained.

On the plus side, Jeter's batting average was higher than all but four shortstops in all of baseball, the oldest of whom, Jhonny Peralta, is eight years younger than Jeter. His on-base percentage was better than all but five.

But the percentage of ground balls off his bat was still the highest, his slugging percentage was in the lower half of the pack and his line-drive percentage was the lowest of any shortstop in the game.

His final numbers were skewed by the way he feasted on left-handed pitching -- his slash line against lefties was .349/.423/.523, he hit five of his six home runs off of them and struck out just 15 times against them (81 overall), about half as often as he struck out against a right-hander. His line against righties -- .277/.329/.338 -- was strikingly inferior, especially the slugging percentage.

Clearly, he was two different players depending not so much upon who was throwing the baseball, but which hand they were throwing it with. One thing Jeter did not demonstrate in 2011 was the ability to hit the ball with any real authority against right-handed pitchers, who make up the bulk of the league's starters.

As a reluctant concession to age, Jeter will not play as many games this year as he did last year, and there will be more DH days in the mix. But asked if he could reasonably hope to duplicate his 2011 performance in 2012, when he will turn 38 before the All-Star break, Jeter said, "Yeah, why not? Why not?"

Because, like Rivera, he is already attempting to do something at an age when it is not only unlikely, but unprecedented. No one has ever closed games effectively for a whole season at 42 years old, and neither has anyone been able to play everyday shortstop at a high level at 38.

And because, like Ali, Jeter is almost certain to continue to believe he can long after it is clear to everyone else that he can't.

No doubt, Jeter has a lot in common with the man on the T-shirt he wore at Thursday's news conference.

Probably, even more than he thinks.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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