Trainer: Derek Jeter plans big comeback

If Derek Jeter's contract had expired after the 2009 season, Jason Riley might have been named the American League's Most Valuable Player. If not, Riley would have at least gone down as the greatest trainer since Angelo Dundee.

Riley is the fitness guy who reshaped Jeter's body and game, who dumped the Captain into a hot tub time machine before -- voila! -- a 35-year-old Jeter made like a 25-year-old Jeter on his way to a long-lost fifth championship ring, or one for his princely thumb.

The shortstop could have filed away his completed $189 million contract and asked for $125 million to $150 million over five or six years, and the New York Yankees wouldn't have bothered to blink. But something not-so-funny happened on the way to another nine-figure score.

The 2010 season happened, a development coloring the ultra-delicate negotiations between the iconic franchise and iconic star and yet leaving Jeter more committed than ever to playing as many as seven more seasons, through his 43rd birthday and far beyond the reported three-year, eight-figure deal the Yanks are offering.

When the shortstop met Riley after the 2007 season, he told the trainer he wanted to play another eight to 10 years. And in the wake of Jeter's worst statistical season, one inspiring many to wonder if the Captain is entering an advanced stage of decline, Riley was asked if it remained feasible to believe Jeter could play at a reasonably high level through 2017.

"Yeah," he said, "I think it's very realistic."

Speaking from inside a Jeter camp that rarely opens a public window on its soul, especially during contract negotiations, Riley mentioned George Blanda, George Foreman, Dara Torres and Brett Favre as athletes who thrived after turning 40. The trainer believes Jeter will join those golden oldies in Mariano Rivera's bullpen.

"The desire to be the greatest," Riley said, "can never be turned down by Father Time."

The trainer won't have to remind Jeter of this when they meet Monday in Tampa to review an intense offseason program that will start after Thanksgiving. Though Jeter has told Riley he will ultimately vacate his cherished shortstop position if asked -- "Derek said he would do that and play another position if it was best for the team," Riley said -- both the Captain and the trainer believe such a transition won't be required for a number of years.

"Derek had one of his best statistical years in 2009," Riley said, "so if people are judging him on maybe his worst statistical year, I think that's blowing in the wind. It's short-minded. You're just changing your thought process without remembering what Derek did the year before.

"I don't think anything can hold Derek back other than himself. If he decides to hang it up before [he turns 43], then that will be his decision. If Derek decides at 41 he's already given his best years, then that's where it will end. But if he decides to go until he's 43, he'll do everything in his power to play the game at a high level and help the team through that time. I think there's so much determination inside of Derek that he can do it."

Up front, understand that Riley is a paid Jeter advocate. After Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told Jeter at a dinner meeting three years back that his defense needed to improve, the GM and Jeter's agent, Casey Close, agreed Riley was the man for the job.

Jeter would dive headfirst into Riley's conditioning and agility drills at The Athletes Compound at Tampa's Saddlebrook Resort. Joe Girardi would call Riley to ensure his program was designed to make the shortstop a more explosive lateral force, especially on grounders to his left, and the trainer was already a step ahead.

The Yankees saw some improvement in 2008, then saw an entirely different human being in 2009. Riley had loosened the tightness in Jeter's left ankle and hip. The trainer used a relentless series of resistance drills and cone drills to re-boot the communication center linking Jeter's brain, muscles and nerves.

The results were staggering. Suddenly Derek Jeter had replaced Dick Clark as America's oldest teenager.

But then life intervened. The 2010 season intervened. The undefeated forces of gravity intervened.

Jeter spilled another offseason's worth of blood, sweat and tears in Riley's lab before the '10 season, and yet his .334 batting average and .406 on-base percentage from '09 plunged to .270 and .340, respectively. Even though he managed a career-low number of errors (six) and a career-high fielding percentage (.989) and won a fifth Gold Glove award, the Captain rarely displayed the same athleticism, bounce and range he showed the year before.

"I won't speak on whether it was worse, the same or better," Riley said, "but I've definitely had conversations with Derek about what our thoughts are on this past season. We're looking into it and we're really going to evaluate it. I've got a lot of people, my staff around me, who are evaluating this.

"It's a long season, and your body gets beaten up, and we have to find a way to keep Derek fresh over 162 games. It's a work in progress. Some years we may hit it real good, and some years not as good. Derek knows where we need to focus on now. We're going to sit down next week and create goals and come up with a road map to work through this and have another successful season."

But how many more substantial checks can Jeter's body cash? Hal Steinbrenner, Randy Levine and Cashman have made it clear they are burdened by doubt. They have Alex Rodriguez under contract through 2017 -- the same year of Jeter's own projected retirement -- and yet they have no intention of signing the shortstop for the same term.

Riley wouldn't suggest a number of years the Yankees should offer his client. He would only say Jeter is already working out, already preparing to prove that 2010 was a mere aberration and not the start of any trend.

"You can't put an age on the heart of an athlete, and Derek's got one of the purest hearts in sports," Riley said. "He's not going to allow himself to have another down year, if he even considers 2010 a down year. His internal drive separates him from others. I've worked with very few people who go after the game like he does."

Of course, honest, sweat-soaked work can carry an aging superstar only so far; even Jeter realizes that. The shortstop told Riley he'll be willing to play the outfield or serve as a DH or whatever at the end of his playing days, if necessary.

Riley doesn't see that as being necessary for a long time. Yes, he's in the optimism business, selling hope and faith to leadoff hitters, tight ends and tennis players as much as he's selling the benefits of muscle synergy.

Riley has worked with the likes of Ryan Howard, Ryan Zimmerman, Dustin Keller and Maria Sharapova. He's the trainer who convinced 6-foot-9 John Isner that he could survive an 11-hour, five-minute match with Nicolas Mahut over three days at Wimbledon -- punctuated by a 138-game fifth set -- to win the longest pro tennis match ever played.

So Riley will prepare Jeter to run a marathon that extends far beyond the Yankees' latest offer of employment.

"I still think the sky's the limit for Derek," Riley said.

If the trainer is right, this next contract Jeter signs won't be his last.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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