The Derek I Know

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Hannah Jeter, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

 

This is the first of a new editorial series in which family members, friends, and those closest to them, share special insights into the athletes they love.


I thought he was a pitcher.

I know it sounds strange that I didn’t know he was a shortstop. When a mutual friend introduced us while I was at dinner with my mom in New York, I didn’t really know who Derek was at all.

I can just imagine all of the New Yorkers reading this right now thinking, Oh, come aawwnn. They probably don’t believe me.

You probably don’t believe me.

But it’s true.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d been living in the city for a couple of years — and I know I saw Yankees hats and probably a Jeter jersey or two (or 100), but they didn’t register. I grew up in the Virgin Islands, on St. Thomas, which is only about three miles wide. Baseball wasn’t really “a thing.” We didn’t have professional teams to obsess over so I was never a baseball fan.

Derek and I met during the off-season, and I think that was a lucky break. It let us spend some time together away from New York. I didn’t have any preconceptions about who he was, and I didn’t need much more to go on than this: I had met the nicest guy, and I wanted to get to know him on my own terms. Not Google’s.

Orioles Yankees Baseball

We met at the right time. To me, what matters in a relationship is being at the same place in your lives. And right from the start, I could tell that the timing of Derek’s life and mine were aligned.

I’d grown up really fast. I started working as a model when I was 14, and traveled the world and built a career for myself. A life like that — going from job to job around the globe, and especially in my industry — kind of forces you into adulthood. The truth is: Just as Derek had lived a whole life before he’d met me, I’d lived a whole life before I’d met Derek.

Where we’d been, where we were and where we wanted to go — everything just seemed to fit.

That off-season was sort of a bubble. I don’t think I realized the full magnitude of his career — of everything — until I went to Yankee Stadium for the season opener in April. You have to understand: Up to that point, I’d only really known him as Derek, this great guy I was dating. This was the first time that I’d seen him as Derek Jeter: a New York icon, a Yankees hero.

I walked into the stadium and saw fan-made signs:

I LOVE DEREK JETER.

DEREK, WILL YOU MARRY ME?

It was a wild feeling, seeing all of that affection, live and up close. It felt almost as if New York and I were dating the same person. As if I was in love with the same person as millions of other people. I thought, Here’s this guy, who I go home and watch TV and order takeout with — and the rest of the world feels like they have a piece of him too. It was strange. I didn’t know how to reconcile it all.

I think people assume that —  because I was a relatively well-known model — dating a famous baseball player wouldn’t have been an adjustment for me. But trust me, not all levels of fame are created equal. When Derek Jeter walks into a room … the whole room takes notice. Paparazzi followed us at times. People interrupted us during meals. The only way to maintain some sort of privacy — to be together, just the two of us — was to stay in. It’s funny: You don’t see many photos from the early part of our relationship … and that’s why. We rarely went anywhere.


One way I learned to cope was by compartmentalizing baseball as much as I could, by telling myself that there was Derek Jeter, and then there was Derek. During that first year, I treated baseball like it was just his job. A very extraordinary job — but a job all the same. The workout and meal regimens, the travel, the attention … I tried to tell myself that this was just part of Derek’s “office” life.

But at the same time, when you love someone, compartmentalization is pretty much impossible. Part of loving someone means wanting for them the same things that they so passionately want for themselves. And I gradually began to realize that, if baseball was important to Derek, then it had to be important to me. The next season — Derek’s last — I decided to travel to some of the games. My managers, at times, were not too happy with me; I canceled jobs left and right just to be present at those remaining games. And I still didn’t feel totally in my element. Even during those last few months, I felt like I was still learning to identify the Derek Jeter everyone was saying goodbye to as the same Derek that I knew.

And then, during his last game at Yankee Stadium … that’s when, for me, everything fell into place.

That night, I got it.


I remember watching Derek walk out to shortstop for the last time at Yankee Stadium. I remember how he seemed to be absorbing everything — every sound, every fan, all of the energy. There was something about the feeling of that night that was unforgettable. I knew how much it meant to me. But for the first time, I think I could also fully sense how much it meant to everyone else: the culmination of this 20-year career, this 20-year journey that they had all been on together. This atmosphere that I had gotten so swept up in — for a lot of people, baseball is like that every night. Yankees fans had had two whole decades worth of nights like this. They grew up with Derek Jeter, and he grew up with them. And I don’t think I’d understood that before.

But I’m glad I understand it now.

Timing is everything.

On May 14, the Yankees will retire Derek’s number. It’s a significant moment, and one that’s had me thinking a lot about the end of his playing career — those last two years for him as a player, that also happened to be the first two years for us as a couple. Big moments have a funny way of doing that, I think — of getting you to look over your shoulder and reflect.

Big moments also have a funny way of making you look ahead.

Now, pregnant with our first child, Derek and I are looking to the future.

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He already has a name in mind — he’s set on it. (We’ll see.) He’ll say when he calls me during the day:

“So, how are you and so-and-so doing?”

“That’s not the name yet, sweetie.”

Whatever her name is, I know she’ll run circles around him.

We want our kids’ lives to be as “normal” as possible. They’re going to be born into such an extraordinary situation. They’re going to have to be some strong little people. We don’t want them to be defined by their dad’s name — for them, we want him to just be “Dad.” That will be the piece of him they’ll have that the rest of the world doesn’t. It will be special, and it will be theirs.

Still, though, I want them to know Derek Jeter. I feel some sadness — and Derek must as well — thinking about how our children will never get to experience that time in his life. We can show them videos, and photos, and memorabilia — I already can’t wait to show them footage of that last night at the Stadium. But I know it won’t be quite the same. I’ll tell them myself: You had to be there.

And I’m sure that both of us will be thinking about that in May.

Derek and I will want our children to understand that the lives they’ve been given are so fortunate, in so many ways. We’ll want them to learn to help others, and to care for others, and to give back to the world.

We’ll let them know that they are strong and smart, and that they can do anything they put their minds to. I hope they’ll be honest like their father. I hope they’ll be stubborn like me. I hope that they know what they want and won’t settle for less.

And if they want to play baseball, well, we’re gonna have a little talk first.

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