I'm a jersey chaser

Judge me if you want, but I know it's not about fame or money. It's about the game

By Stefanie Williams
Published October 28, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham"
Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham"

When I tell my friends that I’ve met a new guy, they almost always say the same thing.

“What team does he play for?”

It’s never said in a snarky tone. It’s a legitimate question. Call me a jersey chaser, a cleat chaser, a puck bunny. I’ve heard them all. At 27, the names don’t bother me anymore. I date athletes. It’s just a part of who I am. I’ve written about my experiences for years, though I never released names and more often than not changed their teams. It was never my intention to ride the coattails of the guys I knew. I wanted to share stories that I thought were unique and, to many women, relatable.

But years into this, people still struggle to understand why I’m so drawn to athletes, what I get out of it and why I seek out these relationships — other than the fact that I’ve probably seen “Bull Durham” a few too many times. There are so many stereotypes about women who are attracted to athletes, some of which are true. But one I continue to fight against is the idea that these relationships are merely driven by the desire for fame and money. Clearly, those people have never known someone who dated an ECHL hockey player.

My relationship with sports began at the age of 5, when my father took me to my first Yankees game. For whatever reason, my dad — a typical lawyer with a flair for exaggeration — told me we were related to then-rookie outfielder Bernie Williams. I perpetuated this lie until I was about 11 years old, when a seventh grade boy broke my heart by informing me I wasn’t Puerto Rican and Bernie Williams was. I didn’t speak to my dad for two weeks and didn’t watch baseball for two months.

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to figure out that my love of the men who play sports was a direct result of the rejection that came from my father in later years and his death when I was 16. The only thing my father and I ever had in common was the Yankees and baseball. In fact, it was the last good conversation I had with him before he passed away.

My love of sports grew with lacrosse in college. I managed the men’s lacrosse team at the University of Maryland and my fondness for the game, coupled with my surrogate little sister status among the players, made me appreciate the relationships I had with those guys even more. It jumped to baseball a few years later, then to soccer, hockey, back to baseball again. Dating athletes became a lifestyle. Not in terms of money or living situations — I was far too young to be thinking about money or signing bonuses, contracts or living arrangements. But as the daughter of a travel agent with an affinity for a little independence, my ability to maintain a relationship with hundreds or thousands of miles in between was unparalleled. By the time I was 25, I had forgotten what it was like to have a “normal” relationship with someone who had a 9-5 job and lived a few subway stops away. I was still working my schedule around spring training. The Olympics. The World Cup. Off season. And for me, that was OK. It worked. I liked it.

It took some growing up to realize that sometimes I had to distinguish between loving a sport and loving a person, however. When I was 19, I began dating a pitcher in the Yankees organization. It felt like a winning lottery ticket, everything I adored rolled into one person. But as our relationship progressed — 3,000 miles of distance between us, in some cases, for almost three years — I began to question my motives for staying together. When he was released two years into our relationship, I was hit with the realization that I was with him for all the wrong reasons, but I refused to admit it. We spoke about marriage and me moving out west with him after graduation. And I stuck it out for six more months, trying to prove something to myself. But in an epic fight that took place in my car as I drove him to BWI one morning — a fight about me wanting him to try out for an independent league team and keep focusing on baseball — I understood that I was lying to myself and lying to him.

“Why can’t you just support that I don’t want to play baseball anymore?” he said as he hit the dashboard. I couldn’t answer. I cared about him, I loved him in so many ways, but I knew that baseball had been a huge part of it. I wanted so desperately to be part of the game that I forced myself to fit into a relationship I never really belonged in.

I wore the loss of it moving forward as a firm reminder that I was not a girl who could just date any guy if he played a sport. I was not a gold digger, not a fame whore, I never wanted to fake it just to say I was with an athlete again. I found athletes attractive, sexy, interesting — but I learned the importance of appreciating someone for all they brought to the table, not just their job. It sounds simple, but when you worship sports so much, it can be easy to mistake the admiration for a person’s involvement in a game with an admiration for who they are besides the game.

I never dated a guy just because he played a sport again.

Having noticed my ever-growing affinity for athletes after I graduated from college — a relationship with a guy who played for the New York Islanders sparked the now reoccurring question “do you date anyone with a normal job?” — a lot of my friends asked me what the trade-off was. Here I was, living in a city of eight million people and I was seeking out relationships with guys across the country. It’s hard to explain. It’s a simple focus on one specific, obvious talent. It is easy to look at an athlete and know if he is good at what he does. And if he is, it is usually those components like discipline, hard work and dedication — traits required in any good relationship — that get him there. I understand sports. And to me, that ability of being able to talk about specific pitches or training or stats with a guy who is actually living it is attractive.

But there’s always a downfall and the most obvious with athletes is the cheating. It’s easy to find out what they’re up to when you aren’t around, and it can drive a girl mad if you end up taking a real interest in them. There are opportunities for athletes to cheat that most other men just don’t have — random cities, random VIP status at random bars with random girls who throw themselves at them. So many cheating accusations roll through anonymous boards and websites and every now and then there are ones that are without a doubt true. They mention tattoos or scars, for instance.

Of course, some women just turn a blind eye. I once hooked up with an NHL player who had a girlfriend who knew he cheated. He even said as much. “She knows but actively doesn’t pay attention” he told me, trying to reassure me it wasn’t a big deal. Later I learned there was truth to this: They had a convenient arrangement. He got to do what he liked, and she got the attention that comes with being attached to a famous and powerful man, and it worked for both of them. It helped boost her career and for that, she was willing to look the other way and smile through the countless accusations.

Obviously it isn’t all about love and serious relationships. I’ve had one-night stands and casual relationships with a lot of athletes. Some have been worthwhile — great sex, hilarious stories, a quiet personal bragging right when I watch ESPN and see them play well. But sometimes it’s tough. I have learned to put walls up to distance myself from the potential hurt that many athletes are more than capable of dealing out, hurt I have felt in ways I can’t begin to describe.

There was one AL baseball player in particular. I loved hanging out with him. We’d challenge each other in so many ways, big dramatic arguments for no reason that sometimes made it feel like we cared about each other more than we probably did. But we weren’t going to date. That was a simple fact. We remained good friends — odd, since he played several states away from New York. But I did it because I cared about him and having built that wall made it possible to not care too much. But I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t special. I’d give him the pep talks — going so far as to leave a bachelorette party for 20 minutes to talk straight mechanics with him after a bad game one night — the quiet support when a game goes wrong, the congratulations when he just goes out and rakes. When he was in triple A, I’d stay up late to watch game logs to see if he was doing OK. Watching him play against the Yankees last year, I found myself so torn. When he all but blew the game, it was the first time in my entire life I didn’t get up and cheer for a Yankees win. How could I cheer knowing he was walking off the field feeling like shit? I sat quietly, trying to navigate the weird conflict between my loyalty to my childhood team, and my loyalty to my friend. I was still trying to maintain that wall that kept me from caring more than I knew I should. It wasn’t easy, and it never will be.

Will I end up with the guy who can throw a slider, hit a penalty shot, excel at a sport?  I have no idea. But I know there is a life within these relationships. I was recently out in Utah earlier this summer visiting a baseball player. And as I sat at my first game, I was bombarded by the curious clique of the WAGS, the infamous women who sacrifice their lives for their husbands’ careers. These women all had differing relationships with their husbands or boyfriends — some were high school sweethearts who had been in the supportive role half their lives, knowing nothing other than ground rule doubles, distance and stats. Some were girls new to the idea of dating an athlete, women who had never so much as watched a baseball game before meeting their boyfriend. But all seemed to share that same passion and love for their significant other’s job that I did, the same self-sacrificing dedication I knew I possessed. They hauled themselves to games six nights a week, sometimes with kids in tow, to show their support, memorizing stats and discussing possibilities for a call up. I felt a weird sense of cameraderie with these women, because they made the intertwining love of the game and of the guy who played it seem normal. They all had it too, all for varying reasons. And it had nothing to do with money or fame. It had to do with love and admiration.

It’s not all Derek Jeter and Tom Brady. It takes a lot of support and understanding to come second to a game most kids play when they are 10. It’s a weird feeling knowing I have that in me, more so that it’s something in me that I want to utilize. And I have no reason not to pursue a man who finds the value in that. You love what (and who) you love. And I refuse to let the fear of striking out — or being labeled a jersey chaser, for that matter — keep me from playing the game.

Stefanie Williams

Stefanie Williams is the author of "Chasing the Jersey." She is a blogger and writer represented by the good samaritans at UTA. She currently lives, writes and enthusiastically bartends in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter at @StefWilliams25.

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