Fans of all ages cheer for the Mets' minor league outfielder wherever he goes
A teenage girl and her Dad approached the tote board at Jet Blue Stadium in Fort Myers.
It was a perfect day for Grapefruit League baseball: sunshine, a cloudless sky and temperatures in the low 80s.
Boston and New York were preparing to do battle and the girl was obviously excited to be there. She wore an orange & blue cap, a Mets jersey and a big toothy smile.
Father and daughter anxiously scanned the board on which was written the starting line-up for each team. I watched that smile fade, though, as her eyes darted back and forth.
“Do you think he’ll play?” she asked, big expectant eyes looking up to Dad.
“I think so honey,” he replied. “It’s Spring Training and they try to get a good look at everyone.”
She seemed reassured.
The girl’s father put his arm around her shoulder as the two headed toward the concession stand. Time for a pretzel and soda before first pitch.
As they walked away, I finally got a look at the back of the girl’s jersey.
Just as I suspected: Number 15, Tim Tebow.
Whatever your personal opinion of Tebow as a baseball player may be, there’s simply no arguing the point that he is extremely popular.
Whenever Dad and I go to the stadium, one of our favorite pre-game pastimes is checking out all the different jerseys folks are wearing.
On this particular day in southwest Florida, the most popular by far was Tom Seaver. There were also several honoring Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter.
However, not far behind “Tom Terrific” was Tim Tebow ... a fascinating development considering the former is a Hall of Fame legend while the latter is a career minor leaguer.
Much has been written about Tebow's decision to walk away from football and embrace baseball, so I won't belabor the point.
I will say this, though: Every person I talked to around the Grapefruit League circuit this winter raved about him.
This prevailing attitude is best summed up by New York's rookie GM, Brodie Van Wagenen, who was once Tebow's agent.
“This was never a publicity stunt,’’ Van Wagenen told a group of reporters last week.
“This guy really had a desire and work ethic to achieve his goal of playing in the big leagues. As long as I’ve been around him, I’m not going to be the guy that says he can’t do this.”
When Tebow announced his intention to pursue a baseball career, folks my age instinctively cringed with memories of Michael Jordan's.
I can still see him … the greatest player in NBA history and one of the best athletes ever … flailing helplessly at the plate, misjudging flyballs and galumphing around the bases.
Images like these give one pause when assessing Tebow's chances on the diamond. He is now 31-years-old and admittedly late to the game. All things considered, though, he's made remarkable progress over the course of the past three years.
Van Wagenen already announced that Tebow will start the 2019 campaign at Triple-A. He's coming off a solid AA season in which he hit .273 with six homers in 84 games before being sidelined by a wrist injury.
If Tebow continues to improve and remains healthy, there's a distinct possibility New York fans will see him at Citi Field in September or before.
At the Plate
His time against the Red Sox finally arrived in the top of the seventh.
Tebow had come into the game the previous inning, but now he stood in the on-deck circle and the fans were buzzing. Moments later he strode to the plate.
“Now batting for the Mets,” The PA announcer intoned. “The left fielder, number 15, Tim Tebow.”
The crowd went wild.
On a day when Dustin Pedroia returned to the line-up, Mookie Betts was in centerfield and JD Martinez was batting clean-up ... the biggest ovation of the game went to Tebow.
Dad and I couldn't help but smile as we looked around the packed stadium. Plenty of Mets fans had made the trek from Port St. Lucie to Fort Myers on this day, but they weren't the only ones cheering.
Little kids and senior citizens alike, many of them sporting Red Sox gear, applauded as Tebow walked up to the plate.
I'd watched him intently before the game, one of the few players on either team who went out of his way to interact with fans.
Tebow signed autographs, shook hands, posed for selfies … all the while smiling and chatting amiably. I could tell after just a few minutes that this wasn't a chore. He seemed genuinely to enjoy it.
Tebow took a few practice cuts and then dug in. There was a palpable sense of excitement as his at-bat progressed, the tension level rising with each offering.
Sadly, Tebow didn't deliver this time. He hit a weak ground ball to second and was thrown out easily. To his credit, though, he busted it down the baseline.
He received another nice ovation when he traded his batting gloves for leather and trotted back out to left for the bottom of the frame.
Over & Out
My own assessment of Tebow's chances isn't all that rosy. While he seems to be an incredibly nice, hard-working guy, he just doesn't seem to have the natural ability to play baseball at its highest level.
Every time I look at him chase a flyball or take a cut at the plate, what I see is a football player in disguise.
Now, Tebow does possess many of the intangibles that make a great athlete. He wins wherever he goes and doesn't disappear in the biggest moments. He's also reportedly a model teammate who deflects praise rather than hogging the spotlight.
Unfortunately, as a lifelong Mets fan, I'm suspicious of most front office decisions. I can't help but wonder whether Tebow's steady rise through the minors is in reality just a heartless ploy to sell jerseys and tickets.
However, after seeing firsthand his effect on fans and his genuine desire to succeed, I must admit that I'm rooting for him.
Should my beloved Mets melt down once again and be out of the playoff picture by September, I hope that Tebow is promoted to the big club. I hope he's given a legitimate chance to contribute.
For my own sake and for the sake of that wide-eyed teenager in Fort Myers, I hope. I hope...