Tim Tebow's spring training debut shows how hard this process will be ... and he can't wait to get started
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On any other day, the ballpark would have been buzzing about a pitching duel between reigning A.L. Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello and N.L. Cy Young contender Noah Syndergaard.
Or maybe the ball Jay Bruce blasted off the light tower in right field.
Wednesday, of course, wasn’t any other day at First Data Field.
It was Tebow time.
Wearing a No. 97 jersey without a nameplate, Florida’s not-so-anonymous Heisman Trophy winner made his Grapefruit League debut — against Porcello, no less. Given where Tebow stands on his baseball growth curve, the baptism by fire was akin to a Division III start-up opening at Alabama.
Tebow, serving as a DH, hit eighth for the Mets, and it’s safe to say outside of an All-Star Game, there haven’t been many more imposing-looking No. 8 hitters than this 6-3, 255-pound lefty. As specimens go, Larry Bowa, he is not.
There’s a unmistakable curiosity factor surrounding everything Tebow does, of course, and it started redlining three hours before the first pitch. ESPN was here — sending NFL and MLB reporters. Other media members paced in the dugout. They snapped photos as Tebow emerged from the clubhouse and quickly scurried for position as he picked up his two bats — 34.5 inches, 33 ounces, manufactured in the U.S. optimistically by a company named Dinger — and joined his hitting group.
The surest sign Wednesday was different?
When Tebow strolled into the cage to begin batting practice, the visiting Red Sox lined their dugout, plopping their elbows on the padded railing and settling in for a show.
For anyone accustomed to pregame batting practice sessions, it was a startling sight.
Major League opponents simply don’t do this. Short of a home run derby, it’s impossible to pull them out of their clubhouse early to watch … practice. But they, too, wanted to see for themselves, to separate man from myth.
That’s the effect Tebow has. He pulls you in. Some come in hugging, others swinging, but the draw is unavoidable.
How far Tebow advances in this game is open to incessant debate, but his power is not. Whether he ever translates that into success at any level, even Class A, remains to be seen, but the man can put on a BP show like few other minor league hopefuls.
BP isn’t just fun and games, however. It’s time to work, and it was clear from Tebow’s approach that he was working on shooting balls to the opposite field. Line drives weren’t part of his repertoire. Neither were ground balls. Every swing had one purpose: to inflict as much damage as possible. It’s a swing built to create loft and distance. He’s a golfer with one club in his bag.
But that’s specifically why he has a chance to climb the minor league ladder. An impossibly, Jim Morris-like, slim chance, but a chance nonetheless, because he has more power than most of the 85 percent of minor leaguers who never will reach the majors. Say what you want about BP and his delayed start, but Tebow was the only left-handed Met or Red Sox who crushed the scoreboard in left center. He hit three consecutive pitches off the blue wall in centerfield, into the wind, 410 feet from home plate. He sent balls soaring toward the light tower in right.
Michael Jordan couldn’t have done any of that had he taken BP from second base. Michael Jordan’s failed attempt at baseball was a gimmick. He never had a chance because he had no discernible baseball skills. Tebow, at least, has one legitimate baseball tool. Two, actually, if you include his dirt-dog mentality.
None of which will impress his skeptics, a legion of doom that seems to include every frustrated middle-age athlete on Earth. Wednesday belonged to them.
As for his first day — knowing that if he did well it would be dismissed as a meaningless scrimmage and if he struck out three times on 9 pitches it would prove beyond all doubt this entire charade is a publicity stunt — Tebow went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. He was involved in two double plays. Twitter couldn’t have been happier.
Neither could Tebow, by the way, whose blistered hands from hours of behind-the-scenes work were hidden from view by batting gloves.
He smiled throughout a 12-minute post-game media session, taking joy in the journey, one manager Terry Collins said was so arduous most mortals wouldn’t even attempt to try.
“I thought I put some good swings on certain balls, saw the ball better than it probably looked,” Tebow said, breaking into laughter. “Trying to be very disciplined up there, didn’t necessarily work out in my favor. But, yeah, take it as a learning opportunity and try to get better from it.”
He struck out on four pitches in his first at-bat. The final strike look outside, but the umpire enthusiastically rang him up, eliciting a chorus of boos. Tebow turned, appearing to question the call, then smiled and walked back to the dugout.
Tebow was asked what he said to the umpire. He couldn’t remember exactly, and offered perhaps he said, “Really?”
“It wasn’t that harsh, I promise,” Tebow said.
— MLB (@MLB) March 8, 2017
Twitter responded exactly how you imagined it would.
There were other strikeouts Wednesday, too, just none important enough to document on social media. (Too bad, too, because Rafael Devers, one of the top prospects in the minors, looked far sillier on his bat wand/body spin whiff in the seventh.)
Tebow came to the plate with the bases loaded in his second at-bat. He looked more comfortable. He fouled off two pitches. Just missed one, fouling it straight back. Another inch lower on the barrel, and who knows. “Oh, I wanted it. I wanted it,” Tebow said. “There’s no question about it. I put a hard swing on it, too. I felt really good about that swing.” Eventually, he grounded into a double play, but the Mets scored the tying run in the process. A few feet in either direction, and maybe it’s a 2-run single. Instead, more evidence he doesn’t belong. Ah, baseball.
The crowd roared, however, not for the run, but for Tebow as he received a high-five entering the dugout. Clearly, they were pulling for No. 97 to succeed, and that’s a sentiment that won’t show up in a box score. Except, of course, attendance. It was neither accident nor coincidence that the Mets drew more than 6,500 fans, their largest crowd of the spring.
Tebow was hit by a pitch in his third at-bat — by fellow Gator Brian Johnson, no less — the ball bouncing off his right shoulder as if it hit a wall. He was promptly doubled off on a line drive. He broke when he should have froze. More fun for the Twitter fam. He struck out again in his final at-bat, never lifting Dinger off his shoulder.
There’s a commercial in which an SEC football coach motivates his players: “They came to see you, now give them what they want!”
To stat-watchers, Tebow didn’t come close to doing that Wednesday. It didn’t matter to those at the ballpark. Most important, it didn’t matter to Tebow. If you were expecting a 3-for-3 debut, this game doesn’t work like that. As Tebow pointed out afterward, even the heroes rarely win.
But if you were expecting him to hide in the corner afterward and turn in his spikes, clearly you’ve never watched the man work.
“As an athlete, you can’t let one day define anything,” Tebow said about his first day on the job. “It’s a process. … I know a lot of other people are sensationalizing it. Regardless of what happens it will be the best day of all time or the worst day of all time, but for me it’s just a day. It’s just the next day. It’s just the next opportunity to get four at-bats. Learn from it … wake up and get ready to do it again.”
It’s a grueling, humbling process, this game, and these were merely the first steps on his long, long journey to baseball acceptance.
Judging by his tone, he can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and take the next ones.
Chris Wright is Executive Editor at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @FilmRoomEditor.