PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- This time of year, it is not uncommon to see a prospect or two tromp out of the Mets' Spring Training complex, walking over from the club's airplane hangar of a Minor League clubhouse to the main stadium. Yet never does that process cause as much of a stir as it did Wednesday, when Tim Tebow arrived at First Data Field for his first career big league game.
As Tebow sat with his second helping of broccoli at lunchtime, Curtis Granderson approached bearing two baseballs for the former NFL quarterback to sign. Neil Walker, a devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fan, ribbed Tebow about the Broncos' 2011 playoff win over his favorite team.
This was not just another Minor Leaguer, regardless of how much the Mets wanted to make it seem that way. As Tebow took batting practice earlier in the morning, more than a dozen Red Sox players leaned on their dugout railing, silently watching. They all but chomped popcorn as Tebow finished 0-for-3 with a run-scoring double play, the highlight of his Grapefruit League debut during the Mets' 8-7 win.
"There are a lot of things I have to play catch-up on," Tebow said afterward. "It's just, how fast can I catch up?"
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The answer will determine Tebow's ultimate future in baseball, even if that's something he swears he's not focusing on right now. On Wednesday, Tebow's goal was simply to hold his own in a big league game, facing reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello of all people. In his first at-bat, Tebow received a nice ovation from the fans but struck out on four consecutive Porcello fastballs, briefly voicing his disagreement with home-plate umpire Ryan Addition following the final called strike.
"I don't know anything about him, so I do what I do against all guys I've never faced before: attack with my fastball until they show they can hit it," said Porcello.
An inning later, Tebow admitted to licking his chops when he came up with the bases loaded and no outs. That at-bat produced a run-scoring double play, followed by a hit-by-pitch in Tebow's third plate appearance -- from a fellow Gator, Red Sox pitcher Christopher Johnson -- and another strikeout in his fourth.
"He's so far behind on the nuances of the game," said Mets outfielder Jay Bruce, who served as something of a sounding board for Tebow throughout the day. "It's not like he's been wasting his time. He's obviously been doing other worthwhile things. But that's the biggest thing -- playing, one, and two, just understanding the game of baseball at the highest level. It's tough. It takes a long time."
"He's going to have to adapt quickly," Mets manager Terry Collins added. "What he's attempting to do, not a lot of guys would even try."
Talk to enough Mets, and that's the takeaway -- not jealousy, but, "Hey, neat, it's fun to see this mega celebrity try his hand at baseball." Red Sox manager John Farrell called it "a pretty cool thing," which seemed to be the consensus in the home clubhouse as well.
But if Tebow wants this pretty cool thing to continue, he'll need to improve quickly. The Mets plan to borrow him from Minor League camp again on Friday, starting the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in the outfield against the Astros. After that, Tebow's future lies in Minor League camp and, most likely, Class A ball.
His journey began when the Mets signed him to a Minor League deal in September. It progressed to the Arizona Fall League and early spring practices, where Tebow showed off power that Mets hitting coach Kevin Long likened to "some of the best hitters in the game." It reached a crescendo Wednesday, when Tebow received his first taste of bona fide Major League competition.
Against Porcello and the Red Sox, Tebow ultimately proved unable to draw upon the type of magic he produced in that 2011 playoff game against the Steelers. But he figured that might be the case.
"I know a lot of other people will sensationalize it -- regardless of what happens, it will be the best day of all-time or the worst day of all-time," Tebow said of his debut. "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, go recover, get some sleep, wake up and get ready to do it again. Because there's a lot more days like this."