PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- This was not long before Tim Tebow went outside for batting practice and hit a ball to a storage-shed roof, or perhaps Fort Pierce.For now, Tebow is in a side room off the Mets' clubhouse, a 30-year old Minor Leaguer in big league camp, a
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- This was not long before Tim Tebow went outside for batting practice and hit a ball to a storage-shed roof, or perhaps Fort Pierce.
For now, Tebow is in a side room off the Mets' clubhouse, a 30-year old Minor Leaguer in big league camp, a guy who once was one of the greatest college football players of all time, a former NFL quarterback and, oh by the way, still one of the most famous athletes on the planet. High profile, even in the low Minors.
It was supposed to be a big publicity stunt -- the Mets signing Tebow, giving him this chance. But he is still here, grinding away, persistent in the thought that this crazy story ends up with him at Citi Field someday, after a full year of bus rides from one Minor League town to the next.
If this has just been some kind of celebrity hustle on Tebow's part, an effort to keep himself in the spotlight, you have to say he made it pretty hard for the spotlight to follow him around.
I asked Tebow on Thursday morning what the longest bus ride was.
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"Columbia, S.C., [where he began his season with the Class A Fireflies] to Lakewood, N.J.," Tebow said. "Thirteen hours. Or maybe it was closer to 15. Two stops."
"Then, there were the nights in places like Lexington [Ky.], when it would be a 3 1/2-hour festival on their version of the jumbotron of the worst interceptions I ever threw," Tebow said. "That was always fun."
Tebow is the most famous Minor League baseball player since Michael Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons 20 years ago. And by the way? Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was running the A's when Jordan was about to go to Birmingham, the Double-A affiliate of the White Sox. Alderson said Thursday that before that happened, he called David Falk, Jordan's agent, and offered Jordan a spot with the A's.
"Obviously, [Tebow] isn't that," Alderson said. "These are different people and different stories. But my thinking at the time on Michael went something like this: 'Why the heck not? What if he could actually do it?'"
Jordan gave up baseball after one season in Birmingham. Tebow, who hit .226 with eight home runs and 52 RBIs for Columbia and Class A Advanced Port St. Lucie, is still here, in big league camp, likely on his way to Double-A Binghamton this season.
I asked Tebow if he ever asked himself what he was doing when he was on the road from South Carolina to New Jersey.
"Oh, sure, those thoughts creep in," Tebow said. "And then, you know, you've got to be mentally tough and spiritually tough. Being physically tough, that's actually the easiest part of it for me. But then I adjust back to the reason I'm on the bus, and the reason I'm doing this. That's because I love it, because I'm passionate about it.
"It's why I pride myself on being one of the first ones here in the morning, and one of the last ones to leave. From the start, I've focused on the process, and not what I want the end result to be, which means playing in the big leagues someday."
Tebow is a big brand. A huge brand. He runs a foundation that does good, important and kind work all around the world. Tebow has written one bestselling book and is working on another. He has 4.75 million Twitter followers. He really is the most famous .226 hitter on the planet.
But Tebow does not quit. He still thinks he can outwork everybody. Of course, this is still a crazy long shot for Tebow. But why would anybody not root for it to somehow pay off? Why would anybody think him taking this shot, still dreaming his dreams, but willing to fail, isn't cool?
"I know people want to put a timetable on this," Tebow said, his Spring Training day about to begin, a baseball about to be hit out of sight. "But I don't. I honestly feel as if I'm getting better. I still love the process."
I asked Tebow if he looks back now and wishes he had focused on baseball as a kid instead of football.
"I could never say that," Tebow said. "Even though [former Florida football coach] Urban [Meyer] did have more than a few conversations about me playing baseball. But the football experience for me was such a blessing. It gave me such an incredible platform to do the things I've been able to do off the field."
"Look," Alderson said, "this is a guy who's hosted more than 200 proms around the world for kids with special needs. So obviously, we've realized from the start that this wasn't just another Minor League ballplayer. But what I have seen from him as a ballplayer is a quality individual, once great at another sport, who's now great at the commitment to trying to succeed in this sport."
The Mets' GM paused, then said, "This whole thing is genuine with Tim Tebow. Maybe people have a difficult time processing that because they've become too conditioned to people in this world not being genuine."
Alderson said that Tebow isn't taking someone else's spot in big league camp. He says that obviously the track for Tebow, fast or otherwise, is going to be different because he is now 30 years old, and will turn 31 in August.
When I asked Tebow how he sees himself as a better hitter than he was a year ago, he said, "I feel as if I have a freer and more athletic swing than I did. I have a better understanding of technique, even though I understand that the variables will change as the pressure and level of competition rise. The main goal for me is that when I do make an effective change in my swing, I lock it in and am able to take it into games with me."
The Mets' Grapefruit League season starts on Friday, when they host the Braves at 1:10 p.m. ET. Tebow, a former big football star, will get the chance to show he belongs. And then, he will likely be on his way to Double-A.
"I can handle the buses," Tebow said.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.