COLUMBIA, S.C. – Tim Tebow has a way of re-writing scripts, of changing course when one least expects it, which is how he ended up here in the first place, clad in the fluorescent colors of the Columbia Fireflies, four stops and thousands of miles from Citi Field and the New York Mets club that indulged his dream.
Launch a baseball career after bottoming out as an NFL quarterback? Tebow was not joking.
Launch a baseball some 375 feet to the opposite field for a home run in his first true professional at-bat?
Well, that happened too, and you almost had to be at Spirit Communications Park to believe it.
After failed stints in the Arizona Fall League and spring training’s Grapefruit League that bordered on the embarrassing, Tebow accepted his minor league assignment to this low Class A outpost fully aware of the virtually impossible odds to reach the major leagues at age 29.
That doesn’t mean he’s not capable of the occasional Tebow magic on the diamond.
In his first at-bat as a bona fide minor leaguer, Tebow drove a 2-1 pitch from Augusta GreenJackets lefty Domenic Mazza off and over the fence in left field for a two-run home run, sending an overflow crowd into a disbelieving frenzy.
The shot came in the bottom of the second inning of Tebow’s first game with the Mets’ affiliate, and came on the heels of a spring training performance in which he struggled Grapefruit League exhibitions against major league clubs, getting just four hits in 27 at bats (a .148 average).
It appears he’ll like lower minor league pitching a little better.
Tebow grounded out in his second at-bat, against reliever Matt Solter, but the pitcher he took deep does have some pedigree. While Mezza is a far cry from Max Scherzer – the National League Cy Young winner who struck him out on three pitches last month – he’s far from a novice. Mezza, 22, posted a 3.93 ERA in 14 starts in this same South Atlantic League last season.
After fouling off a pair of pitches and deftly laying off a curveball in the dirt, Tebow – with fans clad in his jersey from the University of Florida, the Denver Broncos and even freshly purchased Fireflies Tebow T-shirts – created his first bit of baseball lore, bouncing the ball over the left-center field wall, pausing before an umpire signaled home run, and then pumping his arms in exultation.
It was an electric moment on a night that saw curiosity give way to reality.
For the first time, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner’s name was written into a regular season baseball lineup, which meant somebody else’s was not.
It meant that the thousands of fans here didn’t just have to root for anonymous minor league laundry - rather, they could pay $25 for the Tim Tebow Columbia Fireflies T-shirt jersey.
It meant one of sport’s most enduring love affairs – that between Tebow and his fans clustered largely in the far right corner of the USA – was once again rekindled.
That’s the easy part for Tebow. There will always be a job for him, most likely, at the SEC Network, where his telegenic aura and college football bona fides - two national titles at the University of Florida, that Heisman, a cult-like following even among opposing fans – ensure a high profile.
This baseball slog? Well, the short bursts last fall and this spring now give way to a five-month grind that might embarrass a less humble man. It’s bound to test even the relentlessly positive Tebow.
“The real deal starts tonight,” Columbia manager Jose Leger told USA TODAY Sports before Thursday’s game. “The numbers count, now. We’ll see how he does.”
Leger toggles between his awe at Tebow’s progress – “By the end of spring training, I was amazed and very impressed with him because of how much he progressed,” he says - and the pragmatic reality that at 29, with a bat that looked too slow for major league standards this spring, the odds are very much against the Fireflies’ most notorious player.
“He’s aware of it,” Leger says. “He doesn’t say anything about it. He knows what’s at stake here. He knows his goals. He’s prepared for it. It’s just going to be a matter of the results.”
By all indications, the Mets want to find out soon. Leger says Tebow is “going to be playing mostly every day” for the low Class A affiliate, save for the occasional day off. And that means someone else won’t be playing.
To that end, Leger has huddled with every member of the Fireflies, never mentioning other players’ names, only to stress to them: This is your job, this is how much you will play every week.
“I also tell them,” he says, “this is subject to change. Could be because of your performance, somebody getting hurt, someone getting promoted to get you more or less playing time, so it’s up to you from here on out.”
On Opening Night, the odd man out at Tebow’s expense was Jacob Zanon, a 21-year-old who was drafted in the 15th round last year. When Tebow announced this baseball gambit, Zanon said he and his teammates at short-season Brooklyn wondered aloud: What are the odds Tebow ends up on our team?
Sure enough, just a few weeks later Zanon and Tebow were in instructional league together. Thursday, it was Tebow who jogged out to left field while Zanon sat.
“My take on it is, it’s not really up to me, obviously,” says Zanon, who’s in his first full season of pro ball. ‘It’s up to a higher power. Whenever I get in there, I’m going to make the best of my opportunities, and that’s all I can really do. That’s all I have to say about that.”
Zanon, like most everyone in contact with Tebow, was effusive in his praise of the former quarterback’s attitude and mindset. “There’s really nothing to complain about with that guy,” he said.
Indeed, Tebow’s leadership and experience can take many forms. Before Thursday’s game, after a rendition of America the Beautiful and Star-Spangled Banner, the Fireflies assembled on the third-base line waiting for a military procession to exit the field as a stiff breeze blew on the 58-degree night. It was Tebow who knew it was appropriate to head to the dugout once the color guard ducked out of sight, down the third base line.
Then, he jogged out to left field, accompanied by a pair of Little Leaguers, and under the admiring gaze of thousands.
“I’m a Clemson girl, but I did enjoy watching him play for Florida,” said Anna Powell, who like her 24-year-old husband, Jeremy, was clad in a Tebow shirt jersey. “As a female before I got married, I thought that he was attractive.
“From what I’ve heard, he’s all-around just a great guy. He’s done a lot for kids with special needs, and that hits home because I have an uncle with special needs. So if I’m going to root for someone, it’s going to be a good guy.”
Perhaps the South Atlantic League will be kinder to Tebow. The Mets will give him opportunity. They can only give him so much time, and that clock started Thursday.
“He’s improved so much and that’s only in the month and a half I’ve seen with him,” says Leger.
“He knows he has a lot of catching up to do.”
At least for one at-bat, playing catch-up was downright electric.
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