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In praise of Tim Tebow, the baseball player who wasn't very good at baseball

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I once dreamed of playing left field for the Atlanta Braves. I’d patrol the vast, pebble-pocked outfield of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, nailing runners foolishly trying to score, scaling the chain-link fence to snare would-be home runs. (As a member of the godawful 1980s Braves, I would’ve seen plenty of action in the field.)

My dream ended as soon as it became clear in Little League that I possessed an arm that was less likely to hit the cutoff man, and more likely to hit the cutoff man’s mom sitting in the stands. But even now, every time I’m in a ballpark, I wonder what it would be like to jog out there to left and wait for a ball to come my way. (My shoulder starts screaming at the thought of firing a ball in from the warning track, but that’s a whole other thing.)

I tell this winding, self-indulgent story as a way of saluting another guy with a ridiculous, unrealistic baseball dream — a guy who, unlike me, had the means and the access and the barest hint of talent necessary to make that dream a sort-of reality:

Tim Tebow, congratulations on the conclusion of your baseball career. No, really. I’m serious.

The fact that Tebow’s retirement is news at all is a testament to Tebow himself … though most definitely not his baseball talent. By major-league standards, he was a terrible baseball player. He never got anywhere close to The Show. He swung with the force of Thor hammering the very earth itself, but with much less accuracy. Watching him track down a fly ball in the outfield brought on the same sense of dread as watching a toddler run down a hill: Oh, this could be bad, this could be really bad ...

And yet, there was something about the guy that made it impossible to turn away. We all knew he was destined for long-term failure in the pros; he’s four years older than Mike Trout, five years older than Bryce Harper, and he just started to play the game at age 28. But then he’d go do something astounding, like homering in his first minor-league at-bat:

And you’d think to yourself, there’s no way he’s really going to do this … right?

It’s strange … even writing about Tebow in 2021 feels like flipping back through a high school yearbook. As a topic of debate, he’s a relic of a bygone era. There was a time when his name alone would sustain entire sports media ecosystems. A radio show or TV shoutfest could hit the audience with “Does Tim Tebow belong in the NFL?” and keep the lights on for a whole week. (We used to joke that any time we wanted more readers, we could just drop Tebow’s name into a headline and watch the pageviews skyrocket: “Tim Tebow: No comment on new royal baby,” “Tim Tebow might use these five weight-loss tips,” “Could Tim Tebow run for president?”)

But in an era of protests and politics, infections and insurrections, the plight of a brilliant college quarterback/mediocre pro quarterback/cheerful analyst/subpar baseball player just doesn’t quite have the same resonance. Tim Tebow hot takes are now a part of internet history, back there with Dancing Baby and Keyboard Cat.

Before we play Tebow off, though, let’s give him his fair due. Yes, his slash line was pretty dang awful: .223/.299/.338. His best year came at Double-A Binghamton in 2018, where he averaged .273 and clubbed six homers — a third of his career total — in 84 games. FanGraphs projected his 2021 stats and predicted he’d have a WAR of minus-3.6 — meaning he would cost his team almost four games in a season if he played instead of your average replacement player called up from the minors.

(Moe Haidar / Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Moe Haidar / Yahoo Sports illustration)

Despite all that, to me there’s one number that sticks out: 306. That’s the number of games Tebow played in his entire professional career over four seasons, across five leagues. Three hundred and six games spent in tiny, cramped dugouts. Three hundred and six games swinging a bat and pounding a glove for teams with names like the Scorpions, the Fireflies and — this is the best — the Rumble Ponies. Three hundred and six games spent riding on buses, eating box meals, trundling over America’s back roads.

If this was just a stunt to soak up some more glory, Tebow sure committed to the bit. He played more than twice as many games as Michael Jordan … and ended with a better career batting average, too. Yes, being “Tim Tebow” opened doors that would’ve been closed to, say, Tom Tebow … but he made the most of his time inside the ballpark gates.

Before and after games. Tebow spent untold hours walking up and down autograph lines, signing and posing for selfies and listening to fans tell stories of his Gator days (often) and his Jets days (not so much). He could’ve hopped off the carousel three years before he did and nobody would’ve been surprised. But he stuck it out, chasing that dream long after most people would have called it a day and pretended that dream never mattered all that much anyway.

Look, nobody needs to feel sorry for Tebow over the end of his baseball career. He’s headed to a lucrative career as an SEC football commentator, motivational speaker and hawker of lawn-care products or nutritional supplements or something. But tip your genuine Syracuse Mets ballcap to the guy as he hangs up the spikes.

He took one more swing. Sure, he grounded out to second, but he took a swing all the same. Who wouldn’t want one more cut at a dream?

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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