AUGUSTA, Ga. – To get to Lake Olmstead Stadium, home of the Augusta GreenJackets (get it?), you drive down Milledge Road, past Julian Smith Park and American Legion Post 63. Parking is free. There’s a cemetery out past the right-field foul pole, and the gentle hills of South Carolina roll out beyond left. As the GreenJackets toss baseballs, getting loose for tonight’s game, Zac Brown’s sentimental “My Old Man” wafts over the field. Old Glory waves lazily in the late-afternoon breeze. It’s a pitch-perfect portrait of idyllic small-town America.
And then Tim Tebow takes the field.
Tim Tebow is playing baseball, and nobody really seems to know why. Tebow – Heisman Trophy winner, national champion, ex-NFL quarterback, faith-based inspiration, and hot-take generator without equal – did more than raise eyebrows last summer when he announced plans to pick up a sport he hadn’t played since high school. He set off gales of laughter and ridicule, professional pundits and Twitter wits alike scoffing that he was doing this for easy publicity, for merch sales, for cheap glory, for one last desperate grab at the spotlight. Absent any other info, it was tough to doubt that angle.
Somehow, it’s been four and a half years since Tebow played in an actual NFL regular-season game. It only seems more recent because Tebow’s been so adept at remaining in the spotlight, whether attempting to play for the Patriots (2013); appearing on SEC football broadcasts (2014); attempting a comeback with the Eagles (2015); and finally, holding a strange “tryout” for 28 of 30 major-league teams last year.
In the wake of that tryout, the Mets signed Tebow to a minor-league deal, sending him to their Instructional League, then the Arizona Fall League amid disbelief and skepticism about the motives at play here. Surely this was a greedy cash grab by the Mets, yet another sad example of our nation prizing celebrity over competence while Tebow tried to eke out a few last cheers from the grandstands.
And maybe all that’s true, but here’s Tebow, on a warm Saturday evening in a tiny stadium worlds removed from The Swamp or Mile High, wearing No. 15 for the Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies, the Mets’ Single A affiliate. Tebow arrived here tonight on a bus, and he’ll leave on a bus, and in between, he’ll play some pretty unspectacular baseball before a sellout crowd that is literally just happy to see him.
Two hours before the 6 p.m. first pitch, the Fireflies have trickled out into shallow left field, and the first thing you notice about Tebow is how much bigger he is than any of his teammates. They’re younger than him, in some cases nearly a decade so, but still: Tebow’s built like a fire hydrant. It’s not a traditional baseball look, not a body type that adapts well to baserunning or fly-ball tracking.
The next thing you notice about Tebow – still sporting No. 15, just like the old days in Gainesville – is that he’s still got the exact same throwing motion that bedeviled SEC defenses and enraged NFL offensive coordinators. His left hand drops low, looping around through two time zones before he lets the ball go. Scouts have clocked Tom Brady’s release at 2.09 seconds; Tebow’s, on the other hand, might not arrive before Christmas.
Tebow’s not the first Heisman winner to play minor-league baseball; Florida State’s Chris Weinke, Texas’s Ricky Williams, and a fella by the name of Bo all took cuts in the minor leagues. But Weinke played before his Florida State days, and Williams dabbled in baseball while still in college. Jackson, of course, was headed for stardom in whatever sport he chose, and minor-league baseball was little more than a brief traffic stop en route to the majors.
In his first games as a minor-leaguer, Tebow did juuuuust enough to keep outright laughter at bay and make SportsCenter highlights. He homered in his very first at-bat in the Instructional League, and then homered in his very first in-season minor-league at-bat. It was enough to give even a hardened seen-it-all cynic an instant’s pause: he can’t really do this … can he?
— Columbia Fireflies (@ColaFireflies) April 7, 2017
But baseball has a way of dragging you down to your natural level, and for Tebow, that level’s been damn near subterranean. He comes into the evening batting .185, a mere four hits (two of them home runs) on 23 at-bats. His arm, his speed, his dynamics – all unimpressive. And this is in Single-A ball, where only a handful of players will ever get anywhere near the majors without buying a ticket. If Tebow’s flailing here – and the sample size is growing inexorably toward a valid level – what hope does he have of advancing?
The gates to Lake Olmstead Stadium open at 4:30 p.m. – season-ticket holders get to walk in on a little red carpet, which is nice – and the vast majority of fans gravitate over toward the third-base line. Quite a few fans are sporting Gator-blue jerseys – we’re in Georgia, yes, but we’re not far from the part of south Georgia where the line of allegiances between Bulldogs and Gators starts to blur. There’s a guy here wearing a still-new TEBOW 15 Mets jersey, and one father-and-daughter pair sporting, of all things, matching Tebow Jets jerseys.
At 5:38, Tebow, now in full uniform, jogs out of the Fireflies’ dugout and onto the field. The crowd cheers in gleeful recognition. Milton Ramos, the Fireflies’ shortstop, opens his arms wide to the crowd and shouts, “Thank you, thank you,” bowing to the fans with mock gratitude as Tebow runs past him.
Tebow and his teammates are an odd mix. Tebow’s the oldest player on the Fireflies’ roster by four years, old enough that several of his teammates rooted for him as far back as his college days. First baseman Dash Winningham, a decade younger than Tebow, grew up in Ocala, Florida, an hour south of Gainesville, and was in The Swamp when Tebow, then just a freshman, threw his infamous hop-step touchdown against LSU:
“He’s been awesome to have around,” Winningham says. “The type of guy he is, the way he is in the clubhouse … I’m going to cherish having him as a teammate.” Winningham calls Tebow his “favorite Gator,” and over the last few weeks, he’s relived quite a few memories of big games in The Swamp with the guy who created them.
“When you’re talking about attitude, work habits, the energy he brings to the team, he’s outstanding,” says Fireflies manager Jose Leger. “He’s a great guy to have inside the clubhouse, and he’s a mentor to the other guys. He leads by example.”
Wait a second. Mentoring? Even the youngest player on the team – that would be Ali Sanchez, who turned 20 in January – has more experience on the baseball diamond than Tebow. What could an ex-QB helicoptering into the dugout – metaphorically, not literally – possibly teach to guys who’ve been living this life for years?
“He talks to guys one-on-one, talking about how to handle the day-to-day work, how to handle failure,” Leger says. “Some of these young kids, they expect to see results right away. You get results over time with hard work. He understands that already, which is an advantage to him.”
We’ll say it before you can: regardless of his thoughts on baseball, failure is a subject that Tebow now knows quite well.
The game begins, and it’s not long before Tebow sees his first action. In the bottom of the first, Shawon Dunston Jr., son of the former Cub, loops a fly ball out toward left. Tebow approaches it like a man trying to cross a busy street – starting, stopping, starting, stopping, and finally gloving the ball. It’s the kind of fly that pro outfielders catch on the run, but Tebow has made it far more interesting than it needed to be.
He’s the third man up in the top of the second, and he comes to the plate with men on first and third. A thousand cell phones rise to film the occasion, and Tebow responds by slapping the sixth pitch right at the second baseman. It’s a ball made for a double play, but Tebow’s able to leg out a safe call at first. Meanwhile, the man on third scores, giving Tebow an RBI by a half-step.
The rest of the game proceeds quickly, and for Tebow, in similar fashion. He grounds out again to second base, and ropes a shot straight at the left fielder, finishing the night 0-for-3. He gets one more chance in the field, and manages to snare a foul ball without turning an ankle on the left-field bullpen mound. The Fireflies win 1-0, and it’s somehow poetic and perfect that Tebow brought home the winning run while still making an out.
The fans don’t much seem to care; they’re happy to cheer on Tebow with every bit as much verve as the home team. Tebow had signed autographs just prior to the game, and in the seventh inning, one bold Gator jersey-clad fan sends his orange helmet-bearing son down to ask for an autograph while Tebow’s in the on-deck circle. Tebow holds up a hand to stop the lad. You can’t hear what he says, but you’re certain he was polite.
Tebow’s a Rorschach blot, a blank slate, a multipurpose symbol that you can twist to whatever purpose you wish. Here’s a quick example: A few minutes before the game started, Tebow was the last position player to join the Fireflies in the dugout. He stood over the bullpen catcher’s shoulder, watching starting pitcher Merandy Gonzalez warm up. Was he trying to understand pitch movement, or was he waiting for a chance to walk alone through the inevitable cheers? Putting in extra work, or angling for extra glory? You could make a case for both.
The Tebow Circus is unlike anything minor-league baseball has seen since Michael Jordan rode the bus in 1994. Media relations teams throughout the South Atlantic League now field credential requests, autograph demands, charity inquiries – appeals of all kinds, from the noble to the self-serving, at a level they’ve never seen before. Tebow now confines his media appearances to a single session prior to the first game of every series, where he plays the role of big-time politician rolling into town and charming the local outlets. It’s well-choreographed, a cheerful bit of small-town evening news content, and again – you can read it as heartwarming or cynical, whichever you prefer.
After the game, Tebow and his teammates walk through narrow, mud-caked hallways of painted cinderblock to the visitors’ dugout. There, boxed dinners of chicken fingers, fries, and tiny cups of ranch dressing await. The players dip into a weatherbeaten cooler for bottled water, and clean up for the 75-mile bus ride back to Columbia. If this is all a publicity stunt, a bit of performative humility, Tebow’s sure committing hard to the role.
Let’s cut through the romanticism and the treacle. What’s the end game here? Realistically, how far can Tebow go before the Mets bring the lights down on this little show? Tebow’s got far more yesterdays than tomorrows in his professional career, and he was miles behind his peers a decade before he swung at his first pitch. Four-time All-Star and former NL MVP Bryce Harper is four years younger than Tebow, as is five-time All-Star and two-time MVP Mike Trout. Tebow’s learning curve here is a wall, straight up and extending into the clouds.
To the untrained eye, Tebow looks like he’d be the best guy on your church-league softball team: powerful, yes, but lacking that lithe grace and intuitive sense of the game of even the 25th man on a major league roster. But Leger, the Fireflies’ manager, insists that Tebow’s on the right path:
“His at-bats are getting better,” he says. “He’s more on time [with his swings]. He’s getting his hands back, getting ready for the fastball. He’s getting better in the outfield. He’s here on a mission. He wants to get better, and one day get to the big leagues.”
Leger also adopts the “hey, you never know” philosophy that’s the default when talking about Tebow: nobody ought to be able to do this, but if anyone could …
“We can’t predict what is going to happen,” he says. “We can’t predict what is going to happen with some of the guys that we consider our big prospects. You’ve seen in the past, a guy who’s a No. 1 prospect for a team never goes past Double-A. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. It’s in his hands, and we’ll see if it works out in the end.”
It’s just under two miles from home plate at Lake Olmstead Stadium to the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club. Six days ago, Sergio Garcia stood on that green, before a gallery roughly the size of this sold-out stadium, and rolled in a putt to win the Masters in his 19th attempt. Over the course of his two-decade career, Garcia had achieved worldwide fame, amassed riches beyond measure, and enjoyed love and respect from those around him. But he’d never won a major, and so he pressed on, pushed forward, long after most had written him off as a joke.
Garcia is a study in pursuit and resilience, and so too, in his own way, is Tebow. Sure, Tebow’s baseball “journey” has all the history of a butterfly’s lifespan. And he’s created, as ESPN’s David Fleming put it in an exceptional, lacerating essay, a cottage industry known as “Failure Incorporated.” But so what? Tebow wants to play some ball, and he’s got at least the basic skills to do a decent impersonation of a ballplayer. Nobody’s getting hurt here. (Those concerned with the plight of the theoretical minor leaguer whose job Tebow “stole” would be better off focusing on the woeful economic state of the real-life minor leaguers who’ll make about $1,500 a month playing alongside Tebow.)
Granted, Tebow’s odds of advancing on merit are vanishingly small. “Inspirational clubhouse presence” isn’t one of the five tools scouts look for when judging major-league talent, not even with advanced metrics. If Tebow gets promoted up through the ranks of the Mets organization, it’ll be to sell tickets, not win games … and if that offends your purist sensibilities, well, you haven’t been paying attention to professional sports for the last half-century or so.
When you look at Tebow’s baseball dream not as desperate attempt for glory, but as a chance to give a wild idea one last whirl, it starts to make more sense. It’s not all that different from any other absurd swing-for-the-fences dreams. That novel you want to write, that bar you want to open, that cross-country trip you want to take … look hard enough, and you can see it in Tebow’s loping swing. We chase those dreams until we feel too foolish to keep on chasing them. Why bust on Tebow for holding onto his a little bit longer than most?
The guy who spent his entire life as an athlete can now measure his chances left to take the field, any field, in months, maybe weeks. Why not one last ride? There’ll always be a microphone available for Tebow to talk faith and football. But even the best of us show up at the ballpark one day to find the gates locked.
Who benefits from the Tim Tebow Baseball Experience?
The Mets do, of course, and so does every team in the South Atlantic League. The Mets reap the benefit of Tebow jersey sales and increased attention to their otherwise anonymous lower-tier affiliates. The Fireflies have sold out nearly every game they’ve played, and quite a few still ahead on the schedule. Every opposing team with the good fortune to have Columbia on the slate early in the year is offering up some variant on TEBOW COMIN’, and the fans are following.
Then there’s the media, of course, Tebow being a reliable go-to for clicks, ratings, dismissive hot takes and what-it-all means thinkpieces (howdy). You’ll never go broke saying Tebow’s either a revelation or a fraud, and your inbox will never go lonely after you say so, either.
Tebow himself accrues more attention and love out of all this, his failure cast once again as a sign of noble struggle. He could have—indeed, probably should have—walked away from the game the moment after hitting that first home run, but even if he sees this all the way through to its inevitable close, his legacy’s as fixed as that famous plaque on the stadium down in Gainesville.
But there’s one group who benefits from Tebow’s presence in these tiny ballparks whose motives you can’t question, one group without an angle or long game to play. That group – the fans – is lined up three deep along the walkway from the visitors’ locker room to the door of the Fireflies’ Champion Coach, jerseys and photos and books and footballs in hand.
Less than an hour after the final out, Tebow walks out of the locker room and toward the crowd. He’s one of the first of the Fireflies out the door, and as he’s signing, again and again, his teammates file past him onto the bus. Tebow signs at least a couple hundred autographs, fist-bumps little kids, even takes a couple phones to pose for selfies, smiling the whole time.
“GOD BLESS YOU, TIM TEBOW,” a father shouts, and it’s not the sarcastic smartassery borne of too many hours on Twitter, but what sure sounds like gratitude. To these fans, it doesn’t matter whether Tebow goes 0-for-the-rest of his career. More than one fan tonight has said it’s not important that Tebow succeed, it just matters that he’s out there trying.
After 20 minutes or so, the crowd thins out. Tebow’s the last player on the bus, the doors scissoring shut behind him. And then the bus is gone, rolling off down Milledge Road, leaving several dozen new true believers to spread the Tebow gospel in its wake.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.