BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Before the minor league season started here, a local news anchor asked a sports reporter if one of the new players on the Binghamton Rumble Ponies was a good baseball player.
“No, not really,” the reporter said.
The player in question is an anomaly. His talent on the field is beside the point. He is Tim Tebow, a former Heisman Trophy-winner and NFL quarterback whose celebrity transcends sports. A lot of people seem interested in whatever he’s doing, whether it’s football, baseball, canasta or pickup sticks.
Before he played in his first game last month for the Rumble Ponies — the New York Mets’ Class AA affiliate — Binghamton had a touch of Tebow fever.
Downtown businesses had perked up, counting on an influx of new customers. There were Tebow-theme menu items, like Beer Tree Brew Co.‘s Tebow Time IPA, served at Craft Bar and Kitchen, and an array of Tebow-inspired sandwiches elsewhere. Local churches have coveted his presence.
Tebow briefly put the focus on baseball when he launched the first pitch of his first at-bat over the right-center-field wall at NYSEG Stadium in front of 5,247 fans, the most to attend a home opener here in nearly 25 years, despite near freezing temperatures.
“I’ve played in colder in football, but that’s probably the coldest baseball game I ever played,” Tebow told reporters after the game. “It was a great day, it was a fun day, but it was just one day.”
Through 26 games, Tebow’s statistics were modest: a .244 batting average with three home runs and 12 runs batted in. But, again, that stuff hardly matters with Tebow.
What has become known as the Tebow effect — the economic benefits generated by his celebrity — comes at a fortunate time for Binghamton, a proud baseball city that was on the verge of losing its team just a couple of years ago.
Just don’t tell the Rumble Ponies owner John Hughes that his club got lucky landing Tebow.
“Things don’t just happen, buddy,” said Hughes, who entered the picture with a plan to save baseball in Binghamton in December 2015, well before Tebow was on the city’s radar. “You put your nose down and get after it and get to work and good things are going to happen. That’s kind of how I live my life.”
Hughes, a gregarious businessman and defense contractor based in Georgia, has tried to revamp the franchise, whose total home attendance was last in the Eastern League each season from 2010 through 2015.
“I do everything at the stadium from make nachos to write big checks,” he said. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world. I’m not the most talented person. But I’ll get out there and work as hard as anybody else.”
With no previous ties to the region, he led a group (Evans Street Baseball Inc.) that purchased the Binghamton Mets (as they were then known) in 2015, after the team’s deal with a different ownership group that would have moved it to Delaware fell through.
“His commitment to this community is huge,” said Judi Hess, director of the city’s tourism office. “So to have something like this happen under his watch is awesome too because it’s like a little bit of payback for his personal investment and his belief in our community.”
Other towns have experienced the Tebow effect. When Tebow was a backup quarterback for the New York Jets in 2012, crowds of fans flocked to training camp in Cortland, New York, about 40 miles north of Binghamton. The visitors bureau projected that about $1 million of additional revenue would be injected into the small town’s economy.
In Tebow’s first stint in minor league baseball, with the Class A Columbia Fireflies in South Carolina, attendance grew by about 750 fans per home game — or $600,000 in revenue for the club, Baseball America estimated. His next stop was Port St. Lucie, Florida, where the Class A Mets soon experienced record attendance.
“It was nice being able to play in front of people,” said Peter Alonso, a top Mets prospect here who also played with Tebow in Port St. Lucie.
Tebow, who hit .226 with eight homers and 52 runs batted in with the two Class A teams in 2017, has tried to keep the focus on baseball during his time in the Mets’ system. But he is aware of his off-field impact.
“If there’s a way I can help a community and be someone that can be a little bit of a light, whether that’s visiting a hospital and encouraging kids, bringing hope or maybe even helping the economy, that would be awesome,” Tebow told reporters last month.
He signs a lot of autographs before games, but has kept a low profile around town in the little time he has had here. The few sightings included him shopping for furniture at Olum’s and getting a healthy lunch at CoreLife Eatery. Tebow will also speak at First Baptist Church of Johnson City on May 21.
He has yet to try the many food and beverage items that bear his name, including the Tebow Time IPA.
“He doesn’t drink, which is unfortunate for him, in my opinion,” Don Titus, the general manager of Craft Bar and Kitchen, said. “Given the opportunity, I’d love the chance to try to convince him, or at least have him in for dinner.”
While Tebow was working his way through Class A, Hughes was busy remaking his new investment, which included a rebranding of the team name, which had been “Mets” since the team started in 1992.
“I said it a thousand times, you know, we’re not the Mets,” Hughes said. “The Mets’ colors come from the blue of the Dodgers and orange of the Giants, and the bridge represents going over to Queens, and that has nothing to do with Binghamton. We have plenty of bridges, but no long-span bridges like that.”
During the 2016 season, the team solicited suggestions for a new name online and ended up with six finalists from 1,500 submitted. Rumble Ponies won out over other seemingly bizarre choices like Stud Muffins, Timber Jockeys and Rocking Horses, which some fans found difficult to accept. These four options were, in fact, all in reference to the area’s impressive collection of antique carousels.
“People have complained about the name, those who don’t come to the ballpark,” Cyndy Healy, a season-ticket holder since 2004, said. “But I ask them, ‘Do you know what a Rumble Pony is?’ It’s the strongest steed on the carousel. We have carousels, and that’s what we want to be.”
Hughes admitted the name change was divisive, but he wanted to do something that would at least engage the fan base.
“I don’t even mind the haters,” Hughes said. “My biggest fear would have been if everybody would have said, ‘Well, I don’t care.’ Indifference was our enemy. And so that’s why I said, ‘Let’s find out how passionate our fan base is and let’s get this started.’ And, I mean, people responded.”
The other priority was improving the fan experience at the stadium, with a focus on renovating the concession areas, which included a party deck in right field that opened for the 2017 season. Binghamton’s average of 3,289 fans in 2017, while still last in the league, was its highest since 2007, and in August the city was selected to host the 2020 Eastern League All-Star Game.
“John Hughes has put a lot of money and effort into making this place a lot of fun,” William Koehler, the Rumble Ponies’ director of food and beverage, said. “It’s like the icing on the cake, having Tebow here, and having people say, ‘Hey, let’s go see Tebow,’ and then see what we’ve done. It’s kind of rewarding.”