TAMPA — When Linda Fife heard Tim Tebow would be coming to town, she couldn't believe it.
After seeing the news Thursday morning, the 60-year-old Tampa resident bought a ticket, left her job at 4 p.m. hoping she'd beat the crowd, changed into her custom Tebow Florida jersey and arrived at Steinbrenner Field to see the former Gators quarterback, now with the St. Lucie Mets in the Florida State League.
Then she saw the news: Tebow wasn't in the starting lineup for the game, an 11-5 victory for the Tampa Yankees.
"Well," she said, sighing and looking beyond the outfield walls, "you can't blame him. What are you going to do?"
"I would've liked to get a close-up picture," she added.
Tebow wasn't hurt, Mets manager Chad Kreuter said. He had a day off because "he's only had two days off since he got here."
Tebow has been slumping, with just six hits in his past 49 at-bats. Before the game, he said he was "continually changing" elements of his swing and timing at the plate.
"Sometimes when you're working on things, you might have to take a step back to take a couple of steps forward when you get it done," he said.
In his first full season in professional baseball, the left-handed Tebow has hit far worse against left-handers (.181 average, .582 OPS) than right-handers (.252 average, .720 OPS). Yankees left-hander Chaz Hebert started Thursday, and though Kreuter said that didn't influence his decision to rest Tebow, the Mets started right-handers in both corner outfield spots and at designated hitter.
Attendance was 3,232 for Thursday's game — the first of four in the series with Tampa, with four more against the Threshers in Clearwater next week — and many sported Tebow gear. The number 15 appeared on Gators jerseys, Broncos jerseys, Mets shirts and even a stray Jets jersey.
Dustin Bull, 29, of Clearwater, wore a Tebow Florida jersey that he found on eBay. Bull and his wife, Christina, have tickets for Monday and Tuesday games in Clearwater. They went Thursday after finding "a last-minute deal" on tickets, he said.
As the stands began to clear early, the couple wasn't sure whether to stay to see if Tebow would enter as a pinch-hitter. "I'm trying to talk her into that," Dustin said, chuckling.
Not everyone was there for Tebow. Jeremy Sokol, 25, a Tampa resident and Florida alumnus, was hoping to see Mets first baseman Peter Alonso, a Tampa native who was a standout at Jesuit and Plant highs and Florida. And Sokol wasn't disappointed. Alonso hit an RBI double in the fourth inning.
Still, he said he wanted to see Tebow play.
"I'll probably be back at some point this week," he said.
During pregame introductions, as the announcer recited the Mets and Yankees lineup, the crowd remained mostly quiet. A few fans cheered at Hebert's name. In the second inning, as rightfielder Wuilmer Becerra came to the plate for the Mets, some fans jeered, clapping and chanting, "We want Tebow!" Throughout the game, stray "Tebow!" calls rang out at random points.
The "We want Tebow" chants resurfaced in the top of the eighth inning. In the bottom half, those fans got what they were asking for: Tebow entered as a defensive replacement in leftfield, receiving some of the loudest cheers of the night.
Did the chants influence Kreuter's decision?
"Not at all," he said.