PORT CHARLOTTE — Last Saturday, the bus carrying the St. Lucie Mets pulled up to the visiting clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park four hours before a night game against the Stone Crabs, a Tampa Bay Rays' Class-A Florida State League affiliate. Players spilled out into suffocating afternoon heat. They grabbed orange and blue bags pulled from the underbelly of the bus. Minor league baseball is all about underbelly.
One of the last players off the bus wore black sweat pants, a black T-shirt and hat, and earphones. He picked up his bag with the No. 15 on it and headed to work, as Tim Tebow has for nearly a year during his latest, most improbable mission. He walked to the clubhouse to put his pants on one leg at a time.
There was already stirring in the stadium parking lot. Football tailgates began to break out. Rich Blanche, 52, of Homosassa Springs, had driven almost three hours to see Tebow.
"It's a pilgrimage," Blanche said. He sat under a tent with his relatives, next to his 2006 white Chevy pickup truck, the one he spent thousands of dollars on to customize it in the name of his beloved Florida Gators — orange and blue seats, an alligator hood ornament and alligator hood painting. The Florida fight song blared from the truck's speaker system. Rich blared, too. He showed you what he had brought for the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner to autograph.
"My glove box," Blanche said. It was the shell of his truck's glove compartment. He planned to bring it inside the park and have Tebow sign it.
Okay then …
This is what is heading our way, Tampa Bay. The circus. The pilgrimage.
Will Vragovic | Times
Tebow and the Mets will make an eight-game swing through our area beginning Thursday, four games at the Tampa Yankees followed by four at the Clearwater Threshers. There will be gushing crowds. Remind me again exactly why the Tebow Experiment and Tebow Effect is bad for baseball.
He has been a godsend for the Florida State League. Last Saturday in Port Charlotte, Tebow meant a sellout crowd of 7,515, the largest in Stone Crabs history. The club, which had an average attendance of 1,724 before Tebow, drew 16,000 to the four-game series with St. Lucie. Similar crowds are expected in Tampa and Clearwater. The Threshers, who lead the FSL in attendance, averaging 2,900 a game, are expecting at many as 6,000 each Tebow game.
"It's going to be electric," Clearwater general manager John Timberlake said. "There's a buzz about it."
All this for a 29-year-old (Tebow turns 30 a week from Monday) who until a year ago had not played baseball in nearly 12 years, since he was a high school junior. Some have mocked (oh, those Tebow haters) his temerity to chase another dream after he didn't light it up as an NFL quarterback.
Only there's a new buzz: Tebow has some game.
We're not saying Tebow is Bryce Harper, but it isn't a joke either. After struggling in the Arizona Fall League, then with low-A for the Columbia (S.C) Fireflies of the South Atlantic League, where he hit just .220. Tebow's left-handed swing has found a home with St. Lucie. His average hovered around .300 until recent slump dropped it to .271 entering play Friday. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Tebow, who plays outfield, had also hit five home runs, including one last Saturday in Port Charlotte.
Tebow did not speak with media, but patiently, painstakingly signed autographs and posed for selfies, taking time with fans before and after games. Fans stood in Tebow Florida jerseys and Tebow Denver Broncos jerseys. And Tebow St. Lucie Mets T-shirts, which sold for $21 at the Charlotte park.
The New York Mets, who are going nowhere this season, will need to seriously consider Tebow Aura and publicity and move him up in the system, possibly even to New York when major-league rosters are expanded in September. That once seemed like lunacy.
Tebow's college football coach, Urban Meyer, put it best when asked about Tebow's chances of being a success in baseball.
"I'd never bet against Tim Tebow," Meyer said.
And there is St. Lucie manager Chad Kreuter, a former major-league catcher who has seen circuses before. In 1994, when Kreuter was with the Detroit Tigers, he caught some spring training games that featured an earnest 6-foot-6 Chicago White Sox newcomer: Michael Jordan.
"It's different," Kreuter said. "MJ wasn't as good. He was more of an out than Tebow is."
Kreuter considered Tebow's biggest obstacle: age.
"It's a very small window. But he has an opportunity. He's stronger than 99 percent of the people. His swing path is great. It gets through the zone. He has a timing issue, because he's got 250 at-bats, compared to 2,500 at-bats some of the guys his age have in their careers."
In the middle of last month, Tebow's swing path produced the first walk-off home run of his professional career. His teammates christened him with a Gatorade bath, as if he was one of the guys.
Well, he is one of the guys. Tebow rides on the same bus, stays in the same hotel. He even has a road roommate, 22-year-old St. Lucie second baseman Michael Paez, who confessed that Tebow neither curses nor eats crackers in bed.
"He's cool. He's fun," Paez said. "He definitely helps (the team) with the food sometimes. He has some deal with PDQ."
Will Vragovic | Times
"He's as normal as can be," said St. Lucie infielder Peter Alonso, who played for Tampa's Plant High and Florida. "There's a statue of him on the (Florida) campus. He's basically a god there. What you respect is he's living the minors life. He has worked and worked. He's grinding like the rest of us."
That wasn't lost on new Rays slugger Lucas Duda, who recently came over in a trade from the Mets and who occasionally saw Tebow in spring training.
"Just watching him and the way he moves, he's a pretty freakish athlete," Duda said. "Obviously that's nothing new. And he seems like a genuinely good person."
But at least one person has some dirt on Tebow.
"Three tubs of it," said Joe Harrington, president of the Florida Fire Frogs.
Tebow and St. Lucie visited the Fire Frogs at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee in late July. The Fire Frogs had been averaging 796 fans per game. Tebow drew 5,000 people for the first night of the series. With that in mind, the team offered the "Tim Tebow VIP Experience."
For $50, fans were allowed to watch hitting practice on the field, received preferred seating and a parking pass and some commemorative dirt from the batter's box where Tebow dug in during the games. Harrington said a couple of hundred fans bought the package.
"We're putting the dirt in jars," Harrington said. "It's a great way to remember the weekend. And we wanted to be silly."
He added, "Why would you root against Tim Tebow? He's living the American dream."
Will Vragovic | Times
Neither the Tampa Yankees or Clearwater Threshers are planning any offbeat promotions, though the Threshers will mark Tebow's birthday. He will turn 30 on Aug. 14, the opening night of the series at Spectrum Field.
The Tebow Effect in Port Charlotte last weekend was prolonged and emphatic. People rose and fell with each of his at-bats. He even signed a glove box. That's right. Rich Blanche got it done.
"I've never signed a glove box before," Tebow told Blanche.
Tim Tebow went 1-for-5 last Saturday at Port Charlotte. In the seventh inning, he drove a fastball 400 feet to the opposite field, over the fence in left-center for a three-run home run. The park shook.
Even when Tebow looked bad, he came out looking good. In the ninth inning of a Mets win, Tebow swung and missed for a strikeout — but it was the 10th strikeout of the game for Stone Crabs pitchers. Through a promotion, it guaranteed ticket holders a free Frosty dessert at Wendy's. It wasn't loaves and fishes, but Tebow provided.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly