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Tebow struggles at times on baseball field, makes impression in other ways

Tim Tebow, center, comforts a fan, on the ground, who was suffering a seizure Tuesday after an Arizona Fall League game in Glendale, Ariz. Tebow spent more than 15 minutes talking to the man about a wide range of topics, from Batman to fly fishing in North Carolina to football in the Southeastern Conference. [Associated Press]

Tim Tebow, center, comforts a fan, on the ground, who was suffering a seizure Tuesday after an Arizona Fall League game in Glendale, Ariz. Tebow spent more than 15 minutes talking to the man about a wide range of topics, from Batman to fly fishing in North Carolina to football in the Southeastern Conference. [Associated Press]

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The player came to home plate, bat in hand, and was greeted by the opposing catcher, Nick Ciuffo, who is acquainted with most of his opponents in the Arizona Fall League from a youth spent on baseball diamonds.

This hitter, though, Ciuffo knew only by reputation.

So as Tim Tebow was getting comfortable in the batter's box, Ciuffo introduced himself.

"I can't really like you because I'm a big South Carolina fan," Ciuffo said he told Tebow, who laughed and responded, "Well, nobody's perfect."

The scene, from a game Thursday between the Peoria Javelinas and the Scottsdale Scorpions, was a postcard-perfect tableau of Tebow's opening week here.

Two months ago, Ciuffo, a former first-round draft pick of the Rays, didn't know that Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner from Florida and a former NFL quarterback, even played baseball. Yet here Tebow was, competing with and against a group of top-level prospects, like Ciuffo, in an advanced league that is often a steppingstone to a career in the majors.

One of Tebow's Scorpions teammates is Greg Bird, a first baseman who hit 11 home runs for the New York Yankees as a rookie in 2015 before missing all of this year following shoulder surgery.

Another teammate, and a fellow member of the New York Mets' organization, is Gavin Cecchini, who made his major league debut in September after a late-season call-up from Triple A; Cecchini doubled twice in one of the few games he played in the majors.

The 29-year-old Tebow, meanwhile, last played baseball as a junior in high school in Ponte Vedra Beach, in 2005. It is a daunting task to try to knock off 11 years of cobwebs and the cover of the baseball against pitchers like Thursday's Peoria starter, Kyle McGrath, who had a cup of tea at Triple A this season, pitching 12/3 innings for San Diego's team in El Paso.

Not surprisingly, in his first week here, Tebow sometimes looked outclassed.

He went hitless in 11 plate appearances in his first three games, recording six groundouts, three strikeouts and two walks against the highest quality pitching he has faced by far in his new baseball adventure. On the flip side, he has already demonstrated a good eye, chasing few bad pitches.

"I totally get that it's a process," Tebow said.

And whether he is polished on the diamond seems not to matter to the fans who show up in their New York Jets replica No. 15 Tebow jerseys or their Denver Broncos replica No. 15 jerseys or their University of Florida replica No. 15 jerseys.

Daniel Kelly, a one-time Jets scout who left football to become a debt counselor and a minister in Arizona, showed up at Tebow's Arizona Fall League debut at Camelback Ranch Stadium on Tuesday night in a No. 15 pinstriped Mets jersey. It was a gift from his wife, Samantha, who paid extra for express delivery last week from Florida so that Hurricane Matthew would not prevent the shirt from arriving in time for the game.

The day after his debut, Tebow played his first home game at Scottsdale Stadium in front of nearly 1,800 fans, which was well above last year's average of 500 for Scorpions games.

At home or on the road this past week, the fans were like the tides: When Tebow was preparing to hit, they spilled down from their seats in the shade to vantage points near the on-deck circle, where they snapped selfies with Tebow in the background or trained their lenses on him. After his at-bat they retreated, to get out of the mid-90s heat.

Tebow is excellent for business, but is baseball excellent for him? His fall league manager has kept an open mind.

"I want to look at it with clear eyes," said Tom Goodwin, the Mets' first-base coach during the major-league season.

During his 14-year playing career, Goodwin was a teammate of Barry Bonds for one season in San Francisco, which proved great preparation for presiding over the Tebow media show.

It's a show that generates inevitable cynicism from others — that this is all a publicity stunt or simply an effort by the Mets to build up credit with Tebow's agent, who also represents All-Star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes can opt out of his current contract after the World Series and the Mets, perhaps with the help of his agent, are hoping they can convince him to stick around.

Goodwin maintained that Tebow is on the Scorpions for the same reason as his teammates: to improve as a player. He may have a lot to learn on the field, Goodwin added, but Tebow also has leadership skills, a factor that Mets general manager Sandy Alderson cited when the team signed Tebow for $100,000 last month.

Those attributes were on display Tuesday, when after going 0-for-3 at the plate in his first game and crashing face-first into the left-field wall while chasing a fly ball, Tebow comforted a fan who had collapsed in convulsions and stayed with him until his seizures subsided and the paramedics arrived.

Noticing that the fan was wearing a Batman T-shirt, Tebow asked him if he liked the comic book character. "I was just trying to find something that he'd relate to," Tebow said later.

Tebow ended up spending more than 15 minutes talking to the man about a wide range of topics, from fly fishing in North Carolina to football in the Southeastern Conference. The rest of the Scorpions waited on the team bus.

"He was a little late for the bus," centerfielder Champ Stuart said. "But he had a great excuse."

Tebow, who is also continuing his stint as a weekend college football analyst while he plays in the fall league, is aware his every move, his every good Samaritan act, is scrutinized for ulterior motives.

"It's not something I can control, so I really don't spend time worrying about it," he said, adding: "When you stand for something, or you try to, you're going to be criticized. And that's part of the world."

Tebow said he does not pay attention to what is being said or written about him, or at least tries not to. "They tell you to let it go in one ear and out the other," he said. "I try not to let it even get to an ear."

But he is open to what his younger teammates have to say, and they have already said a lot.

Scorpions catcher Taylor Ward, a Los Angeles Angels prospect, joked that Tebow's glove looked so dated that he wouldn't be surprised if it was the one he used in high school 11 years ago (it isn't). Ward also took a playful swipe at Tebow's uniform pants, which are hemmed so they fall to the tops of his shoes.

"Definitely, I would have his pants over his cleats," Ward said with a laugh, adding, "Just kind of have to talk to him a bit because baseball players have to have that swag."

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)

Every time Tebow batted in his first three games, players with conspicuously longer baseball resumes than his leaned on or over the railing of the opponent's dugout to watch. From his catcher's crouch Thursday, Ciuffo had the best vantage point.

After their initial exchange, Ciuffo and Tebow kept up their banter. During one plate appearance that day, Tebow complimented Ciuffo on a throw he had made. Ciuffo said he replied, "Now if I could figure out the offense part."

Tebow told him he would be fine.

In Ciuffo's next at-bat, he tripled. When Tebow later came to the plate for another at-bat, he grinned at Ciuffo and said, "Man, I should be your coach."

Ciuffo beamed as he told the story.

"It's really cool to see him out here," he said. "I think everybody deserves a chance. If he's good enough, put him in the big leagues. If he's not, he's not."

Tebow struggles at times on baseball field, makes impression in other ways 10/15/16 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2016 10:28pm]
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