BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — For Tim Tebow, the past two months in this upstate city have been mostly about one thing: baseball, specifically his attempt to pull off what just about everyone thinks is the impossible - going from someone who just 21 months ago hadn’t played the game in 11 years, to making it to the major leagues.
But for now, that can wait. On a recent May evening, one of the first seasonably warm nights of the spring up here, Tebow actually ventured out to grab something to eat. As he relays the story to a small group of reporters prior to a Binghamton Rumble Ponies doubleheader a few days later, Tebow is asked what kind of reaction his presence drew from the restaurant staff.
"I didn’t go in," he says of the order of burgers he was picking up. "I ordered them to go."
Asked if he ever gets the chance to enjoy a dine-in meal, Binghamton’s most recognizable part-time resident laughs.
"Um." he says, smirking as reporters and Rumble Pony employees chuckle. "I don’t do that too much. I’m more pick it up and go-ish."
Life these days for the congenial 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, former NFL quarterback and current ESPN college football analyst is anything like that of the stereotypical minor leaguer, whose off nights are more often spent at greasy burger joints or dive bars where local girls dream of courting future major league stars who’ll help them make it out of town.
Not that Tebow hasn’t tried to be somewhat of a regular up here. Soon after arriving from spring training in April, he ventured out to a restaurant in the town of Vestal, about 10 minutes from the Rumble Ponies’ home park, NYSEG Stadium, and just across the Susquehanna River from the more well-known town of Endicott.
In a strip mall featuring such fast food staples as Chipotle and Five Guys Burgers and Fries as well as delectable desert chains like Coldstone Creamery and Insomnia Cookies, the famously healthy eater made his way into a salad restaurant with a name - CoreLife Eatery - that doesn’t exactly make the taste buds dance.
He stood in line, and he was noticed.
"I got a text that said, ‘Tebow’s here,’ " says Todd Mansfield, a CoreLife co-founder who grew up in and still lives in Vestal. "And then a friend of mine got a picture of him with our sign in the background. It was crazy."
It was also a valuable lesson learned for Tebow and the start of a relationship between him and Mansfield, who later reached out to a member of Tebow’s inner circle with a simple but genuine offer.
"I said if he needs anything, let me know," says Mansfield. "So he just said, if you can help me get food and if you can bring it out to my car.
"That was sort of the beginning of our relationship."
But far from the end of it. Several weeks later, after a number of conversations with the health-conscious former NFL quarterback that mostly centered around his diet, Mansfield - a self-described ‘Christian man, just like him’ - asked Tebow if he would be willing to speak to a non-denominational Christian youth ministry he’s part of called "Young Life".
Tebow responded with an enthusiastic yes.
Tebow addressed a crowd of about 1,100 at the First Baptist Church of Johnson City, which seats approximately 1,800 and draws crowds of about 600-700 on any given Sunday, according to executive pastor Russ Smith, who received a call from Mansfield asking if the church was willing and able to handle the type of crowd that a speaker like Tebow would draw.
Three days after Tebow’s two-hour sermon, Smith is still impressed with Tebow and his message to the crowd of mostly teenagers: Don’t be afraid to be the person God made you to be.
"He just did a great job. I think he’s a great role model. He has a positive message. He didn’t put on airs. He just seemed normal," Smith says. "I walked away from the evening thinking, this guy’s the real deal."
That seems to be a common theme up here, locals coming away from encounters with Tebow thinking he’s as genuine as he’s been made out to be.
Still, there are skeptics.
Across the street from NYSEG Stadium, a foul pop behind the first base dugout, bartender Trevor Farley serves just one customer at 1 p.m. as the Rumble Ponies wrap up a victory against the Richmond Flying Squirrels in a game that starts at 10:35 a.m. and is played in front of a crowd of about 5,000 school children on Baseball in Education Day. Farley notices an uptick in attendance since the early days of the season, when brutally cold weather kept away all but the most loyal fans. Still, the team is averaging just less than 2,500 fans per game, second lowest in the Eastern League behind only the Erie SeaWolves.
Farley does think Tebow has had a positive effect on local businesses but isn’t optimistic about the prospects of meeting the player who’s responsible for it. At least not in his little dive bar, named Mad Monks.
"I want to meet him but I wouldn’t expect to," Farley said. "I mean, he doesn’t drink, does he? Supposedly. Supposedly. I have a hard time believing it but he might be the real deal, I don’t know. Maybe he’s really that good of a guy. Doesn’t drink, doesn’t have sex, doesn’t do all the things that all of us like to do, a lot."
He does seem too good to be true, and he does have his critics, as do the Mets, who signed Tebow in September 2016 in a move that was widely seen as a publicity stunt, something that general manager Sandy Alderson eventually admitted, but not before first calling the signing a "baseball move," a statement for which he and the team were summarily mocked.
Then 29, Tebow was sent to the instructional league, where he played alongside teenagers fresh out of high school. In a 64-game stint with the Columbia Fireflies in the Single-A South Atlantic League in 2017, Tebow hit .220 with three homers and 23 RBIs. He struck out 69 times in 214 at-bats.
In two fewer games that same season with the Single-A St. Lucie Mets of the Florida State League, Tebow raised his average 11 points, hit five home runs and drove in 29 while striking out 12 fewer times.
His overall season average in 2017 was .226. Perhaps that’s why Tebow’s batting average so far this season with the Double-A Rumble Ponies - a modest .242 going into Friday’s game - has some believing he can continue to climb up the Mets organizational ladder. In one case, at least, it’s that combined with a father’s bias.
"It’s coming," says Bob Tebow, Tim’s 70-year-old father. "He’s trying to develop things he hasn’t worked on for a bunch of years so I think to get to this point is pretty cool. I think he’ll go all the way but that’s just me, I’m the dad. Nobody cares."
Bob Tebow, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2016, stood alone in a small corporate suite at NYSEG Stadium for most of Thursday’s game against the Richmond Flying Squirrels, when his son played left field and went 1-for-3 with a single, a walk and a run scored in Binghamton’s 6-4 win. He didn’t seem overly excited to discuss Tim’s minor league performance so far - after all, this is a man who’s watched his son throw a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime of an NFL playoff game.
But his answers are thoughtful nonetheless. And he does seem at least a little bit bothered by some of the criticisms of not only his son’s performance but even his attempt to make it to the majors at this point in his life.
"It’s a very, very difficult game. The hardest thing in sports, most people would agree, is hitting a baseball," says Bob, who founded the Bob Tebow Evangelical Association in 1985. "You know all the negative stuff that’s been out there. And there still is. But now some people are changing their minds. But it was never about them anyway.
"I don’t really care what they think," he insists. "I’m not worried about what people think. In my work I’ve never depended on everybody’s endorsement. I live my life trying to do what’s right and do what God’s called me to do. And that’s what I’ve done. And I think to some extent he’s done the same things."
Asked exactly why he believes Tim will make it to the major leagues, Bob Tebow says, "I just think he will."
Then before Bob makes his way down to the field to meet his son outside the Rumble Ponies dugout, he’s asked one more question: How would the excitement of seeing his son play for the Mets compare to seeing him play football in the NFL?
"We’ve had some pretty exciting days," he says. "I don’t know how you compare one excitement to another."
Excitement doesn’t begin to describe what Nona Williams is feeling as she spots Tebow pop out of the dugout following the game wearing a short sleeve blue Adidas shirt with all three buttons done up to the collar and a black leather Adidas cap tilted slightly on his head. With her two young children by her side, one of them holding a sign with the biblical verse John 3:16 written on it, Williams rushes to the front row of seats, where Tebow signs an autograph and seems genuinely enthusiastic as Williams tells him she homeschools her children just like Tebow was homeschooled by his parents.
Williams takes a selfie with Tebow and is still smiling ear-to-ear as the aspiring major leaguer makes his way toward a parking lot beyond the centerfield fence, his father and two team employees by his side.
Williams drove an hour from Hop Bottom, Pa., just to see Tebow play on this day, saying she did it, "Just so that my kids and I could both experience seeing him and that they could both have a good example to see . and to reach for the stars!"
Earlier in the week, Tebow’s teammates would have settled for a decent meal. Several restaurants in town serve Tim Tebow-inspired specials - including one just two blocks from the stadium with a Tim Tebow Wrap: ribeye steak, chili and herb infused Greek yogurt, field greens, tomato and avocado - and some of the Rumble Ponies tease their already famous teammate about hooking them up.
While reaching into his pocket to feed his teammates wouldn’t be a problem for Tebow, who earned just under $10 million in his three-year NFL career, including signing bonuses, he could also take advantage of the offer Amici’s Pizza down the street has advertised on its window: Free pizza for Tim Tebow.
Anyone expecting to see Tebow walking into the place anytime soon, though, should probably rule that out.
"I haven’t been to any of those places," he says. "I know everybody is like, ‘Dude, there’s a free pizza right here.’ I’m like, ‘Well I don’t eat pizza!’ and they’re like, ‘Well go get it for us!’ "
Actually, don’t rule that out just yet.
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