PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - They shrieked the moment they spotted him on the baseball field. They gave him a standing ovation after each round of batting practice. The lively crowd, nearing almost 600, even cheered him during calisthenics.
Tim Tebow, the legendary Florida quarterback and newest member of the New York Mets organization, captivated this sleepy town Monday morning, with kids skipping school and adults calling in sick from work.
There was 10-year-old Jacquee Methot standing by the fence behind home plate, holding a portrait of Tebow, painted by her older sister, calling out his name.
Uh, any reason you’re not in school?
“It’s a historical field trip,’’ she said, as adults cheered her answer.
Andy Favata, a University of Florida alumnus with a Gator tattoo on his left ankle, and wearing a Tebow jersey from his days at UF, brought along his 13-year-old daughter, Bella.
Shouldn’t she be in school with the rest of her seventh-grade class?
“She felt sick today,’’ Favata said. “So it was take-your-daughter-to-work day. We had to be here.’’
It was like that everywhere you looked among the legion of Tebow fans, some disguised as Mets fans, with a first-hand look at one of the most popular athletes in all of Florida who once led the Gators to two national championships while also winning the Heisman Trophy.
“I can’t think of a sports figure in today’s game that would have more of an impact,’’ said Paul Taglieri, Mets’ director of minor league facilities, “Maybe a rock star. Or Jay-Z. But not an athlete.
“In Florida, he’s an icon.’’
The Mets’ minor-league complex was swarming with 70 media members, a hovering news helicopter, and 577 fans, many wearing the new Mets Tebow jerseys, vintage Tebow Florida Gator jerseys, or even jerseys from his days with the Denver Broncos.
“Usually, we have maybe a Mom or Dad here,’’ Taglieri said. “A couple of scouts. And that’s about it. Nothing like this.’’
Mary West, 65, was one of the first to buy a Mets Tebow jersey from the gift shop, yes, with the same No. 15 and orange-and-blue color scheme as his football days. Only she was wearing a $28 youth version, (“That’s all I could afford," she says) instead of the $119.99 authentic jerseys that became the best-seller on the Mets’ website in a matter of minutes.
Psst, don’t tell anyone, but she’s actually from Eden Prairie, Minn., and a diehard Minnesota Twins fan. It didn’t stop her from yelling to Tebow as he strolled by: “Go for it, Tebow! I hope you make it!’’
Tebow, stopped, smiled, and dropped the two bats he was carrying while trying to fist-pump the fans lined up to touch him as he walked between fields.
It was a genuine lovefest all morning at the Mets’ spring-training complex, with temperatures in the 90’s with stifling humidity and $3 bottled waters the only thing selling more than Tebow jerseys.
Tebow turned and smiled when fans asked for a picture during a water break. He smiled when someone asked whether he actually knew Peyton Manning. He picked up the baseballs after batting practice, and even hauled a bag of balls to the dugout, not unlike the 57 other minor league hopefuls who joined him in this instructional league camp.
Tebow, 29, loved his first day as a Met, and baseball workouts sure are easier than those NFL two-a-days, but he did feel a little old when he walked into the minor-league complex as the only player born in the '80s - and no one else older than 25. They wanted to hear stories from his glory days in the college, or the time he led the Broncos past the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 2011 wild-card game.
"Hi, Mr. Tebow, do you mind if I can take a picture with you?’’
No one knows if Day 1 in the Mets’ three-week instructional league camp will be the highlight of his professional baseball career. No one is giving him a realistic chance of ever reaching the big leagues, let alone ever becoming a star like Bo Jackson. There are plenty of major league and minor-league players, along with baseball executives, who are convinced this is nothing more than a farce.
Tebow hears the critics, and says he’ll respond only with his actions, truly believing he will wind up in the major leagues one day. If not, he will hardly consider himself a failure.
“A lot of people might say, “You have a chip on your shoulder,’’’ Tebow said. “Well, I guess I have a little chip. But it’s not really the naysayers. It’s more that I want to prove the coaches right, the Mets’ organization, my teammates, and try to be the best player I can.
“More important, the best person I can.’’
What’s the worst thing that can happen to him, Tebow figures. He’s told he’s not good enough? He gets released? Wasn’t cut out for Major League Baseball?
Sorry, Tebow has already endured that anguish, and describes it in the first chapter of his soon-to-released book, when he was released in 2013 by the Patriots.
“I’m doing it to pursue what’s in my heart,’’ Tebow said, “and live out a dream and live life to its fullest.’’
Tebow, despite getting excused absences each weekend for his SEC college football analyst job - traveling to Auburn, Ala., this weekend after a jaunt to Oxford, Miss. last week - says he’s fully committed to the Mets. If an NFL team calls, sorry, Tebow says, he’s not leaving. Even if the New England Patriots summoned his services after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo injured his shoulder Sunday, uh-uh, it’s baseball.
“No sir,’’ he said during his 28-minute press conference, “I’m part of the Mets family.’’
This baseball gig is going to take a little time, considering he last played in 2005 as a junior in high school. So forgive him if he failed to hit a home run during his four rounds of batting practice off Mets coach Jose Carreno, but he did hit the right-field fence three times, drawing loud ovations. Or that he threw the ball 20 feet over his teammate’s head while playing catch, sailing over a four-foot chain link fence. Or that he couldn’t scoop up the first grounder hit to him in the outfield.
You try telling the fans screaming out his name Monday, and, yes, praying for Tebow, that he won’t be wearing the Mets’ uniform one day.
“How can you not love him by the way he played with the Gators?’’ said Beverly Thomas, wearing a Broncos jersey with Tebow’s name. “He’s got great morals and Christian values, which are always a plus.
“Besides, he knows when to kneel.’’
Yes, in celebrations after touchdowns, and perhaps now after hitting home runs, but certainly not during the national anthem.
The only one seen kneeling Monday was Jay Knoller, a retired dentist who "Tebowed" while his daughter took his picture.
“I’m a Tebow fan, and obviously he didn’t make it in the NFL,’’ Knoller said, “but he deserves to be successful in this. I hope he makes it, but he probably has to shed some pounds. I saw on the roster that he’s the heaviest one.’’
You don’t see too many 6-foot-3, 255-pounders roaming the outfield these days, with Tebow weighing 25 pounds more than 20-year-old first baseman Dash Winningham, the second-heaviest player on the team.
“That’s not a lot of weight for me to carry,’’ Tebow said. “It wouldn’t be that be hard for me to even be heavier.’’
Well, he may get his wish considering there’ll be plenty of fast food stops on the minor-league circuit, with 10-hour bus rides and bare-bones, two-to-a-room accommodations.
“I’m ready for that grind,’’ said Tebow, who says he has yet to speak to two-time athletes such as Jackson, Deion Sanders or Brian Jordan. “I think a lot of people for some reason think of my life that would be hard for me. Two months ago, I was in the Philippines for three weeks (on a Christian mission), taking bucket baths….hiking mountains to villages where nobody has been before.
“So that’s OK, I can embrace the grind. The bus won’t be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’’
Maybe attempting a baseball career, hoping to realize his original dream as a kid to reach the major leagues, won’t be either. No matter what happens, Tebow says, he refuses to be identified by whether or not he gets to the show.
“It’s all about perspective and how you define things,’’ he said. “For me, I’m going to be defined by giving it everything I have and being the best I can be, and pursuing this with everything I have.
“If you don’t make it, will that be failing? No. It’s about giving everything you have that you love and pursuing it, and not being afraid to fall flat on your face. Do what’s in your heart. Do what you’re passionate about.’’
That passion, for Tebow, is baseball.
And on a steamy Monday morning, with fans believing it was important to show their support, there was plenty of passion in return.
“To see him take a chance playing baseball,’’ Favata said, “it kind of gives all of us a little motivation to doing something maybe we wouldn’t want to try. That’s a great lesson for all of us, isn’t it?