STAR POWER

Te­bow’s quest re­mains com­pelling for fans flock­ing to mi­nor league parks to see him

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY MATTHEW PARAS

HAGER­STOWN, MD. | More than 830 miles sep­a­rate Hager­stown, Mary­land, and the Gainesville, Florida, cam­pus of the Univer­sity of Florida, where a big­ger-than-life bronze statue of Tim Te­bow stands out­side the foot­ball sta­dium.

Te­bow, 29, plays these days with a dif­fer­ent ball — and in much smaller sta­di­ums. But he’s still the cen­ter of at­ten­tion wher­ever he goes.

On Sun­day, the foot­ball star-turned-mi­nor­league-base­ball hope­ful wrapped up a four-game se­ries against the Hager­stown Suns as a bot­tom-of-the-bat­ting or­der out­fielder for the Columbia Fire­flies, a Class-A New York Mets af­fil­i­ate. He went 3-for-14 against the Suns, the Class-A af­fil­i­ate of the Washington Na­tion­als, in­clud­ing strik­ing out four times on Fri­day.

The near-sell­out crowds didn’t seem to mind, cheer­ing wildly and pulling out cell phones to record their hero ev­ery time he stepped to the plate.

The Suns, who usu­ally at­tract a home crowd in the hun­dreds, hadn’t seen so many peo­ple since Stephen Stras­burg made a re­hab start in Hager­stown on Aug. 7, 2011.

More than 4,000 fans turned out for Sun­day’s fi­nale, while at­ten­dance at the first three games of the se­ries each drew around 6,000.

Peo­ple in the crowd of­fered up dif­fer­ent sto­ries with a com­mon theme: Te­bow.

Ab­bie Ski, 19, drove three-and-a-half hours from Falls Church to watch Te­bow. Deanna Starkoski and her hus­band bought tick­ets two months in ad­vance so her son could see the 2007 Heis­man win­ner. Tre Starkoski, 13, has a FatHead of Te­bow in his room and wears a No. 15 jersey when play­ing lacrosse.

Florida or Den­ver Bron­cos jer­seys could be spot­ted through­out the crowd, but 53-year-old Mark Ecker wore a Te­bow Fire­flies shirt. And there was 57-year-old John Compton, who got a Te­bow au­to­graph af­ter­wards.

In Compton’s case, Te­bow au­to­graphed a base­ball and in­scribed “John 3:16” at Compton’s re­quest.

“It was ex­hil­a­rat­ing,” Compton said on Fri­day. “I was the last one he signed. He stopped at me and kept go­ing.”

The fan in­ter­ac­tion is noth­ing new. A girl told Te­bow she named her puppy af­ter him and it wasn’t the first time he had heard some­thing like it. De­spite the repet­i­tive­ness, Te­bow man­ages to en­joy it.

“You have a lot of sup­port of peo­ple and it’s re­ally

great,” Te­bow said. “A lot of peo­ple will al­ways say they’re root­ing for you, they’re pray­ing for you. That means a lot to me. And then you have peo­ple on the other side. And that’s noth­ing new to me. I feel like I’ve had that for a long time.”

Te­bow un­der­stands his will­ing­ness to talk openly and of­ten about his faith both en­dears him to his diehard fans and makes him a tar­get for skep­tics.

“Any­thing that I’ve ever done is to love God and to love peo­ple,” Te­bow said. “So I’m not go­ing to think about some­one else’s per­spec­tive or their dis­like for me. In spite of that, I still want to love them be­cause we’re all loved by the God of this uni­verse.

“And that’s some­thing that I want to take that love he gives me and love ev­ery sin­gle per­son, re­gard­less of how they feel about me.”

Play­ing in the mi­nors can take its toll: The bus rides through the night are long, teams don’t gen­er­ally stay in lux­ury ho­tels and play­ers don’t gen­er­ally eat in fancy restau­rants.

And Te­bow’s fame makes it hard to go out to eat in towns where he’ll be im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized. In Hager­stown, the only ex­plor­ing Te­bow did was to a Gold’s Gym.

But it’s a lifestyle he’s em­braced. Te­bow signed a con­tract ex­ten­sion to be a col­lege foot­ball an­a­lyst with ESPN, but he still plans on try­ing to make the ma­jor leagues, even if it’s un­likely. He’s bat­ting just .216 with the Fire­flies and has bat­ted eighth lately.

“It’s re­ally fun. I re­ally like com­pet­ing,” Te­bow said. “I love the pur­suit of it. I love how hard this game is . ... To be able to ad­just and com­pete and work at some­thing and strive to get bet­ter at some­thing, I en­joy the whole process. “

He’s taken on a dif­fer­ent role in the locker room than the one he had as a quar­ter­back lead­ing the Florida Ga­tors to the na­tional cham­pi­onship in 2008.

Fire­flies man­ager Jose Leger said Te­bow leads more by ex­am­ple than as some­one who gives mo­ti­va­tional speeches. In the NFL and espe­cially at Florida, Te­bow was of­ten the loud­est voice in the room.

“The one thing he does, he talks to the guys in­di­vid­u­ally,” Leger said. “He goes and grabs them in­di­vid­u­ally and tries to get them ad­vice on how to be a pro­fes­sional.”

Leger said Te­bow doesn’t get rat­tled about his per­for­mance. Age and per­spec­tive give the 29-year-old a sense of com­po­sure some of Columbia’s younger play­ers lack, Leger said.

Te­bow said he doesn’t al­low him­self to think of ever po­ten­tially mak­ing the ma­jors, fo­cus­ing only on what he can con­trol.

“I hope the young kids that are watch­ing me, I hope I tran­scend the games, big­ger than just try­ing to hit the ball or catch the ball, or steal bases,” Te­bow said. “I hope they see me as some­one who is striv­ing to go af­ter their dreams, some­one who knows that life is a lot big­ger than sports. It’s a lot big­ger than base­ball.

“I hope I can en­cour­age them to un­der­stand how much they mat­ter, how much they’re im­por­tant, how they’re valu­able be­yond mea­sure, be­yond what any­one here would say, they’re valu­able to the God of this uni­verse. Their life means some­thing so to go out and live that way, live like they mat­ter ev­ery sin­gle day.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

More than 4,000 fans at­tended Sun­day’s Hager­stown Suns game to see Columbia Fire­flies out­fielder Tim Te­bow. The Suns usu­ally at­tract a home crowd in the hun­dreds.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

For­mer Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner and Den­ver Bron­cos quar­ter­back Tim Te­bow has em­braced the lifestyle of a mi­nor-league base­ball player with the Columbia Fire­flies. De­spite bat­ting just .216, Te­bow said “it’s re­ally fun. I re­ally like com­pet­ing. I love the pur­suit of it.”

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