Te­bow ma­jor draw in Mets’ mi­nors camp

For­mer QB is fan fa­vorite but long­shot for ma­jor leagues

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Bob Night­en­gale bnighten@us­ato­day.com

PORT ST. LUCIE , FLA. The New York Mets were play­ing the Hous­ton Astros on Mon­day, but in­stead of be­ing at First Data Field with the rest of the Mets ex­ec­u­tives, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Jeff Wilpon was on the back mi­nor league fields, watch­ing a non-prospect in his first spring train­ing camp.

Mets cen­ter fielder Cur­tis Gran­der­son is a three-time All­Star who has ap­peared in 51 post­sea­son games, but his $28 T-shirt has been re­placed in the Mets out­door gift shop by that of a 29-year-old who has never played in a true mi­nor league game.

The Mets start­ing lineup fea­tured six reg­u­lars, in­clud­ing Yoe­nis Ce­s­pedes and David Wright, but about 60 fans, a dozen re­porters and seven cam­era crews never set foot in­side the sta­dium, in­stead watch­ing a for­mer Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner hit nine homers in bat­ting prac­tice on Field 5.

Tim Te­bow, idol­ized by Florida Ga­tors foot­ball fans, ad­mired for his out­spo­ken Chris­tian faith and revered for his phi­lan­thropy, is con­sid­ered ei­ther base­ball’s finest role model or base­ball’s big­gest car­ni­val act.

He just might be base­ball’s most po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure.

“I’m not go­ing to worry about what ev­ery­one’s writ­ing or what ev­ery­one’s think­ing or how­ever I’m be­ing mar­keted,” Te­bow says. “I just want to be able to con­tinue the process, en­joy the process, en­joy ev­ery day, get to know my team­mates and have

fun out there.”

Oh, yeah, and be the sub­ject of the de­bates about whether the Mets re­ally be­lieve he has a le­git­i­mate chance of be­com­ing a base­ball player or is noth­ing more than a mar­ket­ing gim­mick.

“I love base­ball. Base­ball de­serves bet­ter,” tweeted for­mer All-Star out­fielder Pre­ston Wil­son, the nephew of for­mer Mets star Mookie Wil­son. “I have friends who got re­leased at 25 who ded­i­cated them­selves fully.”

He pre­ceded the tweet with an­other di­rected to my at­ten­tion: “Stop mak­ing him news. He is 30.”

Well, tech­ni­cally Te­bow won’t be 30 un­til Au­gust, but no rea­son to nit­pick. his last full sea­son in base­ball was his ju­nior year in high school, be­fore lead­ing Florida to two na­tional cham­pi­onships. The Mets signed him to a $100,000 mi­nor league con­tract last fall, and af­ter go­ing to the in­struc­tional league, he hit .194 in 19 Ari­zona Fall League Games, strik­ing out 20 times in 62 at-bats.

“Ob­vi­ously, I knew it’s a big chal­lenge,” Te­bow said. “You’re pick­ing up a sport af­ter 12 years of not play­ing it, but I un­der­stood it. I think part of the chal­lenge in it be­ing so hard is part of why it’s some­thing I’m en­joy­ing and lov­ing.

“Hit­ting a base­ball is one of the hard­est things in sports, but I’m en­joy­ing it very much.”

Real­is­ti­cally, Te­bow has no shot to make the big leagues. He might even be for­tu­nate to make it past the low mi­nor league lev­els. Yet there are those like his men­tor, Gary Sh­effield, who, though he might be frus­trated over Te­bow’s bat­ting stance change, still be­lieves he can make it.

“I saw Tim this win­ter, and I told him I don’t ap­prove of his new tech­nol­ogy of hit­ting,” Sh­effield, who hit 509 home runs with­out strik­ing out more than 83 times in a sea­son, told USA TO­DAY Sports. “His swing is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. He’s got this up­per­cut now that’s built for homers in­stead of try­ing to get back­spin to hit line drives that turn into homers. I don’t like that ap­proach when you’re try­ing to learn the game again.

“But I still be­lieve in him be­cause of his will. He has a will like no other. And when a guy wants to do some­thing so bad, he can do what­ever he wants.

“I would never bet against him.”

Te­bow con­ceded Mon­day that he has slightly al­tered his swing, widen­ing his stance, with more of an up­per­cut de­signed for power. Yet the re­vised swing ac­tu­ally came from talk­ing with Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als sec­ond base­man Daniel Mur­phy, his Jack­sonville neigh­bor, who worked out with him over the win­ter.

“Murph was telling him the im­por­tance that if you’ve got power, and it’s in there, get the ball in the air,” Mets hit­ting coach Kevin Long said. “Ground balls don’t do you any good. So I don’t know if it’s an up­per­cut as much as just try­ing to el­e­vate the ball.

“He wasn’t get­ting any ex­tra­base hits, and he wasn’t driv­ing the ball like he’s ca­pa­ble. You watch him take BP now, and you see the ball come off his bat. He needs to get the ball in the air.”

Te­bow put on a power show dur­ing bat­ting prac­tice Mon­day, hit­ting six of his nine home runs to the op­po­site field, and no one was hav­ing more fun. When he wasn’t launch­ing balls over the out­field fence, he was pick­ing up the loose base­balls. He was the only mi­nor lea­guer to carry a bucket of balls on his own from the out­field to the pitcher’s mound. He also was the only player to help the coaches set up the pitch­ing mound mat.

When his day was done, and the rest of his team­mates walked to­ward the club­house in anonymity, Te­bow was sign­ing au­to­graphs, tak­ing self­ies and sign­ing books and even a Ga­tors foot­ball hel­met.

“I just think that with all of the things go­ing on in this world, our young kids have some­body to look up to,” said Dar­lene McCh­es­ney, 67, of Corry, Pa. “He’s a role model, not th­ese guys who al­ways get in trou­ble. I want him to make it here, fol­low his dream and be a role model for our coun­try.”

Te­bow had no in­ter­est in shar­ing his opin­ion of his chances of mak­ing the big leagues, even if it’s only for a day, but says this was never his dream. He was a sports star, play­ing in 35 NFL games with the Den­ver Bron­cos and New York Jets af­ter his sto­ried col­lege ca­reer, but his life is hardly built around sports. It’s merely a podium, he says, to share his be­liefs and phi­lan­thropy.

“What pres­sure do you have if you’re 0-for-12 and you’re at the plate ver­sus some­one that is fight­ing for their life?” Te­bow said. “For me, there’s not a com­par­i­son. It’s not my big­gest call­ing. I want my life to be so much more than that.

“I want to be some­one that was known for bring­ing faith, hope and love to those need­ing brighter days in their dark­est hour of need. I am so grate­ful for sports, be­cause it’s given me a plat­form to be able to share and love and care for peo­ple all over the world.

“I wouldn’t trade that for any­thing.”

Sure, per­haps the Mets are us­ing him as a mar­ket­ing tool, where you can buy his jersey at the gift shop for $120. Maybe they want to use him as a role model for their younger play­ers. Maybe he can just be an in­spi­ra­tion in­stead of an ac­tual pipe dream.

What­ever the real rea­son, Te­bow’s pres­ence doesn’t seem to bother any­one in the Mets club­house, re­gard­less of the club’s in­ten­tions.

“It’s great that he’s chas­ing that dream,” Mets cap­tain David Wright says. “I’m sure it’s very dif­fi­cult not hav­ing played base­ball for so long and try­ing to pick it up at the high­est level.

“The short pe­riod of time that I’ve been around him, it seems like he’s fo­cused on be­com­ing the best base­ball player pos­si­ble. I think that’s all that any­body can ask of him.”

Gran­der­son, who met Te­bow while work­ing out to­gether with Long in Scotts­dale, Ariz., was stunned by his 6-5, 255-pound size but even more im­pressed by his work ethic.

“His phys­i­cal pres­ence was amaz­ing enough,” Gran­der­son said, “but he was hit­ting six times a week. His work ethic is through the roof. So he’s not Cadil­lac-ing through this by any means. It’s not just show up, roll me out there, here I am.

“If he doesn’t make it, if it doesn’t hap­pen, it def­i­nitely won’t be be­cause of his ef­forts.”

STEVE MITCHELL, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Tim Te­bow takes part in run­ning drills Mon­day at Mets spring train­ing in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

STEVE MITCHELL, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

“I just want to be able to ... en­joy the process, en­joy ev­ery day,” Tim Te­bow says of pur­su­ing a base­ball ca­reer.

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