(All images © Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
Unless you have experienced Tebowmania first hand, you just cannot relate.
Many in his home state of Florida built the first wave as the University of Florida star helped his school win two national titles and he personally brought home the 2007 Heisman Trophy. Those are also his career highlights to date, however, as a number of subsequent failures at the professional level led the quarterback to move to the broadcast booth as a commentator.
While keeping one foot in the booth on football weekends, Tebow decided late last summer to give professional baseball a whirl as well. The New York Mets anted up a $100,000 signing bonus, or roughly what a college underclassman drafted in the 13th or 14th round might receive. The difference is those college juniors are 20 or 21 years old, while Tebow will turn 30 next month.
My initial direct exposure of Tebowmania occurred last September 28, while I was covering St. Louis Cardinals instructional league camp. The young Cards were traveling to Port St. Lucie to take on the Mets that afternoon.
Initially, I did not realize that day happened to be Tebow’s very first game against external competition as a Mets outfield prospect. That completely altered the complexion of the entire day - to say the least.
As soon as I pulled into the Tradition Field (now First Data Field) parking lot, I saw way too many cars for a complex game and to one side, at the start of the path to the back fields, there was a tent with a souvenir stand, selling what else? Tebow 15 jerseys! (Remember, this is the instructional league!)
Usually, 6 to 8 scouts would be an unusually high number of attendees for an instructional league game. Tradition Field put that to shame for the Tebow show with my estimate of 16-18 present and double that in media members between writers and photographers, including a number of them down from the Big Apple.
Since Tebow was playing left field, many of the photogs hung down that baseline fence, with their big lenses capturing his every move. One national writer had to shake fire ants off his legs, having inadvertently stepped in the wrong spot.
Mets assistant media relations director Ethan Wilson was present, having come in from New York just to direct traffic. The quantity of scouts and media members were dwarfed by the count of fans at the game. My estimate is several hundred. That is exponentially more than the few family members at best who might be at a normal complex game such as this.
It was a pleasant coincidence that the Mets’ blue and orange colors align perfectly with the University of Florida hues – the same that Tebow wore there.
I have been to literally hundreds of minor league complex games in my career and am 100 percent confident that I had never seen fans with banners – until now.
As many may recall, lead-off man Tebow parked the first pitch he saw over the left-center outfield fence. I can honestly say I experienced another first. I have never, ever seen an on-field celebration in the first inning of any baseball game in my entire life – until then.
It also had to be the first film from any instructional league contest in history to be featured on ESPN SportsCenter. That is how crazy Tebowmania can be.
Just a few weeks later, I was in Phoenix, where the Mets had pushed Tebow into the Arizona Fall League, despite just a handful of days of instructional league game action versus external competition under his belt. Hitting against pitchers who were at least Double-A seasoned - and with some even having made their MLB debuts - it was no surprise that Tebow was not ready for the level of play in the AFL, where he batted .194 in 71 plate appearances.
Still, I expected no matter what Tebow did this spring, he would be assigned to their high-A Florida State League team in St. Lucie to open 2017. Placing Tebow on an organization-owned team seemed a ticket and merchandise-selling bonanza waiting to happen.
Instead, the Mets threw me a curve, starting the left-handed hitter a rung lower, at Columbia of the Class-A South Atlantic League. After 244 plate appearances over 64 games led to a .220 batting average and three homers there, it was deemed good enough by the Mets to promote Tebow to St. Lucie last week.
With Tebow proving the push, Columbia leads the 14-team Sally League in average attendance, at just under 5,300 per game. That compares to the 2017 league average of slightly less than 3,500 per and Columbia’s 2016 average attendance of about 3,800 per contest.
As the show moved to St. Lucie, the Mets drew 5,700 for Tebow’s first series with Palm Beach this past week. That per-game average of about 1,900 does not sound like much until you compare it to the 1,420 the Mets averaged per game in 2016.
If this demonstrates anything, it is that Tebow puts rear ends in seats.
Since .220 was good enough to get him promoted once, the oddsmakers have actually released odds on whether Tebow can be promoted three more times this year and make his MLB debut in 2017. Bovada will give 4/1 odds on “yes” and 1/4 for “no”. Honest.
So if you are in Binghamton, Las Vegas or even Flushing Meadows, it seems only a matter of time until Tebowmania reaches you. You can bet on it!
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.