This was a Florida tourist attraction the way they used to make them, back in that golden age when schlock really sold and you couldn’t wait to pull off some undivided highway to check out the tattered 14-foot stuffed alligator or to take a sip from the fountain of youth.
The old-west town near Ocala, the atomic tunnel outside Daytona and the tiki gardens of Indian Shores are gone. They were replaced this week, momentarily, by the Tim Tebow Baseball Jamboree.
Come see the most telegenic minor leaguer in baseball as he makes a rare spring training appearance. After taking some of his warmup cuts on the Red Sox side of the field two days ago, what would the Met-in-training do this time against Houston? Run the wrong way on the bases? Or hit a game-winning home run? Anything is possible.
The visitors do eat up this sort of thing. On Friday, three hours before Tebow was to make his second, and likely last, appearance on the big field this spring, a vendor in her merchandise trailer was unloading a box of $28, No. 15 Tebow Mets T-shirts. A new batch of 142 shirts. Some were set aside — there was a waiting list. The rest likely would be gone long before the weekend was done, she said. No item has sold better this spring, she added.
For those with deeper pockets, there were $120 replica Tebow Mets jerseys for sale in the stadium shop.
Never mind that on the field Friday, Tebow wore the peasant’s garb of a non-roster player — a jersey with No. 97 on the back and no name spread across the shoulders.
Keep in mind that, traditionally, the payoff to such roadside sideshows seldom matches the buildup. Inevitably, you are left with an oh-is-that-all-there-is feeling.
And that more or less was the parting sentiment Friday, as the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback doing an outfield internship went hitless for a second time this week. Got good wood on the ball in his second at-bat Friday, but it was smothered by Houston third baseman Colin Moran. After working the count to 3-0, he struck out swinging with two on and two out, the Mets trailing by two, with his last at-bat in the eighth inning.
“So much of my life I’d grit my teeth in the fourth quarter and (think) I’m gonna find a way to get it done. I really wanted to get a good one in that last at-bat,” Tebow said.
For the record, Tebow felt much better than after his first appearance Wednesday, when he went 0-for-3 and twice struck out looking.
“I felt like I was seeing the ball really well. I also felt a lot quicker to the ball,” he said. “Two days ago it was just excitement, trying to take big hacks. (On Friday) I was shortening up, getting quicker to the ball, making good contact.”
Signed by the Mets in September to a minor league deal, Tebow has cast a disproportionately large shadow over their spring camp. That was bound to happen, as he has blotted out the sun in college football, in the NFL and now at the rudimentary level of professional baseball. Drawing a crowd and fostering hot takes on sports talk shows has never been a problem for Tebow.
He was thrust into two spring training games this week only because the Mets’ roster was stretched by losses to the World Baseball Classic and the demands of split-squad games. It is not likely he will make another appearance this spring, manager Terry Collins said.
On Wednesday he was the DH. On Friday, for the first time at this level, Tebow took to the outfield on a sunny day with a stiff wind blowing out to right. Seven innings in right field, two in left.
Chances were rare, and his fielding percentage stayed perfect. On a ball hit to shallow right-center in the third inning, it seemed as if the entire crowd held its breath as Tebow broke a tick late to the ball, and then exhaled in a loud cheer as he made what otherwise would have been a routine catch.
It is unknown just how realistic is it for Tebow, 29, to catch up with a sport he put down in high school. Said Collins: “The power plays. He has to work on some things. But you see the power in batting practice, and if he can get it to translate into the game, he’s going to play. It’s going to work because he’s got big power to a lot of parts of the park. It’s all a matter of getting him at-bats and letting him go out there and experience the challenges he’s going to face to see how he adjusts to them.”
Very accustomed to living an out-sized life, Tebow at least came equipped with all the right answers for situations that any other entry-level ballplayer never confronts.
Such as the report surfacing Friday that a Colorado woman was arrested at Mets camp last week and given a warning for stalking Tebow, a woman who claimed to police that she lived with him in Jacksonville. “I just try to focus on the next thing. At the same time I wish her the best, pray for her. I want her to get as much help as she needs, but at the same time as an athlete you learn to compartmentalize,” he said Friday.
Then there is the lack of results to show for his sudden mid-course career change. He hit .194 in 19 games in the Arizona Fall League. He didn’t get ball out of the infield in his brief spring training fling.
“I could also look at the Arizona Fall League and say I think I went 0 for my first 13, and from that moment on I batted right around .300,” Tebow said.
“Continue to work, continue to build and believe in the process.
“The end goal is not to have results today. It’s to be getting better every single day so that one day you can put up the stats you want to put up.”
The process now moves off the main stage and out to the back fields of the Mets camp, where it belongs. This Florida attraction is closed for the spring.