HAGERSTOWN, Md. — It was a near-sellout crowd Friday night at Municipal Stadium. A crowd of 5,894 on hand for the second of four games between the Hagerstown Suns and Columbia Fireflies. Thursday night’s attendance of 6,217 was a larger total even than Bryce Harper’s debut here in 2011 or Stephen Strasburg’s rehab start later that same year. Still more people packed in Saturday — 6,351.
But this wasn’t the introduction of a franchise-altering phenom or a first glimpse at an ace’s surgically repaired elbow; the night’s most fashionable jerseys weren’t of the baseball variety; and the most conspicuous colors in the stands happened to match the visiting team’s parent club, more a coincidence than anything else.
So, for a team with an average home attendance of fewer than 1,000 per night, how to explain this crowd?
“Tim Tebow, of course,” Greencastle, Pa., said.
“Tebow!” Martinsburg, W.Va., said.
“Tebow Time, baby!” Frederick, Md., said.
“He’s famous, ain’t he?” Hagerstown said.
I lived through Tebowmania in its earliest iteration. It wasn’t called that in the fall of 2005, when I was a freshman at the University of Florida, but that’s what it was. This latest iteration of an aging athlete struggling in one of the lowest levels of minor league baseball is a far cry from the bright young thing who arrived on the Gainesville campus in early 2006.
Tim Tebow wasn’t a student yet during the fall of ’05. He wasn’t even committed to the Gators. He wouldn’t make an official visit to campus until Thanksgiving weekend and didn’t make his decision until mid-December. But in October, nearly a year before he’d be eligible to play college ball, I heard classmates talk about driving out to see him, to parts of Florida I’d never heard of, to watch some home-schooled kid, the third-ranked quarterback in his class who was supposed to be the crown jewel of Urban Meyer’s spread offense.
They’d sit in the Nease High School bleachers in Ponte Vedra, Fla., and hold up signs imploring the 18-year-old quarterback to come to Gainesville. They’d show up at away games, an odd smattering of orange and blue college kids amid parents and teenagers. All to see a player who just as easily might have chosen Alabama or LSU, instead, and changed those schools’ fortunes.
That’s what Tebowmania was about. Belief, appropriate for a player who wore his so openly throughout his career.
It’s a fan base debating whether an early-enrolled freshman should be named starting quarterback after completing his first five passes in a spring game. It’s stating with sincerity that Tebow led the Gators to the 2007 national championship. As a backup. To a quarterback who would be named national championship MVP before becoming the answer to the trivia question, “Who did Tim Tebow back up during the 2007 national championship game?”
It’s genuinely believing that when Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy that he, of course, would win it as a junior and then a senior. (He was a finalist those years, but did not win a second time.)
It’s listening to “The Promise” and believing it — and then not being surprised when a 4-1 team wins 10 games in a row and a second national championship in three years because Tebow said, “You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season.”
What I saw Friday night in Hagerstown wasn’t that. Sure, there were plenty of No. 15 jerseys and T-shirts from across his various football stops — Gators, Broncos, Jets, Eagles. Those fan bases probably believed, too — fans in Denver still hold fond memories of Tebow’s overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2011 NFL playoffs — although in diminishing levels as the years wore on.
But nothing I’ve read or seen over the past few months has made me believe in Tebow’s professional baseball career the way I believed in his college football career. No one is calling for Tebow to replace Yoenis Cespedes or Curtis Granderson in the Mets’ outfield.
If Tebowmania is being felt around the South Atlantic League, it’s of a different sort. The Fireflies are averaging a league best 5,261 fans at home, up nearly 1,500 over last season. That’s a real impact.
But if Tebow made a “Promise” now, he’d probably hear laughter. Not because reporters or teammates wouldn’t believe he meant those words — Tebow is, if anything, genuine and is genuinely trying to become a professional baseball player — but because what impact could he truly make in a lineup? He’s batting .218 for the Fireflies and a dismal .114 against lefties. He’s still a work in progress. A closer-to-30-than-29-years-old work in progress. If he were called up by the Mets’ Class AA affiliate, Binghamton, the loudest cheers would probably come from those in the Eastern League’s marketing departments.
Because, at least for now, that is Tebow’s biggest value to baseball.
“When he signed, I said, ‘This is going to be big,'” said one fan who was sitting front row sporting a Fireflies T-shirt adorned with “Tebow” and No. 15. Why was it big? Because he’d put butts in seats, and that’s good for minor league baseball.
He did so Friday night. Tebow went 0 for 5 on the night, with four strikeouts, but each time his name was announced he was cheered as if a hometown star. Each swing of the bat was documented by the glare of a screen — Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. — as spectators captured second-by-second images of the hulking player.
In the ninth on Saturday, the Suns rallied and forced extra innings. By then the crowds had thinned, Tebow’s presumed final at-bat having come and gone, but many stayed, many more than the Suns have averaged this season. Those that did got to see one more at-bat. It, too, was a strikeout.