HAGERSTOWN, Md. — After Willy Wonka threw out the first pitch but before the helicopter flew over Municipal Stadium, dropping candy all over the outfield, Tim Tebow ran out to left field, and his bodyguard followed. And darn it if dozens of fans didn’t gather along picnic tables down the line to watch a 29-year-old man stand in left field, crouch for each pitch, then relax again.
“Go, Tim! Good effort,” one zealot called.
Tebow was backing up a single to center.
“He’s not just an athlete,” said Jerry Bowman, who drove across the border from Loudoun County.
He’s so right. Tebow has been part of this country’s sporting conversation for more than a decade, and he has been, at various points, savior and exile, star and also-ran. And now we’re here, in western Maryland on a hazy and hot Sunday, where Tebow is somehow becoming polarizing all over again.
He’s a Heisman Trophy winner, a former NFL quarterback, an established football analyst for ESPN.
Should he be playing baseball? He’s seven years older than any other outfielder for the Columbia Fireflies. He’s not a real prospect, not at his age, not in the South Atlantic League, where most kids are a year or two removed from the draft, not a year or two removed from the Jets.
Let’s put that aside for a minute. It’s pretty clear there’s something significant going on here.
“When he first went to Florida, there really wasn’t anyone great to look up to as far as an athlete,” said John Marcius, a 20-year-old from suburban Pittsburgh who drove 2 1 / 2 hours for a one-night, two-game tribute to Tebow.
Marcius wore a No. 15 Florida jersey Sunday. His girlfriend, Kayla Schehr, wore a Denver Broncos T-shirt with Tebow’s 15 on the back. In Hagerstown, at a baseball game, they fit right in.
When Tebow began playing for the Gators as a change-of-pace quarterback in the fall of 2006, Marcius was an impressionable kid looking for a role model. Tebow proved worthy. Marcius admired his faith. He admired his commitment to charity and the less fortunate. He admired the way he interacted with people. He spoke Sunday so easily and passionately about the subject, even the cynical would have believed Marcius when he said, “He’s really made a difference in my life.”
Quick example: Marcius got Tebow’s autograph Saturday.
“I could try to go get another one today,” he said. “But I know Tim Tebow wouldn’t think it was right. So I won’t.”
Hearing all this, it becomes a little more understandable that the line outside the ballpark’s closed gates snaked down the street at 12:15 p.m. — a full hour and 50 minutes before first pitch. When the Fireflies’ parent club, the New York Mets, announced that Tebow would begin his first professional baseball season in Columbia, the Hagerstown Suns, low-Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, looked at their schedule, saw their four-game set against to start June and put out on social media that Tebow likely would be here then.
Within 12 hours, they had sold 800 tickets for each of the four games over this weekend.
“We’re all ready for some sleep,” said Travis Painter, the Suns’ general manager, who was still at the ballpark at 3:30 a.m. following Saturday’s game, then back Sunday morning to do it again.
Painter’s staff is normally just seven or eight people, and a cleaning crew of two cleans the entire stadium after most home games. But the crowd for Suns-Fireflies on Thursday wasn’t driven just by the “Thirsty Thursday” beer discounts. No, 6,217 came for Tebow. Doesn’t seem like much, really, until you consider before Tebow arrived the Suns were drawing less than a thousand a night. The total of 22,578 fans set a record for a four-game series at this yard — which is 87 years old. He is almost certainly the first South Atlantic Leaguer with a media policy — he speaks once per series on the road, and that happened Friday. The demands on his time are real.
“He’s a winner wherever he goes,” said Bowman, decked out in a University of Florida baseball cap and an orange University of Florida fishing shirt. “And everywhere he’s gone since Florida, it’s always a circus.”
The circus, for Tebow, has to be stripped away if this grand experiment is to take hold athletically. He came into Sunday’s game hitting .219 with three homers and 52 strikeouts in 160 at-bats. A left-handed hitter, he has struggled with left-handed pitching, not a surprise given his last full baseball season was in 2005.
But whatever the stats, this season has to be about becoming familiar with — and embracing — baseball’s rhythms. So there was Tebow in the shade of a batting cage more than 90 minutes before first pitch, taking flips from a coach behind a screen, hitting in a group with Reed Gamache, Jay Jabs and Gene Cone. No other Heisman Trophy winner had his name scrawled in chalk — hitting eighth, playing left — on a lineup board outside a minor league concession stand. And no other Heisman Trophy worked on this particular craft on this particular day.
Because people will want to know how he did, we will note it here: He bunted the first pitch he saw from Hagerstown lefty Tyler Watson and was thrown out at first. He fouled off a couple of Watson curveballs in his next at-bat before striking out on a foul tip into the mitt. He walked in his third plate appearance, and in the eighth, with the bases loaded, he laid off tough 1-2 and 2-2 pitches to draw a walk, driving in a run.
That part won’t matter, though, nor will the Fireflies’ 5-3 victory. When the game ended, Tebow signed autographs for those fans clamoring for him behind home plate. But a Mets staffer and his own security detail eventually coaxed him out to right field, toward the clubhouses. There stood a few dozen participants in Tebow’s “Night to Shine” program, a prom experience for kids with special needs put on through Tebow’s foundation.
When Tebow arrived, he embraced anyone who approached. He called people by name. He took a picture with one kid, spun 180 degrees to take a picture with another, spun back and smiled for the next frame. One girl held a sign adorned with her prom picture and sparkly words that read, “Thank you, Tim Tebow. From Princess Sarah. Night to Shine.”
“You’re so welcome,” Tebow said time and again.
Inside the clubhouse, the rest of the Fireflies were well on their way to showering, to packing, to boarding the bus for the drive, more than seven hours, back to Columbia, S.C. At some point, Tebow had to join them.
“Before I have to go,” he said to the group, “can I get some big hugs?”
He was in Hagerstown on a Sunday, his batting average down to .216, a bus ride ahead highlighting his decidedly minor league life. Think he couldn’t throw a football properly? Think he should give baseball a rest? Talk to the people who made the pilgrimage here, and look at the smiles in right field in the early evening Sunday night before you form your full opinion.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.