PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Tim Tebow crossed an item off his instructional league bucket list Tuesday when he hit his first batting practice home run. He also received a batch of helpful tips from New York Mets coaches. The atmosphere was more reminiscent of a baseball practice than a college football pep rally.
Judging from the more relaxed vibe in Mets camp, Tebow has a reasonable chance of assimilating in peace over the next three weeks. About 30 media members showed up for his second workout, down from the 70 or so who attended his debut. The crowd shrunk from 500 to 250 or thereabouts, and the local news helicopter that hovered above Monday’s proceedings went back to covering some real news.
Life is evolving off the field as well. Tebow has already ventured out on a shopping trip and mingled with some locals, who enthusiastically welcomed him to his temporary home in Port St. Lucie.
“I’m sure people will see me out and about,” Tebow said. “Some people saw me in Target last night getting some supplies. LaCroix water. Almonds. Stuff like that.”
As the interviews and autograph requests recede, Tebow will work on forming relationships with his coaches and teammates and traveling the hard, improbable road to extended baseball employment. His ability to acclimate to his new environment, absorb instruction and deal with the drudgery will help determine how far he goes.
But even the scouts who admire Tebow for his effort and work ethic remain skeptical that he has the skills to navigate the massive task that awaits him. A veteran personnel man who watched Tebow during his recent two-hour audition in Los Angeles saw what he expects to be significant obstacles for Tebow.
“To me, he looks like a football player trying to play baseball,” the scout said. “He has that big upper body, and he muscles everything. His swing is pretty good. It’s pretty efficient. But I don’t see the kind of bat speed you need to have to play in the big leagues.
“You look for guys who do things easy. The bat whistles through the zone. They don’t look like they’re straining to hit a fastball, and they can make an adjustment easy. He put in a lot of effort for that workout, but nothing he did was easy.”
At first glance, it’s stunning how Tebow dwarfs the younger players in Mets camp. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, and he looks every bit the full-grown football star next to wiry prospects in their late teens and early 20s. Infielders Pete Alonso and Dash Winningham are both listed at 230 pounds, but they look pocket-sized in the company of Tebow.
If that muscular frame restricts Tebow’s mobility or affects his ability to turn on inside fastballs, he hasn’t noticed.
“That’s not a lot of weight for me to carry,” Tebow said. “It wouldn’t be that hard for me to even be heavier. I’ll obviously listen to advice and what people think, but I feel pretty good at this weight.”
From all accounts, Tebow made significant strides as a hitter in three months at the Chad Moeller Baseball school in Arizona leading into his showcase in Los Angeles in last August. He talks routinely about his fondness for the craft of hitting and the sense of exhilaration he gets from swinging a bat. But he’s missed out on 11 years of swings since dropping baseball after his junior year of high school, so he’s very much a work in progress.
Growing up in suburban Jacksonville, Florida, Tebow was a fan of Gary Sheffield, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell. He took a little something from each of them, but he’s ultimately going to have to settle on an approach and a philosophy that suits him. That’s a major undertaking at age 29.
“You look at things they do well, whether it’s super-fast hands, or getting their foot down, or their rotation, or hands through the zone,” Tebow said. “You look at each of these guys, and they do something amazing, and you can learn from that one thing.
“I’m still listening to coaches and trying to develop. Hopefully, I have a goal where I’m not just a pull hitter. My goal is to be someone who hits the ball where it’s pitched.”
Tebow’s ultimate goal is to be perceived as a baseball player, rather than a celebrity dabbling in baseball, and that means immersing himself in the clubhouse culture and having the patience to deal with the daily grind. For what it’s worth, he seems to be making a positive early impression on his fellow Instructional Leaguers.
“Nice guy,” said Mets pitcher Steven Matz, who spent the past week in Port St. Lucie on a rehab assignment before leaving for New York on Tuesday. “He’s a hard worker, and he’s just another player. You can tell that’s all he wants to be.”