ROME, Ga. — Like an overinvolved Little League dad, the man edged along the third-base line wall until he was as close as he could get to his figurative son, who had just struck out.
“Tim!” he said, his voice loud enough to reach the Heisman Trophy winner standing 100 feet away but quiet enough to keep the conversation personal.
“You’re moving too quick,” the man instructed. “If you don’t sit back, they’ll keep getting you with that changeup.”
It was a family moment without any blood connection. Tim Tebow, 29-year-old minor league rookie, had drawn another unusually large crowd to another modest Georgia town, and Rome was thrilled to lend its support to a favorite Southern son.
Tebow — a polarizing public figure thanks to his massive football success at the University of Florida, as well as his unabashed faith in Jesus Christ — received jeers during the Columbia Fireflies’ 3-game Class A series against the Rome Braves, but he got much more love than vitriol.
It came from that guy near left field; from the grandmother who shouted “Yay! That was perfect!” after a routine throw to the cutoff man; from the elementary-school kids who loyally screeched “Tim Te-BOW!” in the upper deck; from the young couple who wore matching orange Tebow Mets jerseys and only half-jokingly hoped he would sign their infant.
Most of the fans wore the home team’s gear, but the visually silent majority outed itself any time the public address announcer mentioned a certain Florida Gators legend.
Like any good family, they knew his story (literally; many had copies of his most recent book, Shaken, in hand). They knew where and when he liked to sign autographs. They knew that he was at the local YMCA early Monday, and that he was at Chili’s late Tuesday.
Related: The Rome Braves hire 8 to 10 local officers for a typical home game, but on Tuesday night, officers estimated that the group was 20 strong.
One guard shadowed Tebow’s every move, hovering near him during the national anthem and standing with fans along the third-base line while Tebow played left field.
Security was most tense during Tebow’s marathon autograph sessions. Monday, he spent 10 minutes — an eternity as calls of “Tebow! Tebow!” flew from every direction — making his way from right field to the Fireflies dugout, signing and posing for selfies with self-proclaimed future wives.
As he began his descent into the dugout, a middle-school-aged boy held out a baseball. “Please!” the boy said. “It’s my birthday!”
Tebow hesitated, then gestured for the kid to toss him the ball. He signed it. Then another. Then another. Someone handed him a Tebow doll in a Florida Gators uniform. A woman tossed a stuffed alligator at him, prompting a security guard to announce that he would confiscate any other thrown objects.
Tebow signed the gator and finally greeted his teammates with personalized handshakes, his uncapped Sharpie threatening to mark up their gray uniforms.
When Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls to pursue a baseball career in the spring of 1994, he drew the nation’s eyes to the diamond. The New York Times covered his first live batting session and published the following lead: “Baseball officials surely have to hope that Michael Jordan will draw new fans to a sport they believe has this little image problem.”
In ‘94, an ugly labor dispute forced the first World Series cancellation in 90 years. Now the problem is a severe lack of marketing clout.
Earlier in April, an ESPN-sponsored poll calculated America’s top 50 most popular athletes; active or retired, alive or dead. The list included 3 MLB-only players (Derek Jeter, Babe Ruth and Pete Rose), none of whom are still playing.
Tebow, a former No. 1 selection in the same poll while quarterbacking the Denver Broncos, still holds an unspecified top 50 ranking in the latest version. When he announced last autumn that he would pursue a pro baseball career and signed with the Mets, his No. 15 jersey was the highest-selling MLB uniform during its first weekend of availability.
Fans have been packing his minor league games. Rome sold out Monday and Tuesday, and it would’ve likely had a third straight if not for an unusual 10:30 a.m. first pitch on Wednesday. He attracted an Augusta GreenJackets-record 5,830 fans for their series opener last week.
The Fireflies are scheduled to visit Hickory, N.C., Delmarva, Fla., and Lexington, Ky. — all considered Tebow-friendly markets — before June.
“Everywhere he’s been, they’ve had big crowds, and probably everywhere he goes, they’re gonna have big crowds,” Rome manager Randy Ingle said after Tebow drew a packed house on Monday. “Hopefully they’ll get into the game and enjoy the game enough that they’ll want to buy another ticket.”
Tebow: ‘Threat’ or dud?
Tebow finished the Rome series 1 for 11 and is hitting .156 on the young season. Monday, he badly misplayed a ball in left field. Wednesday, he struck out in each of his first 3 at-bats, including a woefully late swing on a third-inning fastball.
He has flashed potential. Tebow ripped an opposite-field home run in the season opener and cracked another 2 days later.
Monday, Ingle — the Rome manager — said he was impressed by the 6-foot-3, 255-pound athlete’s swing.
“I’ll tell you what, somebody that’s been out of baseball that long, he looked like he knew what he was doing there at the plate,” Ingle said. “He didn’t chase bad pitches or anything like that. He looked like he could be a threat.”
— Columbia Fireflies (@ColaFireflies) April 9, 2017
A National League scout was watching Tebow for the first time. His initial impression was positive, but he acknowledged the obvious roadblocks: Tebow needs to improve his approach in the batter’s box, and his timeline is almost comically delayed. He’ll turn 30 in August. His oldest teammate is 25, which is already considered a couple years too old to be a viable MLB prospect at this level of the minors.
There’s a chance the Mets would promote Tebow to Class A Advanced St. Lucie (Fla.) simply to sell tickets; after all, his signing was not purely a baseball decision, no matter what anyone in Queens says. But at his current hitting clip, such a move would elicit a chorus of eye-rolling in the pro baseball community.
“For the sake of the integrity of the game, he shouldn’t get a hall pass,” the scout said. “I don’t think that would be right.”
Still, there’s plenty to like about Tebow. The scout noted that the former Heisman Trophy winner brings unparalleled leadership to a young clubhouse. His positivity and work ethic (bonus: “he’s not going to show up hungover”) are great examples for teammates too young to purchase alcohol.
An eventual Double-A promotion likely represents Tebow’s ceiling, the scout said. But that would be seen as a tremendous accomplishment for a guy who has a decade-long gap in his baseball résumé.
Everywhere Tebow goes, he’s likely to get the same familial treatment he got in Rome. And he’s guaranteed to give it back.
A pair of moments in particular spoke to his mission.
Tuesday night — after sheets of rain delayed the game and flooded the Fireflies dugout — Tebow trudged through the downpour and signed autographs for dozens of fans along the wall near third base. He had a waterlogged excuse to jog past them to the clubhouse, but he obliged those desperate to share a moment with him.
“I’ve always wanted to be someone that would transcend the sport I’m playing, because at the end of the day, if all you do is get a base hit, strike out, throw a touchdown, interception, it’s just a game,” he said Monday. “But if you can do more than that with the platform you’re given, that’s something that’s really special.”
Wednesday, the Just As I Am Choir — comprised of adults with special needs — sang the national anthem behind home plate. After the final note, Tebow jogged over to greet them and sign their shirts.
The rest of the minor league players assumed their positions on the field and in the dugout. The umpires turned and watched Tebow. The estimated time of first pitch came and went.
Tebow finally turned back toward the dugout, a dark gray T-shirt in hand. It was a gift from local boutique owner Shasta Farrer, who gathered nearly 200 signatures from 11 schools the day before as a thank-you to Tebow for his foundation’s sponsorship of a local charity event.
“I thought I would be extremely nervous,” Farrer said. “But he just carries on like a regular person.”
Like family, even.