Tebow kept working with House and Dedeaux through the fall, staying sharp, but he was also getting a little antsy. “Like, ‘Hey, can we get some guys out here?’” Dedeaux says. “‘Can we get a game of touch football going? Can we just get the competitive juices going?’ … He went from being nothing but successful and being able to compete and do the things he loves to having it all taken away from him pretty quickly.”
With nobody asking him to play quarterback and with no desire to learn another position, Tebow kept thinking more and more about baseball. This was in no small part because, while he was working out with Dedeaux and House, they frequently trained in the outfield grass where the USC Trojans play baseball.
When the team practiced, Tebow would stand at the fence and watch with Dedeaux, the two talking the way most former ballplayers talk. I could hit that guy. I could make that catch.
In time, just for fun, Tebow started taking a few hacks during Trojans batting practice, then asked Dedeaux to start throwing him some of his own batting practice, too. One day, House just sat and watched, hypnotized as Tebow hit ball after ball well beyond the fence and out into the parking lot. House counted 15 home runs.
Tebow started pushing Dedeaux to mix in some breaking stuff, make it a little harder to hit. Then he pushed harder and harder, until they were squaring off, Dedeaux going into a full windup and everything, each aging athlete trying to see what the other had left.
In those moments, Tebow wasn’t thinking about book deals or endorsements or all the attention that would come if he really gave baseball a try. No, he was thinking, What if? He was thinking about swinging a big bat and making contact with a small, round ball, and how good it felt, like when he was young, and his world was simple and life was quiet.
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One day late this October, on his 44-acre farm west of Jacksonville, Florida, Bob Tebow was driving his tractor across the green cow pasture behind his family’s humble one-story brick house. It was about 5 p.m. and the farm was gorgeous in that rural sort of way, all fields and cattle and huge trees beyond them. There is a small pool behind the house and a basketball hoop in the driveway.
This is where Tim Tebow grew up. The big secret about Tebow is that he’s nowhere near as complicated or strategic as people seem to believe. “He’s so thankful he doesn’t have to live the roller coaster the media has for his life,” says Erik Dellenback, one of his closest friends and the executive director of the Tim Tebow Foundation. “It’s entertaining, but I think it’s way more complex than he tries to live.”
Tebow is the son of missionary parents, Bob and Pam, and he was born in the Philippines after Bob asked God for one more son, promising to raise him as a preacher. Timmy, as his two brothers and two sisters all call him, tries to live as simply as the boy his father raised him to be, while trying to make the most out of his athletic abilities while he still can.
Wearing big rubber wader boots, dirty blue jeans, a dirty gray long-sleeved T-shirt and a dirty white fishing hat with a Florida Gators logo on it, Bob was hard at work. A tree was down in the pasture, and it had taken out part of the fence. It was a big oak, dozens of years old, a victim of Hurricane Matthew. Bob was chopping it up all alone, just him and a chainsaw and the tractor he used to haul a load of chopped oak across the pasture every 15 minutes or so.
"Tebow, from the first day I met him, I'll never forget—he stood out. He's always had a bigger build. He's always been a specimen."
— BLAKE SANDERS, CHILDHOOD TEAMMATE
Bob said he didn’t want to be impolite, but he didn’t want to be interviewed, and no, Pam wouldn’t want to be bothered, either. Maybe in the spring, if baseball ends up going well for Timmy. But for now, there was a mess to clean up and broken things to fix, and Bob would rather be left alone so he could do his work.
Decades ago, Bob Tebow built his sons a batting cage between the pool and the pasture. They hit in it almost every day. Once, Bob threw big leaguer Storm Davis some batting practice there. Davis launched the pitches into the trees some 400 feet or more away, wowing young Timmy, his mouth falling open and his eyes going wide.
Timmy loved baseball when he was a kid. It was baseball, not football, that came to him most easily and naturally. He didn’t even need a tee during tee ball, having his coach underhand him the ball instead, and he hit some 30 balls over the short fence his first season as a five-year-old.
“I’ll never forget the first day he showed up to the field,” says Blake Sanders, who’s played with Tim since they were kids, first on the Jacksonville Tidal Wave travel team and then later at Nease High School. “There we were, seven, eight years old; we were small kids. Tebow, from the first day I met him, I’ll never forget—he stood out. He’s always had a bigger build. He’s always been a specimen.”
And what if he had committed to baseball back then the way he did football?
Timmy took batting practice in leather farm gloves, and his plan at the plate was to swing as hard as possible. Hitting left-handed, he’d pull his head out so far on some swings that you could lock eyes with him from the first-base dugout. Sometimes he swung and missed in batting practice.
Tebow mostly played left field, but he pitched a little too. He approached pitching basically the same way as hitting, throwing the ball as hard as he could, every pitch propelled by an awkward grunt.
At Nease High, where he became a big-swinging cleanup hitter, he hit balls onto the softball field some 450 feet from home plate. His sophomore year, when Nease played against Prince Fielder’s high school team, the opposing coach told Tebow’s coach that Tebow, who was a few years younger than Fielder, hit balls in batting practice he’d never seen anyone hit that far.
Tim Tebow of the Scottsdale Scorpions watches from the dugout during an Arizona Fall League game against the Peoria Javelinas at Peoria Stadium on October 13, 2016 in Peoria, Arizona. (Getty Images)
Chase Fontaine, a star senior shortstop who went on to play at Daytona Beach Community College and was drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Braves, drew many scouts to their games, and Tebow geeked out on that. He asked one question after another about what it was like to be recruited—but, Fontaine remembers, not in an obnoxious way, as though scheming how to be recruited himself, but rather out of sheer curiosity and giddy excitement for his teammate. If anything, Fontaine remembers, Tebow seemed to think all that attention would get exhausting.
Of course, just a year later, Tebow was a football sensation, to the degree that college coaches, including the likes of Urban Meyer, were showing up to his baseball games and practices. “We were like, ‘Come on, man!’” says Sanders, who went on to play a little professional baseball himself. “I’m out here trying to do this for a living, and football scouts are cluttering the place up!”
Everyone thinks the hardest decision Tebow had to make in high school was between Alabama and Florida, but the truth is that giving up baseball was more painful than anyone realizes.
And what if? What if he had stayed his senior year?
Tebow’s father urged him to, and even after Tim committed to Florida, Bob told him not to rule out baseball, because the odds of a long career in baseball were far better than one in football.
Fontaine, Sanders and his former coach, Kevin Fagan, remember that Tebow likely would have been offered a baseball scholarship—maybe even drafted—if he’d played his senior year instead of leaving school early to start spring football practice at Florida. Tebow has even said half-jokingly that Meyer was worried that if he played baseball his senior year, he might change his mind and go pro in baseball instead. And if he had played, Sanders says, “We would have won the state championship.”
And Tebow may well have never played football again. “He told me,” Moeller says, “he thinks that he probably would have not played football in college if he had played his senior year in baseball. Baseball is what he loved.’’
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The more days that went by last fall and into the winter without any offers of a quarterback job, the more Tebow took batting practice with Dedeaux. On the hard days, when he was sad and lonely and feeling beaten down, he read the Bible and tweeted verses from it, and he worked out a little more. And on the especially hard days, he called his friend and foundation director, Dellenback.
He wanted to know what sort of requests in his area had come through the foundation headquarters lately, and who wanted a visit.
Dellenback would tell him about kids with special needs or facing a life-threatening sickness at a nearby children’s hospital. As though arranging a covert spy operation, secret phone calls were made and meeting times and locations set, and then Tim would go see the children, driving to the hospital at night and slipping in through back doors.
At the field with Dedeaux and House, the more he hit, the more he realized how much he still loved baseball. Tebow knew he could still get a job in the NFL as, say, a backup linebacker, maybe a tight end. That would be a good paycheck, a good challenge, a good competitive outlet. But his heart wasn’t into it.
"The biggest question mark for most baseball players is, 'Can you deal with the failure?'"
— CHAD MOELLER, FORMER MAJOR LEAGUE CATCHER
Tim Tebow’s heart was into baseball. So he started splitting his days between the two sports and then went all baseball, moving for a few months earlier this year to Scottsdale to train with Moeller, the former catcher who didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.
What if he followed his heart? Tebow wondered. What if?
Tebow impressed Moeller on their first day together, so much so that after they finished, Moeller sent Tebow’s agent a message: “He could hit .220 in the big leagues today.”
“I mean, that’s not gonna be a pretty .220, but I know he can go out there and compete because his strike-zone discipline was so good,” Moeller says. “The bat speed was more than enough. It was just one where he’s fast enough [that] he can beat out an infield single. He uses the whole field.”
But with every athlete, and especially with baseball players, there’s one last piece to the puzzle that Moeller thought might take a little bit longer to nail down—but even that, he says, Tebow handled almost right away: the mental side. “It’s an amazing game but a miserable game,” Moeller says. “The biggest question mark for most baseball players is, ‘Can you deal with the failure?’ … And that’s the whole key: Can you get back up every time they tell you you can’t do it?”
Tim Tebow celebrates Florida's 41-14 victory over Ohio State at the BCS National Championship Game on January 8, 2007, in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Images)
Tebow replied by saying that he’d been named SI’s College Football Player of the Decade, won the Heisman and two college football national championships and he’d even beaten Moeller’s favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the playoffs. “Two years later,” he said, “I don’t have a job and everybody’s told me everything I can’t do.”
When he heard that, Moeller said, “You might actually be able to do this.’’
As Tebow told Dellenback: “One of the biggest reasons people don’t do things is because of criticism.”
Dellenback says: “I look at him and think, Man, how much different could each of us be if we tried things that people told us we couldn’t do?”
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There were offers coming in well before Tebow’s late-August workout in front of scouts from 28 MLB teams. In blue cleats, orange socks, white pants, orange sleeves and a navy blue compression shirt, Tebow looked very much like a football player playing baseball. He ran the 60-yard dash at above-average speed. He slipped and fell on the warning track—splat—and he chopped his feet a lot, instead of taking smooth strides toward balls hit at him. He seemed stiff. His throwing motion was tense and a little awkward. His arm strength was average at best, and he wasn’t very accurate.
In batting practice, he hit some balls a long way, and a few of his swings were short and sweet and strong, with an uppercut to them. He connected for a home run off David Aardsma, who’s been an MLB closer, but struggled with timing, getting fooled on off-speed stuff and jammed on inside fastballs, his swing tense and long more often than not.
The Mets gave Tebow a $100,000 signing bonus, assigned him to their instructional league in Port St. Lucie and agreed to let him fulfill his SEC Nation broadcast contract obligations with ESPN on the weekends in the fall.
In the words of Mets general manager Sandy Alderson: “Why not?”
Tim Tebow of the Scottsdale Scorpions bats against the Peoria Javelinas during an Arizona Fall League game at Peoria Stadium on October 13, 2016 in Peoria, Arizona. (Getty Images)
The reaction to his signing with the Mets was swift and often angry. The primary buzzword for the whole situation has been “publicity stunt.” Even his old teammates, Fontaine and Sanders, were taken aback, their reactions the same as those of many big leaguers and minor leaguers.
Fontaine, at least, felt his own initial anger give way to understanding, if not a touch of jealousy, too. Any minor leaguer offered six figures—and, on top of that, getting told he can zip on his private jet to go do his better-paying job on the weekends—would take that deal in a heartbeat. “And none of that is Tim’s fault,” Fontaine says. “It’s not all that unlike what Russell Wilson has been doing,” he said, referring to the Seattle Seahawks quarterback who played minor league baseball in the college football offseason.
And besides, Sanders says, he has toiled in the minors before, and they are no joke. “I’m pulling for the guy more than ever,” he says, “but I know how tough that road is—and I’m afraid at 29 it’s a little too late.”
He can’t help but worry a little for his friend. What if he can’t quite get his swing to click? What if he doesn’t really stand a chance? “I did see him strike out more than anybody else on the team in high school,” Sanders says. “And that’s what scares me, because I experienced going from high school to Division I to professional. … All the pitchers are gonna have a little edge on their shoulders to say, I’m gonna prove my point to Tim right here that this isn’t where he belongs. I hate to say that, but that’s the mentality of those guys. Everybody is battling for a job. It’s a very stressful job.”
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Tim Tebow works out at an instructional league day at Tradition Field on September 20, 2016 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Getty Images)
Tebow put on a good show in his last practice before his first instructional league game in Port St. Lucie. He launched balls over the fence in batting practice and drove a few balls during an intrasquad scrimmage and then, to end the scrimmage, he made the last out of the day with a good-looking diving catch in the left field gap. The dive tore open a strawberry on his knee, and a streak of blood ran down his pant leg, growing steadily thicker and darker. He’d barely noticed until someone pointed it out, and then he seemed downright giddy. “Man, that’s a good one!”
The next day was game day, the big instructional league debut. Typically these games draw maybe a dozen, mostly parents. On this Wednesday, about 300 fans came out.
When Tebow approached the plate for his first professional at-bat, dozens of fans moved toward the fence—almost unconsciously, like they were pulled by gravity—and raised their cameras between the chain links to get clear video.
In the Cardinals dugout, some young guys called out “Spider 2 Y Banana,” a Madden play.
"One of the biggest reasons people don't do things is because of criticism."
— TIM TEBOW
Tebow took his broad stance, looking strong on those two stacks of muscles he calls legs, bat gripped in white Adidas batting gloves, up by his ear. The pitcher, a tall lefty, wound and delivered, and Tebow took a smooth swing at the first pitch he saw. He launched the ball high and far to the opposite field and it disappeared behind the left-center field wall.
The only thing more absurd and amazing was how his teammates and coaches reacted.
They roared and they leapt from the benches and they poured out of the dugout, jumping and pumping their fists and celebrating. What if Tim Tebow was actually good enough to play for the Mets?
“I have never seen anything like that,” a Mets coach said after the game. He asked to be kept anonymous because the team has a media blackout around Tebow. But, inspired, he had to say something. “You don’t see that in instructional league games. Not from these guys. They’re out here for a month, they’re fighting for their own playing time and contracts, and some of them become friends, but it’s not like a team fighting for a playoff spot or something.” He laughs and says: “I did not expect that at all. And I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
That, the coach says, is why the Mets brought in Tebow: If nothing else, to give their guys a chance to be around someone who inspires that thought and all it makes feel possible—What if?
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After his first game in the Arizona Fall League—he went 0-for-3—Tebow was signing autographs when 30-year-old fan Brandon Berry had a seizure.
In the past, Tebow might not have done anything. He’s all too aware of just how it looks when he does things like that. In 2012, when he had first arrived in New York to play for the Jets, in a car going somewhere in Manhattan, he’d noticed a blind man struggling to cross an intersection. Tebow wanted to help but did nothing.
The blind man had started and stopped three different times. Tebow wanted to get out of the car and go help the guy because nobody else would. The people in the car with him had told him not to, because it would create too much attention. Tebow stayed in the car. They drove away, leaving the blind man standing on the street corner.
What if Tim had helped him? What if the man never got help?
So this time, Tebow went to the man with the seizure, put a hand on his leg and prayed for him. When Berry had recovered, Tebow waited with him for the ambulance, talking with him and asking him if he liked Batman because of the superhero’s image on his shirt and giving him some crap for being a University of Georgia fan.
With Berry, as with most everyone he encounters, Tebow didn’t really think it through; he just did what he felt he should do. He had no way of knowing that Berry has frontal lobe epilepsy, and he’s had it for three years and he has, on average, three seizures a month. Tebow certainly didn’t cure his seizures or anything. Berry had two more the very next day. And having Tebow there with him was great not because he was TIM TEBOW, but because Berry felt vulnerable, and someone treated him like a human being.
“Not a lot of people would do that,” Berry tells B/R Mag. “It’s rough when you have a lot of people staring at you.”
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