PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — They all remember the dirt.
With Tim Tebow and the Class A St. Lucie Mets coming to town last year, the Florida Fire Frogs ran a promotion that allowed fans to purchase a package that included game-used dirt.
Yes, that’s right, a bottle of dirt from the field where the legendary University of Florida quarterback played baseball.
Not a jersey. A bottle of dirt.
A marketing ploy so outrageous it still elicits amazement from those who played with Tebow last year.
Welcome to minor league baseball starring one of the world’s most famous athletes.
“That was pretty wild,” pitching prospect Johnny Magliozzi said of the dirt for sale. “A little odd.”
Playing with Tebow proved to be a one-of-a-kind experience for his Class A teammates last year. Tebow’s arrival galvanized crowds across the South Atlantic and Florida State Leagues, and the former NFL quarterback won over teammates with his legendary work ethic.
“In my opinion, not just because of what he does in a baseball uniform,” Mets captain David Wright said, “but I think he’s the most famous person to wear a professional baseball uniform now.”
Tebow’s presence in minor league baseball has been scrutinized since the moment he signed with the Mets in 2016, and continues to be a debate two years later. Some purists argue he’s stealing a roster spot from a more-deserving prospect. Others, such as Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, note that baseball is entertainment, and there are few athletes with Tebow’s celebrity status.
Those who shared clubhouses with Tebow in Class A were complimentary of the outfielder, and enjoyed the memorable experience it provided for them in the initial stages of their careers.
The consensus among those who played with Tebow, prospects and established major leaguers alike, is he is a hard worker, and a genuinely nice person. He didn’t reek of arrogance or try to big-time his teammates. Tebow was just one of the guys trying to make the major leagues, albeit more famous than the others.
When his teammates ribbed him, Tebow didn’t care they had a laugh at his expenses. Reliever Tyler Bashlor and starter Andrew Church goofed on Tebow by wearing Tebow shirseys (jersey T-shirts worn by fans) during warm-ups one day. Tebow later obliged when Bashlor asked for an autographed shirt for his mother.
Magliozzi, an unheralded prospect with a reputation as an instigator, needled Tebow by running routes in the outfield as if were a receiver, and Tebow would hit him in stride with the baseball as if he was the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas. Magliozzi also boasts of his undefeated record against Tebow in ping pong.
Tebow laughed while recalling how one team played a montage of the worst moments of his career on the jumbotron throughout the game.
“I didn’t think he had that rockstar mentality. He rode the bus like the rest of us,” St. Lucie teammate Peter Alonso said. “He wasn’t chartering planes across the state or anything. Being Tim Tebow, he’s probably the most famous minor league baseball player but he was like a normal teammate.”
Tebow also showed his teammates that he intended to give it his all, which goes a long way considering the widespread questions about why Tebow is attempting to play baseball.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve seen, and it motivates you,” said catching prospect Patrick Mazeika, a teammate at St. Lucie. “You want to be a better person, better player. Everything.”
Wright admitted he did not know what to expect from Tebow, but the quarterback won him over by being at the complex about eight hours before a game to work on his swing. That indicated to Wright that Tebow truly is committed to baseball and wants to see where this voyage takes him.
During the games, Tebow asked Wright for hitting tips, and what he noticed with certain pitchers.
Michael Conforto, who played one game with Tebow last year, also noted Tebow’s eagerness to learn.
Tebow wasn’t just showing up, getting his at-bats and leaving. He wanted to get better at his craft.
“I don’t think I had to prove extra. It’s who I am and how I try to go about my life and work and everything I do,” Tebow said. “It’s not trying to prove but get to know them for who they are, who I am.”
Teammates want NFL info
Tebow has really made fans in the clubhouse, as the young players have turned him into their personal fantasy football cheat sheet and NFL database.
Baseball players tend to be avid football fans — they enjoy fantasy football like the rest of America. But unlike the general public, they have access to a former Heisman Trophy winner, although Tebow admits he doesn’t know how fantasy football works other than knowing how good a player is.
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Alonso, a fellow Florida alum, asked Tebow about fellow Gators players such as Percy Harvin and the Pouncey twins. Others asked Tebow about which player hit him the hardest. What are the memories from taking down the Steelers in that classic 2012 Playoff game? Tell us about your speech after the Ole Miss loss? Which NFL player is the strongest? Should I trade this player from my fantasy squads?
It just so happened that Tebow seemed to have plenty of teammates that rooted for one particular team: the New England Patriots. Cue the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick questions.
“Somehow we’ve had a lot of Patriots fans in this locker room and other few teams,” Tebow laughed. “They’d all ask me about being with Brady, playing against him, the playoff game we lost to him.”
Bringing energy to the game
As Tebow fit in within the clubhouse, he also helped make the games more enjoyable for his teammates since thousands of fans filled stadiums to watch his attempt to make it to the majors.
Tebow played for Columbia and St. Lucie last season, and his teammates included high draft picks and lower-round choices that will never make the majors. Attendance is usually sparse for those games in what can be oppressive weather. Tickets are easy to come by.
When Tebow arrived to Port St. Lucie, First Data Field became the place to be. The crowds had more energy. The atmosphere resembled that of a college game.
“I’m not sure if you’ve been to a Florida State League game. There’s about seven people in the stands that are not scouts or girlfriends or family. It’s not an exact number, but very, very sparse,” Alonso said. “When he got there, it was really, really awesome to play in front of people.”
St. Lucie set an attendance record last year by nearly 27,000 fans, and averaged more than 2,000 fans per game. Three opponents also set game attendance records last year when Tebow came to town. Say what you want about Tebow’s abilities as an outfielder or at quarterback, but he’s a hit at the box office.
“I’d be comfortable putting anybody up against him, and Tim having a better following and fanbase. It’s no knock on anybody in here,” said Wright, who played three games with St. Lucie. “Anybody on a major league rehab assignment is the opening act for Tim, at least from what I experienced.”
He added: “They should have got Tim a gift for (the attendance record).”
With the increased crowds came a rapidly-growing interest, and Tebow’s teammates recognized certain changes. For starters, Tebow’s presence led to increased security. The players’ parking lot at First Data Field is easy to find, and fans wait outside the gate after games during spring training.
Last camp, a woman was arrested for trespassing who claimed to be in a relationship with Tebow.
In addition to the “Tebow” dirt fans could buy, tickets were also sold to allow fans to watch batting practice. It’s common to see fans line up on the field in the majors to watch some of the great sluggers get their swings in before games, but that’s not standard procedure for the minor leagues. Wright had never seen that before in all his years playing and rehabbing in Port St. Lucie.
Tebow said the pre-game festivities, including the dirt packages, made it difficult for him to prepare for that night’s game since he tries to honor those who request an autograph.
Magliozzi noted how Tebow always tried to sign for those who waited for an autograph, no matter how deep the crowd. Tebow had to be pulled away from groups of fans at times last spring training.
“That part was um, that’s fine, it just makes it a little harder for me to go about the work, and was kind of a little bit disappointing,” Tebow said. “(Batting practice) lets us have our time to put in work and all these fans, and they are all there, and if I don’t sign for them, they are expecting that and it puts me in a tough situation a little bit. You want to be nice but this is an hour and a half before the game we got to put in our work. It was a little tougher situation for me when that happened.”
Tebow is now preparing for his second season in the minors, and it’s possible he could arrive in Flushing this September. Alderson says he expects Tebow in the majors, and the outfielder’s first big-league game would surely have a capacity crowd with so much intrigue surrounding his journey.
He’ll likely start the year with Class AA Binghamton, and try to impress his new group of teammates by arriving to the park early, while also giving them the NFL stories and fantasy advice they crave.
Tebow may be the most famous player in minor league baseball, but he’s still just a prospect trying to make it, which especially rings true when it comes to buying the postgame spread.
It still falls on established veterans in the minors to order catering.
After all, despite his success in football, Tebow is still just a baseball prospect.
“He’s going to buy it every night?” Wright said. “He’s playing down there.”