Greg Cote

Tebow’s baseball debut proves he isn’t done being a star — he might just be getting started

Here a couple of hours north of Miami were gathered 58 of the New York Mets’ top minor-league prospects on a gorgeous but dripping-humid Monday. They were from all levels of the organization to begin a three-week instructional league, at which fundamentals are stressed and Mets scouts essentially reevaluate their own talent. Fifty-seven of the young men you’ve never heard of. The other was swooned-over by adoring fans who cheered him taking a lead off first base. He was tailed by a record number of national media for this small stadium, and watched by a news helicopter thrumming overhead.

Tim Tebow has not stopped being a star. He may just be getting started.

Instructional leagues typically are under-radar affairs all but ignored as they play out in anonymity on the far back fields of minor-league complexes.

“I’ve been covering baseball 30 years and I’ve never been to an instructional league before,” ESPN’s Pedro Gomez told us.

But Tebow was here, and so a whisper of an event became a circus. More than 400 fans showed up, many in No. 15 jerseys from his Florida Gators days. The press contingent was estimated at close to 100. And, keep in mind, nothing was happening but the most mundane baseball exercises.

At one point Tebow (also No. 15 in Mets clothes) stood among a half-dozen other prospects around first base, practicing the art of taking a lead. It was Tebow’s turn. Expertly he moved three steps toward second, then hurried back — beating an imaginary pickoff move.

And the crowd lined thick along the chain-link fence roared approval with loud cheering!

Through the fence I asked a man in Gators colors why he was there. He’d driven up from Coral Springs.

“Tebow is a one-man church and the congregation follows,” said Jeremy Taylor, 38, a window-shutters salesman, laughing at his own description. “I mean, after what he’s accomplished, imagine if he actually made it in baseball. We could be seeing the start of history here.”

A little later Tebow was in right field doing long-toss with a fellow outfield prospect named Gene Cone, seven years his junior.

As they finished that drill and walked to another field, Cone briefly paused to be asked about the experience of playing catch with Tebow. His instant wide grin seemed genuine. No resentment of Tebow was heard.

“The guy’s a legend,” Cone said.

Well, he’d be on the way if he went from being a Heisman Trophy-winning two-time national-championship college quarterback to one whose three-year NFL career had its moments — and then made it in Major League Baseball. If Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders are sports legends of almost mythical size, Tebow would be the same.

What he stressed Monday is that he’s serious about the pursuit. He isn’t pretending while secretly coveting another NFL shot. But, Tim, what if the Patriots called tomorrow?

“No sir, I’m part of the Mets family,” he said.

For now he’s a 29-year-old bottom-rung rookie in a sport he hasn’t played regularly since his junior year in high school.

“I feel like it comes back super-fast,” he said.

He might surprise doubters and be in the majors in 2017. But even if all he does is languish in the minors a bit and then scrap the whole baseball thing, his attempt alone qualifies as something in the neighborhood of the “Linsanity” Jeremy Lin created on a basketball court.


Tim Tebow's (#15) first day of Mets' minor league instructional league.

A photo posted by Greg Cote (@upsetbird) on

I mean, he’s Tim Tebow — beloved to many, mocked by others. Polarizing. Adored as an All-American type and perfect role model, yet also made fun at times because he wears his religion too overtly for some or because of a perception he may be disingenuous or an attention-seeker. That he signed onto the New York media market magnifies the story.

For sure, it’s gold for the Mets. It should have other teams — like Marlins — kicking themselves for not being the ones who offered him a contract after his recent “showcase” audition in Los Angeles.

The Mets already are cashing in. On the team’s website his No. 15 jerseys were selling Monday for $119.99 and were the club’s third-biggest seller, trailing only those of pitching ace Noah Syndergaard and blank [Your Name Here] jerseys.The Mets will profit, in attention and cash, even if Tebow never makes the big club.

Many people seem to be rooting for that failure, and I’m not sure why.

Is it because Tebow is, well, too perfect?

Cynical media brethren of mine were joking that angels should sing and a rainbow appear as he took the field Monday morning. Have we become so jaded or accustomed to pro athletes letting us down that we are suspicious and not sure how to react when one seems to do everything right?

Two weeks ago Tebow was in a remote area of the Philippines — “Taking bucket baths and riding in jitneys,” he said — as part of the ministering he does through his foundation, which supports a hospital and an orphanage there. Tebow, who was born in Makati, Philippines, mentions one boy named Sherwin who’d been born with his feet backward. He was shunned as cursed. The foundation was able to arrange for the medical procedures needed.

So many pro athletes, either by misdeeds or disinterest, run from the idea of being role models. Tebow embraces it.

He is polite, polished and practiced at the art of parrying any negativity.

“People say let it go in one ear and out the other — I try to not even let it get to an ear,” he said. “I guess there’s a little chip on my shoulder, but it’s not about the naysayers. I’m doing this to live out a dream and live life to the fullest.”

He ended Monday’s press conference thusly: “Thank you so much. God bless.”