Tim Tebow was 18 years old, in green shorts and a gray T-shirt, walking from left field toward home plate for an offseason chat. He'd come to meet with his high school baseball coach, Greg Mullins, after school. Something's wrong, Mullins thought as Tebow approached. "Can we talk?" Tebow asked, and they moved to the dugout bench.
It was 2005, and Tebow, not yet a celebrity, had plotted out his future. His voice wavered. A few minutes into the conversation, Tebow shed a tear. He wouldn't play his senior season of baseball. He had decided to enroll early at Florida to pursue a football career.
"One of the hardest decisions I ever made was choosing to go football over baseball," Tebow said this month of that day at Nease High School in Florida, just south of Jacksonville. "It's an itch I've always had and a passion I've always had, and it didn't go away after years."
It's been 13 and a half years since the day Tebow's baseball career ended. Well, could have ended. Now, just weeks into year three of a rise through the minors, Tebow is one step from the major leagues. One step from his ultimate dream, which he set out for after his professional football career ended. While his foundation was growing and he was working as an ESPN college football analyst, he considered how the rest of his life would go. Maybe he'd give his "first love" another try. Maybe he'd try to play in the majors.
As his baseball odyssey extends into this spring, the question is how he'll handle the pitching for the Class AAA Syracuse Mets. The task at hand: cut down on strikeouts, hit for power, track down fly balls in the outfield. In Class AA, he struck out in more than 30 percent of his at-bats, but he hit a respectable .273. Through nine games this season, he's 5 for 31 with 13 strikeouts.
At 31, he is now being recognized for talent he had all along. He believes he's improving, though he knows it won't get any easier. As the competition has gotten stiffer, he could quit the game. Yet he isn't worried about how hard opposing pitchers are throwing, nor does he seem to worry about the possibility that his baseball journey could end in the minors. Since 1970, only seven athletes have played in both the NFL and MLB. He would be the eighth.
"Hopefully one day he'll be batting third this summer, and I can tell him he's getting called up," Syracuse Mets Manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "We're pleased right now. Everybody's going to pound him inside until he proves he can hit the ball in. He's shown he can drive the ball the other way. It's no secret."
Tebow, a chiseled 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, won the Heisman Trophy at Florida in 2007. He led the Gators to two national titles. He was selected by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft and signed a five-year deal that guaranteed him $8.7 million. He was traded to the New York Jets in 2012 and spent brief stints with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, but he was released before the 2015 season. He finished with a career record of 8-6 as a starting quarterback.
At Florida, Tebow spent hours every day in head coach Urban Meyer's office, having long talks about football and life. DeFrancesco said Tebow has popped in to talk about at-bats — in a notebook, he jots down observations on each pitcher he faces — and off-field priorities, including his foundation and speaking engagements. He's become so popular with fans in minor league cities that Terry Collins, the special assistant to the general manager of the Mets, calls him "the Cal Ripken of the Minor Leagues" mostly because he signs so many autographs.
He's introduced himself to many of his teammates. He asks them about their at-bats, what they saw, and what they learned in previous seasons. "Hey," he has said, "What do you think about this?" On a bus ride in spring training, he sat next to Syracuse hitting coach Joel Chimelis and asked questions about a few power hitters, including the New York Yankees' Aaron Judge. After one of the first few team practices, once everybody had left, there was Tebow, hacking away by himself in the cage. He's still playing catch up.
At the plate, Tebow maintains a basic stance, with a slight rock. His bat is nearly vertical. He bends his knees slightly, then uncorks. Power has always defined the baseball player he is: In high school, he once hit a baseball more than 400 feet. His team ended practice every day with on-field hitting, and the team wouldn't pack up until Tebow hit the ball over the fence. To best maximize his natural power, he's adopted a minimalist approach to his pre-pitch movements.
Defensively, he said he improved his reads off the bat this spring. He's catching fly balls with one hand, not two. He feels his arm strength, about average, has improved. Then there's the hard-to-measure charismatic personality. Teammates emphasize aspects of his character as perhaps his greatest contributions. He wears No. 15 because, when he was 15 years old, he met a boy in the Philippines born with backward feet. "I knew for the rest of my life what I wanted to do," Tebow said, "and that's fight for people who can't fight for themselves."
From the beginning, there was no timetable on when Tebow would reach the big leagues, no expectation for how fast he'd prove he was — or wasn't — capable of professional baseball, former New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said. The decision to sign him was based on, more than anything, his character.
"The Mets as an organization saw this as a no-lose proposition," Alderson said last week. "The risk factors with some guys — a bad personality, or if he's a jerk — those were eliminated with him since he's so positive. We also knew that in the minor leagues, his optimism would have a long-term impact on his teammates. Minor league life is not pretty. The most impressive thing is that he's stuck with this for so long."
At first he was an ex-football player, a little too bulky and too stiff. He's since kept much of his strength but increased his mobility. He's simplified his stance and load, minimized his stride and shortened his swing. Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen, his former agent, believes he's a real prospect with a potential big league future. Should he keep progressing at his current rate, Van Wagenen thinks he can play at the highest level.
"Right now, AAA is where he can help us most," Van Wagenen said. "He lets the ball get deep in the strike zone and he can capitalize on mistakes. How he does this year is the determining factor."