LAKELAND, Fla. — The fans leaned against the railing, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder to steal a glimpse of a curiosity. One by one, they tossed down items to be signed. Tim Tebow obliged, retrieving baseballs and T-shirts before heaving them back up to the fans. He did this Monday as blood mingled with bits of gravel on his right forearm, with the cloth on the right leg of his gray baseball pants reduced to shredded scraps.
His only regret was not catching a drive he chased down earlier, not the 0-for-3 that dipped his average to .200.
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“There will be more chances,” Tebow said after the Mets lost to the Tigers, 5-1.
Those chances will come with the Mets’ low Class A affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina. As first reported by Newsday, Tebow’s baseball odyssey will continue with the Fireflies of the South Atlantic League beginning on April 6.
It is a full-season circuit and Tebow’s toughest challenge thus far in his attempt to transform himself from a quarterback to a corner outfielder.
“It’s not about worrying about the level of competition and failing at it,” he said. “This is a game where mentally you have to be prepared to handle failure, you know? If you fail 70 percent of the time, you’re one of the best players in the game, and you have to be able to handle it mentally.”
The Mets have been consistent in saying that Tebow’s development is tied to playing in as many games as possible. Not long after instructional league, he was sent to the Arizona Fall League even though general manager Sandy Alderson said the Mets knew he’d be “somewhat overmatched, especially early on.”
It’s also why Alderson said Tebow likely would have been sent to Columbia if he had looked overmatched in spring training, with live game action continuing to be the priority. Instead, the Mets have been encouraged by Tebow’s progress in camp.
“Sending him to a full-season club is what we hoped to be able to do,” Alderson told Newsday. “And based on what he’s done in spring training, and his whole body of work since last fall, we feel comfortable with him going to Columbia.”
Before signing a minor-league deal with the Mets, Tebow, 29, hadn’t played baseball since high school. The rust has shown with late swings and at least one misread of a routine fly ball in leftfield. But he has made hard contact and even made a diving catch in rightfield.
“He’s obviously very athletic and he has adapted very quickly,” Alderson said. “His approach at the plate is very solid. He doesn’t chase pitches. People might say his swing is a little long, but the swing is professional. When he’s made contact, it’s often been hard contact . . . Defensively, it’s still a work in progress, but it’s adequate. He’s made some nice plays, again demonstrating the athleticism that everybody’s seen he has.”
Since a rough start in the Arizona Fall League, Alderson said Tebow has “improved pretty dramatically.”
“And the other thing is he’s fit in well with his teammates,” Alderson said. “There hasn’t been much in the way of criticism or jealousy or anything of that sort from his teammates. Again, that goes to what kind of a person he is.”
With Tebow ticketed for his highest level of play yet, Alderson again bristled at the notion of the former Heisman Trophy winner being little more than a publicity stunt, one that takes away a roster spot for a worthy minor-leaguer.
“That’s such a bogus argument,” Alderson said. “We’ve got lots of room for lots of players at lots of different levels. The fact that he’s starting at Columbia, he’s really not taking anybody’s spot. By the way, we have lots of players in our organization who are just that: organizational players. Not every player that we have is a top prospect whose opportunity is being curtailed by Tim Tebow or anybody else.”
It’s unclear how many more games Tebow will play with the Mets during major league spring training, or whether he’ll play right or left for Columbia. But he will be playing every day, and doing so soon, much of the reason he will be in the South Atlantic League rather than with short-season Brooklyn, which doesn’t begin play until later in the summer.
“It’s not like you going into something ever being afraid of it,” Tebow said. “You go into it respecting it but also working and excited about the challenge and the opportunity.”