WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Tim Tebow steps into the box for his first at-bat against major-league competition on Wednesday, it will be against reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello of the Red Sox.
The Mets are throwing the 29-year-old former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback right into the fire. Tebow is scheduled to be the designated hitter when the Red Sox visit First Data Field in Port St. Lucie for one of the most anticipated spring training games in recent memory.
The phenomenon that is Tebow will be on full display against one of baseball’s best. At least Porcello was last season, when he went 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and 189 strikeouts in 223 innings.
But people will be more focused on Tebow. That’s how Tebowmania works.
“It seems like no matter what he gets involved in it’s always going to grab headlines or draw a crowd or attention to it,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said on Tuesday at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. “A gifted athlete. See how he handles a major-league environment, particularly in the batter’s box.”
Tebow being able to make contact against Porcello would be an upset, at least according to European betting website bookmaker.eu, which lists a strikeout in the first at-bat as the overwhelmingly most likely outcome.
Tebow struck out 20 times in 62 at-bats and hit .194 in the Arizona Fall League, when he was facing some of baseball’s top prospects. That was his first exposure to professional pitching.
The Mets have been accused of signing — and playing — Tebow for marketing reasons and not because he is a true prospect. They deny that. A team spokesman said Wednesday’s game is nearly sold out, but added that it was already nearly sold out before Tebow’s debut was announced because the popular Red Sox are coming to Port St. Lucie.
Red Sox players reacted with a shrug and well-wishes when asked about Tebow.
“It’s cool,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “Good for him. You know? I don’t know him. Obviously, I would never bet against him. Just from what I read and things like that, I know what type of guy he is. Good for him. That’s pretty cool.”
Said third baseman Pablo Sandoval: “I wish I could play another sport. Basketball, soccer, whatever. He’s making that transition playing football to baseball, [that’s a] big deal. He’s a pro athlete. He knows how to handle those things.”
Tebow does know how to handle uncomfortable attention (see: his time with the Jets). But how will he handle a major-league fastball? That question will begin to be answered on Wednesday and again Friday, when the lefthanded hitter is scheduled to play against the Astros in another Mets home game.
“Looking forward to seeing it,” Farrell said. “You know he devoted most of his professional career to football, so making a change with a number-of-year gap in there, that adds another dynamic to it. I’ve never seen him in person, so I can’t give you a ‘how difficult or how unlikely or how likely’ him arriving at the major leagues, if at all, will take place.”
There are some who begrudge Tebow the chance he’s getting, who chafe at the idea that he’s taking at-bats away from minor-leaguers who have devoted their entire careers to baseball and would love a chance to play in a major-league spring training game. But others are OK with what Tebow is trying to accomplish.
“He’s a baseball player now,” said former Mets and Yankees outfielder Chris Young, now with the Red Sox. “In camp, there are a lot of guys that get opportunities and it’s the same as any other minor-league guy trying to get the opportunity to play in a big-league game. It’s cool. Everybody has the right to try to achieve whatever they want to. Go after their dreams. So I’m not knocking him in any kind of way. I think it’s great.”