PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Sandy Alderson, the visionary who made the Tim Tebow Experiment possible, used to flash his signature wry smile whenever he was asked about the Heisman Trophy winner’s chances of someday being promoted to the Mets.
We’re paraphrasing here, but it always went something like this: Don’t people realize, Alderson would chuckle, that I’m the person who ultimately makes that decision?
Alderson got Tebow as far as Double-A Binghamton last season but stepped down as general manager before he could pilot this process to its conclusion.
The initial reaction was that Tebow had lost his biggest fan — or enabler — depending on your point of view, and the dreams of Gator Nation would be crushed by the next administration.
Then the unimaginable happened: Tebow’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, moved into Alderson’s office, a development that figured to improve his chances of showing up in the batter’s box at Citi Field.
Tebow already was having a pretty good offseason, getting engaged to a former Miss Universe. Having one of his greatest allies, Van Wagenen, wind up in control of his baseball destiny? On the scale of lucky bounces, that’s Mookie-Buckner quality.
Van Wagenen’s new job title doesn’t guarantee Tebow anything, obviously. But when you combine that favorable wrinkle with Tebow’s sincere commitment to the sport — and starting him at Triple-A Syracuse on Opening Day — there is a sense of building momentum.
Listen to how Tebow described his relationship with Van Wagenen shortly after arriving Saturday at First Data Field.
“He’s a great friend,” Tebow said. “When I started out on this journey, he wasn’t that guy that was like, ‘Oh, man, you’re going to make it to the bigs. It’s going to be so great.’ No. He’s like, ‘It’s going to be one of the hardest things that you’re ever going to go through. You may or may not accomplish it, but if you want to go on this journey, I’ll be with you every step of the way.’
“And that’s all I needed,” Tebow added. “I knew at that moment, he was my guy.
As much as Alderson loved trolling everyone by pumping up Tebow, he never attained BFF level with the former quarterback. And you can expect that bromance with Van Wagenen to continue during Tebow’s quest, which we have to admit is now on the verge of legitimate status.
It’s not all about Van Wagenen, either. Tebow put in considerable work in the offseason, taking his personal hitting guru, Jay Gibbons, on the road for his ESPN assignments and taking batting practice at a number of college campuses he visited for his SEC duties.
If you recall the Sugar Bowl broadcast, Tebow was shown on TV in a suite, where he was demonstrating his swing to Gibbons. Tebow told us Saturday that he did some hitting at Tulane that morning before doing his day job for ESPN, a common routine as he jetted around the country with Gibbons.
Whatever Tebow did, the payoff was evident during his first BP round Saturday on Field 7, which has the same dimensions as Citi Field. With a large crowd camped behind the cage — a contingent that included Van Wagenen, Fred Wilpon, Omar Minaya and Mickey Callaway — Tebow sprayed hard-hit liners, with seven drives clearing the rightfield fence.
Even in BP, there usually are a few weak pop-ups or meek grounders. But it’s not hyperbole to say Tebow mashed every pitch, with ferocious exit velo. Because it’s spring training and this is all we have to keep score, Tebow outhomered the other rising slugger he shared the cage with, fellow Gator Peter Alonso, by the count of 7-3.
“It’s raw power, and it’s real,” Callaway said. “He puts the barrel on the ball and it goes really far.”
Skills aside, Tebow remains an intimidating physical force, but he looks more like a baseball player now, transforming from his original stocky build to a leaner, muscular frame more fitting for an outfielder.
Last year, Tebow missed all of spring training after fracturing his left ankle on a sprinkler head but returned to hit .273 with six homers and a .734 OPS in 84 games for Double-A Binghamton.
Those weren’t quite All-Star numbers, but being Tim Tebow helped make him a gate attraction for the Trenton event anyway, and the Mets can’t wait to open their new Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse with him in the lineup.
As Alderson liked to point out, Tebow already has been a huge success from a marketing standpoint in the minors, and the player himself said he has enjoyed the journey regardless of where or how it ends.
As first impressions go, Saturday’s laser show certainly was entertaining, and now that he has a full spring training to work with, questioning Tebow — or ridiculing his crossover efforts — may be a mistake.
“Succeeding or failing is not making it to the bigs,” he said. “It’s not having to live with regret because I didn’t try. I just feel for all the young people out there that don’t go after something because they’re so afraid of failing. I think the reason that a lot of people don’t go after things is because how much you will be criticized — what if I fall flat on my face? — and so fear and doubt and all these things creep in.
“I just don’t believe that’s the healthiest way to live. I don’t want to have to live with fear and doubt every day. Regardless of what everyone here says about me, that doesn’t define me.”
And Tebow isn’t finished yet, helped by the right people on his side and encouraged by the possibility of changing more minds along the way.