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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

No harm, no foul to enjoying Tebowmania on baseball field

Tim Tebow signs a ball for Mackenzie Demers,

Tim Tebow signs a ball for Mackenzie Demers, 12, of Port St. Lucie, before the New York Mets played the Boston Red Sox in a spring training baseball game on Wednesday, March 8, 2017, at First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: AP / Molly Bartels

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — One inch. Maybe two.

That was all that separated Tim Tebow from breaking the internet Wednesday and what actually happened at First Data Field, where the Mets’ resident Heisman Trophy winner looked like he’d be more help to the Browns or Niners than Flushing’s MLB outpost.

In the fourth inning, with the bases full, Tebow got a first-pitch fastball from Red Sox reliever Noe Ramirez and took a monster cut, but the ball glanced off the barrel, shooting foul. That was the one. Heading to the plate, Tebow’s single-minded purpose was to “do some damage.” And he just missed.

“I wanted it,” Tebow said later, smiling. “No question about it. I put a hard swing on that, too. I felt really good about that swing.”

Had Tebow connected, and that ball sailed over the fence, like so many of his pregame BP shots, we’re having an entirely different conversation right now. A Tebow grand slam? In his first-ever Grapefruit League game? That might have been enough to convert the Tebow-haters, or at the very least, buy some time.

Instead, that crowd gets their Tebow fantasy-camp narrative back, along with the cranky, old-timey baseball mindset of how Tebow shouldn’t be anywhere near the Mets or Port St. Lucie because of how offensive it is that a great athlete should dare to try to play another sport. God forbid (oops, sorry Tim) that a two-time NCAA football champ and an all-around decent guy should get the opportunity that anyone would jump at if offered a similar chance.

The Tebow-haters scored a momentary victory Wednesday by virtue of an 0-for-3 performance that included a pair of strikeouts on a total of seven pitches, with only one swing. Tebow also goofed when he tried to watch Rick Porcello warm up from the Sox side of the batting cage, an embarrassing no-no, and got doubled off first base on a liner to second.

Bottom line, Tebow looked lost, as any player might who was suddenly thrust into that scene with only a few Arizona Fall League games on his resume over the past dozen years. And pitting him against Porcello, the defending AL Cy Young champ? That was almost cruel. But after what had to be one of his more humiliating experiences on a grassy field, Tebow was unfailingly positive afterward. Self-deprecating one moment, incredibly optimistic the next.

Tebow opened at the podium with a ‘What’s up, guys?” and ended with his customary “God Bless.” In between, he retraced everything that happened to him during the whirlwind afternoon, and summarized the day’s events in a way that showed why he’s managed to achieve plenty of non-baseball success in other areas.

“As an athlete, you can’t let one day define anything, right?” Tebow said. “It’s a process. I know a lot of other people will sensationalize it, and regardless of what happens, it will be the best day of all time or the worst day of all time. But for me, it’s just a day. It’s just the next day.”

Guilty as charged. There’s no Tebowmania without us throwing him a party every time he puts on his cleats. But we fail to see the harm in any of this. People tuning in still got to watch a bunch of their favorite Mets, and that includes L.J. Mazzilli and Amed Rosario, who were the only other non-regulars in Wednesday’s lineup. Mazzilli has 414 minor-league games to his credit, and Rosario 358, so they were way more qualified to start than Tebow. His name was the only reason Terry Collins wrote him into the No. 8 spot, but there are worse crimes.

Tebow minded his manners in the big-league clubhouse, sitting to eat with another good guy, Curtis Granderson. In addition to calling Collins “coach” before TC corrected him, Tebow discovered he has plenty to learn, and at age 29, time is running out.

“He needs to move fast,” Collins said, “and I think you can force feed this guy because he’s not intimidated by situations. I hope he continues to push forward.”

It’s nice of Collins to say, but not even Tebow seems all that clear on what his goals are, other than to have fun and enjoy the experience. What’s so wrong about the rest of us doing that, too?

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