If he earns nothing else when his athletic career ends at last, Tim Tebow will earn eternal respect for his stubborn determination to play on until the last sports uniform is torn from his back. Whether that uniform will come off this year remains open, but Tebow can look forward to a spring reprieve at minimum.
The Mets have handed him a non-roster invitation, which probably indicates he’ll start a second season with the Syracuse Mets (AAA). But it isn’t likely to indicate that his chances of playing major league baseball, slim enough as they are already, will improve. At 32 years old, and with a total performance resume described as dubious at best, Tebow’s professional athletic career may head for the final curtain.
Tebow has played in the Mets’ system since 2016, almost a year after his last chance at quarterbacking in the National Football League ended with the Philadelphia Eagles. His previous baseball experience was as a high school junior, when the Angels thought of drafting him had he played the game as a senior first. When not playing baseball the former Heisman Trophy winner works as an ESPN college football analyst and motivational author.
He hasn’t exactly flown like an eagle in the Mets’ system, but he remains popular with fans and even with fellow Mets minor leaguers, who cite him as a good teammate regardless of what he does at the plate or in the field. That jibes with his NFL reputation, in which few put off by Tebow’s sometimes overbearing popularity faulted Tebow himself for it.
Nor was it Tebow’s fault that he wasn’t able to cling as an NFL quarterback or that his actual skills didn’t equal even a modest NFL backup. (What he really had were the skills of a solid running back.) I’ve seen no better assessment of his core dilemna—the one momentarily obscured by his fluke late-season Denver success—than that of How They Play‘s Tony Daniels:
His throwing style was awkward, and his passing was inaccurate as a result. He adopted a run-oriented mindset early in his career that caused him to take off running when his primary receiver wasn’t open or when he felt pressure. The most glaring reason why he failed as a quarterback in the NFL was because of the coaching he received in high school and at Florida.
Tebow was never forced to develop into a conventional quarterback. Because he was big, strong, and could run, his coaches at the lower levels simply went with the flow and allowed him to run without helping him to develop other skills. As a result, he simply improved on what he naturally did well and got weaker at what he didn’t do well; passing the football . . . Why else would NFL quarterback coaches have to work so hard with him on his mechanics? What were his high school and college coaches doing when he was in their practices? Was no one working with him on his footwork, stance, throwing motion, delivery, and following through then?
You stay mindful of the good teammate’s spiritual clubhouse value (“He’s the kind of guy who’s good for the team even when he’s not playing well,” said a Seattle Pilots teammate of pitcher Gary Bell after a Bell trade), you remain mindful at once that baseball teams require ability and results. Whatever the Angels saw in him as a high school junior was atrophied long enough.
By the time the Mets decided Tebow was worth having, maybe more to goose their minor league gates, he wasn’t a bona-fide baseball prospect. His personality and agreeability made you wish in your heart of hearts for some previously-unimaginable emergence of baseball talent. (They still do.) His shameless religious faith, which seemed jarring at first to the jaded, should never have been jarring and remains something to behold and admire in a time when spiritual faith sees more knockdown pitches than any hitter does.
Tebow launched his baseball career with a bang in his first professional plate appearance. But after four minor league seasons, one or two interrupted by injuries, Tebow’s batting statistics—along traditional and what I call real batting average lines—would be impressive here and there . . . for a decent National League-bound pitcher:
|Traditional Stat Line||AB||H||BB||SO||AVG||OBP||SLG||OPS|
|Tim Tebow, 2016-2019||940||210||85||327||.223||.299||.255||.495|
|Real Batting Avg. Line||PA||TB||BB||IBB||SAC||HBP||RBA|
|Tim Tebow, 2016-2019||1048||318||85||0||5||18||.406|
Looking in absolute fairness, Tebow’s lifetime RBA is higher than only two 2019 Silver Slugger Award qualifiers with 500+ plate appearances last year, but those two qualifiers have other abilities that make them at minimum just able to play major league baseball.
Tebow’s best minor league season was 2018—at AA level Binghamton—and this was with a traditional slash line of .273/.336/.399 and an RBA showing a deceptive .453. He played in 87 games that season with his more or less standard results: little power with inconsistent bat speed, an apparent allergy to walks, five strikeouts for every walk, little running speed, and not a lot of outfield range.
Somehow, he became a AA All-Star; that may have tied to an unexpected showing for hitting safely with two out and runners on second or better. (He had 53 such plate appearances and hit .346, with thirteen runs driven in but only two of eighteen hits going for extra bases.) Then he lost almost half of July and all the rest of the season with a broken hand, which stopped once-unlikely momentum for him in June and in July’s first half: he hit a combined .317 for June and July, even if it wasn’t exactly that productive a .317. The Mets then moved Tebow up the ladder to AAA Syracuse last year. His slash line: .163/.240/.255. (OPS: .495.) His RBA: .326.
And yet, as Syracuse.com’s Lindsay Kramer wrote toward the end of the Syracuse Mets’s season, “While it could be argued that other players might have been a lot more deserving of the at-bats that appeared wasted on Tebow, at least his roster spot didn’t deny a quality young prospect playing time.”
That was on 13 August, after Tebow’s season ended with a cut to his left pinkie. In what could be called a summation of his baseball career to date, Kramer wrote, “[G]etting a chance is one thing, taking advantage of it another. Tebow . . . showed perseverance in his bid to transition from NFL quarterback to pro baseball player but that dedication is still a long way from producing numbers anywhere near someone deserving of a big-league look.”
Or, at last, generating the positive attendance numbers that once made the Mets’ Tebow experiment an unlikely success at the gate. “Poor play plus poor attendance numbers is a brutal combination,” wrote Sportsnaut‘s Jesse Reed. “Tebow is beloved by many, yet he isn’t compelling his fans to come watch any more.”
Said Tony DeFrancesco, last year Syracuse’s manager and for 2020 the Mets’ first base coach, “It might take a little more time than people expected, third year professional ball, first year Triple-A. Unfortunately, injuries got to him. Those are at-bats that I think Tim really needs to develop, to really understand his swing, his decision-making, seeing pitches. So I think that still has to improve.”
Said Rene Rivera, a catcher at Syracuse last year but with eleven seasons of major league experience, “He tried. He didn’t seem to be so comfortable with the league. This is a tough league. This is a lot of veteran players, a lot of upcoming big-leaguers. We know that he didn’t do well by the numbers. But I think the good thing that he takes with him is the experience that he can come next year and be more comfortable and know what he has to do to be successful.”
The S-Mets’s hitting coach, Joel Chimelis, observed that consistency (“You don’t have room to have a swing one day and not the next day”) is “very difficult” to show in the Show if you can’t show it in the high minors. Tebow can drive balls when he connects properly, but connecting properly is the question for which the answers fade further in the rear view mirror for a now 32-year-old who wasn’t exactly a prime prospect in the first place.
“Not everybody’s body works the same,” Chimelis continued. “Guys are a little bit more flexible than others around the hips, a little bit more bat speed. Me, personally, I’d rather have quickness, bat speed, than power because bat speed is power. If you have bat speed, you’re going to drive the ball. And it’s not necessarily the biggest guy that’s driving the ball and hitting the ball the hardest. He’s kind of big, so he has to be more efficient with his mechanics in order for that to happen.”
Such assessments earned by other minor leaguers at or close enough to Tebow’s age, and often younger, usually send them the message that it might be time to exercise whatever exit strategy they have toward taking up another line of work, if they don’t have one off-season already.
Sports history is overcrowded with athletes who proved better human beings than performers in their chosen sports. Getting the athletes whose talents were as good as their selves was rare enough. Getting the athletes whose selves were as admirable as their talents were trans-dimensional made the former seem routine.
That’s why we revere the like of Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Cal Ripken, Albert Pujols (even in his heartbreaking, protracted, injury-seeded decline), and Mike Trout. Talent above and beyond, people better than their sports legends. It’s also why you root for someone like Tim Tebow, who personifies exponentially the guy who’s a better man than he’ll ever be a ballplayer.
If you consider such things to be rewards for such decency, be advised that, a day before I wrote here, Tebow celebrated his year-old engagement to a South African beauty queen, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, 2017’s Miss Universe, who met him during her reign, enjoyed her first American Thanksgiving at his home, and thanked him publicly for his support when her reign ended.
When Tebow and Nel-Peters announced the engagement on Instagram, they charmingly asked followers for help with wedding hashtags. The followers weren’t exactly shy about providing such help. One, referring to Tebow’s oft-remarked habit of kneeling in prayer on NFL sidelines (it became famous as “Tebowing”), suggested “#TookAKneeForDemiLeigh,” perhaps after seeing a shot of Tebow popping the question—on his knee—during one of her visits to his Jacksonville home. Others stretched it a mite: “#TyingTheTebow,” “#ToHaveAndTebow,” that sort of thing.
Mrs. Tebow-to-be isn’t just another ethereal pageant queen, either: a month after she was crowned Miss Universe, carjackers in Johannesburg forced her to hand them her car keys and get into their car, whereupon she administered a prompt, solid punch in the throat to one of the thieves and escaped for help. She also conducts worldwide self defense workshops.
Her husband-to-be doesn’t have to worry about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s not-always-true observation that there are no second acts in American life. Tebow fashioned one even before his first in football ended. Baseball’s been close enough to a third act for him. His athletic career may approach the final curtain sooner than he’d prefer, but his numerous virtues include that he has his second act with a long, pleasant epilogue yet to go, and impeccable taste in woman.