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The New York Mets were playing the Houston Astros on Monday, but instead of being at First Data Field with the rest of the Mets executives, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon was on the back minor league fields, watching a non-prospect in his first spring training camp.
Mets center fielder Curtis Granderson is a three-time All-Star who has appeared in 51 postseason games, but his $28 T-shirt has been replaced in the Mets outdoor gift shop by that of a 29-year-old who has never played in a true minor league game.
The Mets starting lineup featured six regulars, including Yoenis Cespedes and David Wright, but about 60 fans, a dozen reporters and seven camera crews never set foot inside the stadium, instead watching a former Heisman Trophy winner hit nine homers in batting practice on Field 5.
Tim Tebow, idolized by Florida Gators football fans, admired for his outspoken Christian faith and revered for his philanthropy, is considered either baseball's finest role model or baseball's biggest carnival act.
He just might be baseball's most polarizing figure.
"I'm not going to worry about what everyone's writing or what everyone's thinking or however I'm being marketed," Tebow says. "I just want to be able to continue the process, enjoy the process, enjoy every day, get to know my teammates and have fun out there."
Oh, yeah, and be the subject of the debates about whether the Mets really believe he has a legitimate chance of becoming a baseball player or is nothing more than a marketing gimmick.
"I love baseball. Baseball deserves better," tweeted former All-Star outfielder Preston Wilson, the nephew of former Mets star Mookie Wilson. "I have friends who got released at 25 who dedicated themselves fully."
He preceded the tweet with another directed to my attention: "Stop making him news. He is 30."
Well, technically Tebow won't be 30 until August, but no reason to nitpick. his last full season in baseball was his junior year in high school, before leading Florida to two national championships. The Mets signed him to a $100,000 minor league contract last fall, and after going to the instructional league, he hit .194 in 19 Arizona Fall League Games, striking out 20 times in 62 at-bats.
"Obviously, I knew it's a big challenge," Tebow said. "You're picking up a sport after 12 years of not playing it, but I understood it. I think part of the challenge in it being so hard is part of why it's something I'm enjoying and loving.
"Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things in sports, but I'm enjoying it very much."
Realistically, Tebow has no shot to make the big leagues. He might even be fortunate to make it past the low minor league levels. Yet there are those like his mentor, Gary Sheffield, who, though he might be frustrated over Tebow's batting stance change, still believes he can make it.
"I saw Tim this winter, and I told him I don't approve of his new technology of hitting," Sheffield, who hit 509 home runs without striking out more than 83 times in a season, told USA TODAY Sports. "His swing is completely different. He's got this uppercut now that's built for homers instead of trying to get backspin to hit line drives that turn into homers. I don't like that approach when you're trying to learn the game again.
"But I still believe in him because of his will. He has a will like no other. And when a guy wants to do something so bad, he can do whatever he wants.
"I would never bet against him."
Tebow conceded Monday that he has slightly altered his swing, widening his stance, with more of an uppercut designed for power. Yet the revised swing actually came from talking with Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, his Jacksonville neighbor, who worked out with him over the winter.
"Murph was telling him the importance that if you've got power, and it's in there, get the ball in the air," Mets hitting coach Kevin Long said. "Ground balls don't do you any good. So I don't know if it's an uppercut as much as just trying to elevate the ball.
"He wasn't getting any extra-base hits, and he wasn't driving the ball like he's capable. You watch him take BP now, and you see the ball come off his bat. He needs to get the ball in the air."
Tebow put on a power show during batting practice Monday, hitting six of his nine home runs to the opposite field, and no one was having more fun. When he wasn't launching balls over the outfield fence, he was picking up the loose baseballs. He was the only minor leaguer to carry a bucket of balls on his own from the outfield to the pitcher's mound. He also was the only player to help the coaches set up the pitching mound mat.
When his day was done, and the rest of his teammates walked toward the clubhouse in anonymity, Tebow was signing autographs, taking selfies and signing books and even a Gators football helmet.
"I just think that with all of the things going on in this world, our young kids have somebody to look up to," said Darlene McChesney, 67, of Corry, Pa. "He's a role model, not these guys who always get in trouble. I want him to make it here, follow his dream and be a role model for our country."
Tebow had no interest in sharing his opinion of his chances of making the big leagues, even if it's only for a day, but says this was never his dream. He was a sports star, playing in 35 NFL games with the Denver Broncos and New York Jets after his storied college career, but his life is hardly built around sports. It's merely a podium, he says, to share his beliefs and philanthropy.
"What pressure do you have if you're 0-for-12 and you're at the plate versus someone that is fighting for their life?" Tebow said. "For me, there's not a comparison. It's not my biggest calling. I want my life to be so much more than that.
"I want to be someone that was known for bringing faith, hope and love to those needing brighter days in their darkest hour of need. I am so grateful for sports, because it's given me a platform to be able to share and love and care for people all over the world.
"I wouldn't trade that for anything."
Sure, perhaps the Mets are using him as a marketing tool, where you can buy his jersey at the gift shop for $120. Maybe they want to use him as a role model for their younger players. Maybe he can just be an inspiration instead of an actual pipe dream.
Whatever the real reason, Tebow's presence doesn't seem to bother anyone in the Mets clubhouse, regardless of the club's intentions.
"It's great that he's chasing that dream," Mets captain David Wright says. "I'm sure it's very difficult not having played baseball for so long and trying to pick it up at the highest level.
"The short period of time that I've been around him, it seems like he's focused on becoming the best baseball player possible. I think that's all that anybody can ask of him."
Granderson, who met Tebow while working out together with Long in Scottsdale, Ariz., was stunned by his 6-5, 255-pound size but even more impressed by his work ethic.
"His physical presence was amazing enough," Granderson said, "but he was hitting six times a week. His work ethic is through the roof. So he's not Cadillac-ing through this by any means. It's not just show up, roll me out there, here I am.
"If he doesn't make it, if it doesn't happen, it definitely won't be because of his efforts."
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