Circus act: Star-crossed Mets foolishly bring Tim Tebow sideshow back to Big Apple

ByIan O'Connor ESPN logo
Thursday, September 8, 2016

Tim Tebow is going to mentor young prospects for the New York Mets, if only because he did such a wonderful job of that for the New York Jets. This is what Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was selling Thursday morning, and if you were buying, then you are likely among the precious few who still believe John Elway should never have replaced Tebow with Peyton Manning.

Yes, there's something fitting about Tebow making all kinds of headlines hours before his former team, the Broncos, would start defending its Super Bowl title. Make no mistake: This is not a Denver story. This is a New York, New York, story all the way.

Fred Wilpon's Mets tried to be George Steinbrenner's Yankees here, and knowledgeable locals understand why. Until recently the Mets cowered in the shadow of their big-budget neighbors, who were forever shaped by the advice a young Steinbrenner received from the Nederlanders, a prominent theater family, on how to survive around Broadway. "New York," they told the wannabe Boss in the early 1970s, "is a star-vehicle town."

But from Catfish to Reggie to Winfield to Henderson to Clemens to Giambi to Matsui to A-Rod, Steinbrenner made sure his recruiting trips weren't always about box-office traffic and back-page buzz. He landed big names who could, you know, play a pretty mean game of baseball. That was the one non-negotiable part of his deals.

Tebow is not a baseball deal, no matter how often Alderson insisted it was on a conference call with reporters. This is a Bill Veeck move, not a George Steinbrenner move. The Mets are coming off a trip to the World Series, and they are feeling good about their prospects of another trip to the postseason, and so maybe they wanted to spend an off day flexing their marketing muscles by signing a 6-foot-3, 260-pound hulk who can crush fastballs thrown at batting-practice speed.

Alderson said he's mindful of "the novel nature" of signing Tebow to a minor league contract, but that the decision "was strictly driven by baseball" and that the former Heisman winner "has demonstrated more than rudimentary baseball skills."

Now there's a hopeful slogan for the fan base. Meet the new Mets, ladies and gentlemen. We promise more than rudimentary baseball skills.

Tebow is 29, and he last played the game a dozen years ago as a high school junior. Giving up baseball was almost as hard as turning down Alabama for Florida, but give it up Tebow did. Twenty-eight major league teams sent scouts to watch him work out last week, anyway, a testament to his star power. By most eyewitness accounts, Tebow looked big, powerful, athletic, weak-armed, and entirely unprepared for live pitching.

The Mets signed him at a very delicate time to conduct such business. Despite a wave of injuries to impactful players, the Mets have won 14 of their last 18 to breathe life into the possibility of a second magical October run. Why change the focus now? Why introduce a new topic of daily conversation into the clubhouse? Why make the most talked-about Met a player who will almost certainly never touch the outfield grass at Citi Field?

When the Mets decided against bidding on Alex Rodriguez in a different life, their GM at the time, Steve Phillips, said he didn't want to add a high-maintenance megastar who would create a "24-plus-one-man roster."

The Mets just created a 25-plus-one-man roster. It's hard to argue with Alderson's overall body of work in New York, but what, exactly, was the point of this transaction, other than making a happy man out of Brodie Van Wagenen, the CAA agent who represents the Mets' best player, Yoenis Cespedes? In struggling to build a case for Tebow's future promotion to the bigs, Alderson mentioned that Seth Lugo was a 34th-round draft pick, that T.J. Rivera went undrafted, and that both beat the odds. He forgot to mention that Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round.

"We think he can be a baseball player," Alderson said of Tebow. Yet the GM did more talking about Tebow's character, competitive spirit, and potential clubhouse influence on impressionable teenagers than his ability to hit the curve. Asked if he would have signed Tebow strictly on his tangible physical skill, Alderson said it was a good question.

He didn't really have a good answer. "This is an opportunity," Alderson would say, "for us to associate with excellence."

On the same conference call, Tebow sounded much like he always sounded at his Jets locker -- thankful for his opportunities, and fearless of the consequences of failure. Tebow said his definition of success "is giving everything I have."

Great. Terrific. Except that Tebow will have to miss time at the Mets' upcoming Instructional League in Port St. Lucie, Florida, to tend to his broadcasting duties with ESPN's SEC Network, which only makes this move seem sillier.

In the end, the Mets probably see Tebow's addition as a harmless way to sell some minor league tickets and make some quick merchandising cash. Before Alderson said it was possible Tebow could be invited to camp in five months, he should've asked Rex Ryan and Woody Johnson how their own attention grab worked out.

"This is a classic player development opportunity for us," Alderson said.

Let's check back with him after Tebow goes on a shirtless jog in the spring training rain ("Shirtless in St. Lucie" has a nice ring to it), or after Mets veterans grow tired of the never-ending questions. Let's check back with the GM if his team loses five of its next seven and falls into wild-card peril.

Either way, the new Mets tried assuming the role of the old Yankees on Thursday, and forgot this one critical New York, New York, point: There's a big difference between a star and a baseball star.

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