Taco Tuesdays, bus rides and 0-2 sliders: Tim Tebow's life in the minors

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Thursday, April 11, 2019

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Tim Tebow's new home is an 11,000-seat stadium on Syracuse's gritty north side, set in an industrial area where a freight train rumbles beyond the left-field fence several times a day. The place rocked on April 4, as more than 8,800 watched the opening-day debut of both Tebow and the New York Mets' new Triple-A affiliate. But this week served as a reminder that his current profession is less glamorous than his previous one.

Taco Tuesday (three tacos for $8!) drew an announced crowd of only 1,200 (about three times the actual turnout) on a chilly afternoon in upstate New York, where Tebow arrived at the ballpark at 8 a.m. -- five hours before the scheduled 1:05 p.m. first pitch -- to lift weights, study video, take indoor batting practice, review scouting reports, conduct a team Bible study and talk a little football with his new Syracuse Mets manager.

On Wednesday afternoon, he boarded a bus for a six-hour trip to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Tebow and his teammates will log 1,224 bus miles traveling from Syracuse to Pawtucket to Rochester to Syracuse to Scranton/Wilkes Barre to Lehigh Valley and back to Syracuse before they take their first plane trip -- to Louisville on May 6. Sorry, there are no chartered jets in the minors.

Tebow acknowledged he sometimes misses football, especially in late November, when the college rivalry games take the spotlight, but he truly loves his life as a professional baseball player. His decision in 2016 to pursue baseball was mocked as a publicity stunt, but the former Heisman Trophy winner and ex-NFL quarterback is only one step from the major leagues, tantalizingly close to a goal not many deemed possible.

"No, not many did," he said with a big laugh in an interview with ESPN. "Not many people, I think, in my camp did."

There was a hint of "I told you so" in Tebow's tone, but he quickly reverted to his polished script, insisting that isn't his primary motivation. Ever the optimist, Tebow is embracing the daily grind, not the desired destination.

"It feels good, but I know it's still a journey from where I want to be," Tebow said. "There are times when you think about [playing at Citi Field], but, man, I hate to be a bad interview. ...

"I really try to stay so focused," he continued. "I don't let myself go to many places like that. You can say that I'm close, but there's also a piece that's really far. It's having the mentality of, it's not just one call. It's a lot of days of work. It's a lot of days of grind. It's a lot of days of improvement. It's a lot of being able to lay off the 0-2 slider. It's easy to say you're close, but I think -- not that I'm not optimistic at all -- but my mindset is I have work that I need to get done."

He's right about that.

Tebow, 31, the starting left fielder on a seasoned roster that includes 11 players in their 30s, is batting only .136 after an 0-for-4 on Wednesday. There are moments when he looks like he belongs. On Tuesday, he delivered a bases-loaded, two-out single that drove in two runs to tie the Rochester Red Wings in an eventual 7-5 win. He fought off a full-count pitch by former major leaguer Kohl Stewart, slashing it over third base for an opposite-field hit. The shivering crowd roared with delight -- if it's possible for 400 or so to generate a roar.

There also are moments when he looks overwhelmed by Triple-A pitching. In his next at-bat, Tebow was no match for reliever Fernando Romero, who has 55 innings of major league experience. He chased an 0-2 slider for a strikeout, and maybe that was in the back of his head in his next trip to the plate. Facing minor league journeyman Jake Reed, Tebow froze on an 0-2 fastball that caught the inside corner.

"He's still learning how to hit some of this pitching," Syracuse manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "I mean, these guys are throwing 97, 98 miles per hour. They're spinning the baseball. He's making some adjustments."

In 2018, Tebow was an Eastern League All-Star for Binghamton, the Mets' Double-A affiliate, where he hit .273 with 6 home runs in 84 games. It earned him a trip to spring training with the big club, and he didn't embarrass himself -- 4-for-15, 1 RBI. But now the degree of difficulty has increased. Every day he will face former major league pitchers looking to get back, along with top prospects looking to break through.

"He takes notes on every single pitcher he faces," DeFrancesco said. "He's trying to understand how major league pitching is going to get him out. At this level, a lot of those pitchers have pitched in the big leagues. That's the level of competition he has to rise to."

Tebow believes he has improved his fielding and base running, acknowledging he's constantly tinkering with his approach at the plate. Baseball is a humbling game. As a college football player at Florida, Tebow controlled everything and dominated his competition. In 2011, he enjoyed a magical season with the Denver Broncos, leading them to the playoffs before his career imploded with the New York Jets in 2012. He never played again, failing auditions with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.

Now, in the minor leagues, he's learning this sport can dominate him. The mental challenge is so different from football.

"It's not very easy," Tebow admitted. "I'm someone, in football, I get very passionate. I'm very emotional for the course of those three hours in a game. In baseball, I think you have to be a little more even-keeled -- less highs and lows -- but at the same time, still let that passion out.

"I think I show that a little bit more through the little things and the discipline and the routines every day, getting here early, going through my routine, sticking to it, no matter if you're going good or you're not going good. Even if you're oh-for-your-last-eight, it's staying focused. I think that's the different form of mental toughness in this game."

Whether he's slumping or belting homers, Tebow always will be massively popular. Soon after arriving in Syracuse, he stopped by the local mall with his fiancée, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, a former Miss Universe. They were browsing in Dick's Sporting Goods when they were spotted by a fan who requested a selfie, which attracted more people, which resulted in many selfies. Soon, the crowd seemed big enough to rival Taco Tuesday.

In the team store at NBT Bank Stadium, only one player's jersey is for sale -- "TEBOW 15." For $149.99, you can sign up for an authentic Tebow game jersey, home or away. The first 1,000 fans who walk through the gates on May 18 will even get their very own Tim Tebow camo bobblehead. It's too early in the season to say how much Tebow has impacted home attendance, but team officials expect a bump once the weather warms.

"A lot of people look up to athletes who don't always do the right thing; he's someone I'd want my son to look up to," said Syracuse resident Adam Hildreth, who brought his son, Andrew, 1, and daughter, Ashlin, 4, to Tuesday's game -- all clad in Tebow jerseys. "I've read both his books, and I admire all the work he's done with charity and his mission."

Tebow is a rock star, but he's trying to be one of the guys inside his new clubhouse. DeFrancesco said Tebow reminds him of former major league outfielder Nick Swisher, an outgoing personality who played under him with an Oakland A's affiliate in 2003. As Swisher did years ago, Tebow will pop into the manager's office to talk baseball, football, pretty much anything. The other day, they chatted about former Syracuse University and NFL legend Larry Csonka, a DeFrancesco favorite who is returning to campus this weekend for an event.

"Tim is great all around, but he's no different than any other player in there," DeFrancesco said. "The goal is to get to the major leagues, and he's doing the best he can every day. I know it's a big story in town. He's played in playoff games and he's won national championships in football, so nothing is going to faze the kid. He's just trying to do the best he can every day and learn from it."

You have to give the man credit. Tebow, who works in the fall as an analyst for ESPN's SEC Network, doesn't need baseball. He could be a full-time broadcaster or anything else, for that matter, but he has devoted himself to this lifestyle, hoping to defy the odds by reaching the big leagues. The adulation follows him everywhere, but it's not all glitz and glamour. A long bus ride to Pawtucket was a reminder of that.

"You have to take the pros and the cons," Tebow said. "Part of this journey is the bus rides. They're not the best, but you know what? Shoot, I wrote my last book on those bus rides. ... It's how you use that time. Very few times in my life do I have six hours when I'm not doing something. It's how you look at things."

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