PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Maybe someday, if he sticks with this whole baseball thing for long enough, Tim Tebow will be able to walk into any ballpark in the country without provoking so much curiosity.
For now, though, it still seems as if he is more of a carnival act than a baseball player.
Take Wednesday, for example. With Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL quarterback, making his major league spring-training debut here for the New York Mets, most of the Boston Red Sox's travel squad, including manager John Farrell, stood on the top step of the dugout to steal a glimpse of his batting practice, an exercise that relief pitcher Noe Ramirez described as "a show." When the Mets went through their pregame stretching, second baseman Neil Walker joined several teammates in peppering Tebow with questions about when he led the Denver Broncos to an overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2011 playoffs.
And that was just the reaction Tebow received from fellow players. When he walked -- circuitously, it should be noted, through the Red Sox's on-deck circle -- to the plate for his first at-bat, many fans among the announced crowd of 6,538 raised their smartphones to capture the moment. When Tebow grounded into a double play in the fourth inning, they gave him a standing ovation.
A typical reaction? Hardly. But then, nothing about Tebow the baseball player is typical. Not yet anyway, no matter how much he wishes it was.
"I know a lot of other people will sensationalize it, and regardless of what happened, it will be the best day of all time or the worst day of all time. But for me, it's just a day," Tebow said after going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, getting hit by a pitch and committing a baserunning gaffe in nine innings as the designated hitter in the Mets' 8-7 victory. "It's just the next day, just the next opportunity to get more at-bats, learn from it, recover, get some sleep, wake up and get ready to do it again. Because there's a lot more days like this."
Say this for Tebow: He seems genuinely interested in having many more days on a baseball field, even though his first day in the big leagues offered a stark reminder of how far away he is from being ready to play at this level.
Tebow, 29, put on a power display during batting practice that left Red Sox players "pretty astonished," according to Ramirez. At one point, Tebow even launched an opposite-field home run off the bottom of the scoreboard in left field. But when the game started, he made contact with only three of 14 pitches over four plate appearances against four Red Sox pitchers.
It wasn't like Tebow was facing particularly high velocities, with Rick Porcello, Ramirez, lefty Brian Johnson and Brandon Workman sitting mostly in the low-90s. But he was helpless against off-speed stuff and far too passive in his approach at the plate.
In other words, it was precisely what you might expect from someone who hasn't played baseball competitively for 12 years, since his junior year of high school. Mets captain David Wright said he couldn't fathom trying to play professional baseball after such a long gap, "but if there's anyone that can do it," Wright said, well, he is as interested as anyone to watch Tebow try.
"He's so far behind on the nuances of the game," said Mets outfielder Jay Bruce, who joined veteran Curtis Granderson in counseling Tebow over lunch and in the dugout during the game. "It's not like he wasted his time. He's been doing other worthwhile things. Just not playing and understanding the game of baseball at a very, very high level."
Even simple baseball etiquette appears foreign to Tebow. Before his first at-bat, he walked to the Red Sox's on-deck circle, presumably to get a better look at Porcello's delivery as he warmed up. Mets manager Terry Collins and coach Tom Goodwin waved Tebow back toward the Mets' dugout. Porcello later laughed off the faux pas, joking that he thought Tebow was the ballboy.
"I thought you walk around [to the first-base side of the field] because you're a left-hander," Tebow said. "I found out that you don't do that."
At least Tebow seems earnest about making up for so much lost time.
"He's so far behind on the nuances of the game ... It's not like he wasted his time. He's been doing other worthwhile things. Just not playing and understanding the game of baseball at a very, very high level." Jay Bruce, Mets outfielder
There isn't much glory in slogging through the minor leagues. On Wednesday, Tebow wore a nameless jersey, standard issue for minor leaguers who are brought into camp for one day, and No. 97, a uniform number typically reserved for the defensive linemen who chased him in his former sport. He is slated to spend the season away from the spotlight in a minor league outpost, probably low-A Columbia, South Carolina or here in Port St. Lucie. But when he was asked if he's committed to getting 500 at-bats this season, he said, "For sure, yeah."
Tebow also maintains that his definition of success as a baseball player might be different than everyone else's. For one thing, it doesn't necessarily mean reaching the big leagues.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think for me it's enjoying it every day. That's a big part of it -- having fun and playing a game that I started playing when I was 4 years old. I know it sounds cliche, but I want to go to work at this thing and listen to the best in the world at doing it and coaching it and go strive to see what I can do."
If Tebow is serious about that, he will have the admiration of everyone in the game. Red Sox manager John Farrell appreciated that Tebow is "not afraid of failure."
"And I think that's great for any athlete," Farrell said. "For a guy who's been so high-profile in another sport to say, 'You know what? I'm going to take a run at this,' I think it's a pretty cool thing."
Cool enough that all eyes will be on Tebow to see if he can do it. Tebow will return to the Mets' lineup Friday for a split-squad game against the Houston Astros, and the carnival will be back in town.