COLUMBIA, S.C. – Christian Bulger was first in line at Spirit Communications Park on Thursday, more than an hour before gates were scheduled to open and more than two hours before the first pitch of the Columbia Fireflies' opener.
The 16-year-old was decked in a blue and orange University of Florida hat pulled tightly over his head to handle wind gusts of more than 25 mph. He also had on a blue and orange Gators T-shirt.
In his pocket was a college football card featuring his favorite all-time player transitioning into another sport.
"Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been a Tim Tebow fan," Bulger said as he peered through the iron gate. "I looked up to him as a role model. I hope he’s going to do well with this."
If Tebow’s first official at-bat is an indication, he will.
The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner hit a two-run homer for the New York Mets' Class A team to create a bigger-than-life Hollywood-type moment, lining a 2-1 fastball off the top of the fence in left-center and taking advantage of the wind that Bulger fought earlier.
To add even more drama to the moment, Tebow momentarily stopped at second, thinking he’d hit a ground-rule double because the ball ricocheted back onto the field. The roar of the crowd and shouts of "Te-bow!" let the 2010 first-round NFL draft pick by the Denver Broncos know it was a home run about the same time the umpire did.
"Everybody was just so excited and happy for me," Tebow said as he described running into the dugout. "One of the guys comes up to me and gives me a big hug and goes, ‘This is one of the best moments I’ve ever had.’"
That pretty much summed up the night.
Tebow struck out looking twice in later innings, and went down swinging in the eighth. He also had a weak groundout to shortstop as part of a 1-for-5 night. But the crowd was behind him all the way, giving him the biggest cheer of the night every time he stepped to the plate and giving the umpire the loudest boos every time he signaled strikeout.
And nothing on this chilly night topped the two-run homer.
"You heard it before, special things happen to special people," manager Jose Leger said. "That was a special moment."
This was the start of what Tebow hopes will be a successful journey into a sport he hasn’t played full time since high school. It came after a somewhat frustrating spring training in which he batted .148 with eight strikeouts in 27 at-bats. But as Tebow reminded everyone during media day on Tuesday and again on this festive night, one at-bat or one game won’t define him.
"There will be a lot of highs and lows in this game," Tebow said. "That’s why you can’t make too much of anything. You have to go back to the drawing board and continue to work, work, work.
"It does feel good when that hard work pays off."
Tebow’s effort reinforced something he learned at an early age at Florida and showed the passion he has about everything he does.
"About it’s never as good as it seems, it’s never as bad as it seems ... right?" he said. "You can go from a first-at-bat home run and strike out. It’s about continuing to have the mindset and go to work and don’t get caught up in little things. I won’t get caught up in what people are saying here on social media or whatever y’all write. No offense, but I won’t read it."
Tebow may be keeping things in perspective, but the fans and media aren’t. Media attendance alone spoke volumes to how significant this moment was. A local television reporter had to ask the team to open a second-level conference room for last year’s opener, also the debut of the stadium, so he could have a quiet place to edit film. This time the room was packed Thursday with reporters, from the New York Times to Fox affiliate in Jacksonville, Florida. No one had to ask for it to be opened.
The stadium was a sellout even though temperatures were cooler than normal and the nationally ranked University of South Carolina baseball team was playing across town in a big SEC series against Vanderbilt.
Nicole Colangelo came to her first Fireflies game ever just to see Tebow. She was among the constant stream of fans in the team gift shop purchasing Tebow T-shirts.
She bought two.
"He’s a great person. He has values. Nice guy. And I think he’ll do a lot of good for Columbia," she said.
He already is, and beyond what he did on the field.
Tebow stopped to say hello to an excited group of Little Leaguers – the Grasshoppers – standing outside the dugout before the national anthem. Among those most thrilled to meet Tebow was 9-year-old Joshua Kull.
"He’s famous and played for the Gators," Kull said with a big smile.
Somewhere, as Tebow rounded the bases after his home run, you know Bulger and his father, Mikel, were smiling as well.
"He’ll be good for the game," Mikel said more than two hours before Tebow’s big hit. "I just know it."
He was on this night.