LOS ANGELES -- He took the field wearing generic baseball clothes -- white pants, navy shirt, navy cap -- looking like a guy in a commercial for a product that is not an official sponsor of Major League Baseball. He ran fast, especially for a 255-pound man with, as the press information helpfully included, 7.3 percent body fat. He threw the ball from the outfield about like an above-average high school player, and he caught fly balls with two hands, as you no doubt expected he would.
This is Tim Tebow, in front of talent evaluators from 28 major league teams, standing alone on the USC baseball field with the sun beating down on him, trying to do something it would be all too easy to ridicule.
The event was suffused with an unearned air of seriousness. More than 200 people -- scouts, media, helpers -- strode onto the outfield grass to watch him run a 60-yard dash. They stood in center field and down the left-field line while he fought his own feet and muscled his way through a series of throws from right field. They wrote stuff down. They thought about it. They said things like, "He's clearly very athletic," even though that wasn't ever the question.
And afterward, his coach Chad Moeller testified to Tebow's determination and commitment, as coaches have been doing for more than a decade, and marveled at the effort it takes to get the bat out of his hands when he has had enough for the day. At one point, to demonstrate his commitment to the cause, Tebow opened his hands to allow doubters to gaze upon his bat-callused palms. It's probably best to leave that symbolism alone.
The one thing everybody wanted to know can be condensed into one word: Why? Why would a 29-year-old football icon who hasn't played baseball since his junior year in high school put himself through this? Why would he enter the public forum and subject himself to the snide and withering comments of people who know how hard it is to play this game for money?
In some form or another, he was asked those questions. As you might expect, he issued a passionate and fierce rendition of, "Why not?"
"The goal would be to have a career in the big leagues," he said. "The pursuit of it is to give it all you can, be the best you can, be someone to pursue what I feel passionate about. People will say, 'What if you fail? What if you don't make it?' Guess what? I don't have to live with regret. I did everything I could. I pushed it. I would rather be someone who can live with peace and no regret rather than being so scared I didn't make the effort."
Once he got rolling, even the most skeptical among us was at least glancing at the cage, wondering if we should grab a bat and give it a try. Asked about the skeptics, those who question his motivation or suggest a thirst for publicity, those who decry the fact that 28 teams sent people to watch a 29-year-old guy who hasn't played since his junior year in high school when players with real talent can't get a look, Tebow said, "I'm thankful they don't get to make the choices for my life."
He kept going. It's what he does. He didn't have to either, because he could have mouthed a few platitudes and it probably wouldn't have affected the decision of some team to put him in a minor league uniform for a few months, if only to sell a few million dollars worth of T-shirts.
With Tebow, you're encouraged to distrust your eyes. Yeah, he looked like a tight end in the outfield, falling down at one point picking up a ball off the warning track. He couldn't pull a pitch from former big leaguers Chad Smith and David Aardsma. He two-hopped a throw from medium right to third base, and it was up the line, too.
But then the man starts talking, and you wonder if maybe you were wrong. Maybe you were being too harsh. After all, he did hit a few batting-practice fastballs high into the trees beyond right field. Maybe this, this mixed bag of results at the end of several months of work, is just the first step toward this man proving everyone wrong. You come away thinking, 'Damn, does this guy ever try. And does he ever care.' He is the most overtly trying-est and caring-est dude of his generation.
"If you fail, if you fall on your face, that's OK," he said. "When did that become such a bad thing? When did pursuing what you love become a bad thing, regardless of the result?"
In January, Tebow was working out on the USC practice football field, next to the baseball field. After he finished his workouts with quarterback coach Tom House, Tebow would wander over to the baseball field, where a group of major and minor league players were getting ready for spring training.
Ryan Rowland-Smith, a former Seattle Mariners' reliever, was one of the players working out. They weren't really interested in Tebow; they were there to get ready for spring training. It was serious business. But Tebow kept hanging around, picking up bats and wondering if he could take a few swings.
"I could tell he wanted to have a hit," Rowland-Smith said. "He kept asking. You know, guys are trying to get their work in. They want to face good hitters to get ready. He just kept talking about the itch."
It's impossible to know what was going on over on the football field with Tebow and House going through drills to improve Tebow's delivery for roughly the millionth time. Quick release, elbow up -- whatever it was, you have to figure, in the quiet of January, those drills pushed Tebow closer to the realization that he would never again play quarterback in the NFL. And so he drifted over to the baseball field, with nothing more than high school credentials to his name, asking for a turn.
And one day Rowland-Smith relented. Like a guy letting his little brother have a turn, he told Tebow to get in the batter's box. He threw him a few fastballs at about 80 percent, and when Tebow squared one up, Rowland-Smith, a left-hander, broke off a curve.
"He missed it by three feet," Rowland-Smith said. "He was serious, and so was I. I wanted to get my work in, so I threw a breaking ball. Not a great one, not a bad one. When I face hitters, 30 seconds into it I can tell the difference between a pro hitter and someone who isn't."
He lets that hang there. He's not making judgments, just telling a story. "If he wasn't Tim Tebow, there wouldn't be people out there to watch him," Rowland-Smith says. "But more power to him. People are drawn to him."
Tebow might have given up on that curveball, but that doesn't mean he gave up. After all, Tebow never gives up. That's why he went to camp with the Jets, and camp with the Patriots, and camp with the Eagles. It's why he enlisted Moeller to coach him and the powerhouse agents at CAA to represent him. It's why he didn't work out in private and then sign with an independent league team.
Does he refuse to give up because he can't? Because he's addicted to the rush, to the adulation, to the idea that he can do precisely what all those believers believe he can, and all those detractors believe he can't? That's the part of 'why' even he can't answer, and it's exactly why it's hard to shake the image of the guy at USC on those January days, sensing on one field the end of something, and on the other the beginning of something else.