PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- After the New York Mets signed Tim Tebow to a minor league contract two weeks ago, general manager Sandy Alderson maintained the transaction was about scratching a baseball itch rather than cashing in on a phenomenon. Amid considerable eye-rolling, Alderson said the Mets saw baseball potential in Tebow, and their investment in him had nothing to do with marketing, publicity or any ancillary benefits the club might derive from the transaction.
If that was indeed the case, you can file the events of Monday under "unintended consequences."
Tebow -- a University of Florida icon, Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL quarterback -- arrived at Tradition Field on Monday morning for his first day in the Mets' instructional program. From an action standpoint, it was about as close as you can get to a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. For the better part of two hours, he stretched, took part in baserunning drills, shagged fly balls and banged out line drives in batting practice under a scorching sun.
But the interest level was something else entirely. About 70 media members dutifully took notes as Tebow nodded his head to an instructor here and stopped for a refreshing guzzle of water there. At the same time, more than 400 fans ringed the back fences and clamored for his autograph.
"Hey Tebow, do you know Peyton Manning?" yelled one elementary school-age boy as Tebow stopped briefly to sign.
Several fans made forays to an outdoor stand where Tebow No. 15 replica jerseys were selling for $120 each and Tebow T-shirts could be had for $28. And when the fans grew parched on the back fields, Mets employees were standing at the ready with bottles of water for $3 a pop.
The Tebow shouts, cheers and buzz of activity were a stark contrast to the typical quiet of the Florida Instructional League scene.
"It's usually crickets," said Paul Taglieri, the Mets' senior director of Florida operations. "It's mom and dad or a couple of scouts watching. A lot of people don't even know what instructional league is. Obviously, this is going to add a lot of notoriety to the definition of instructional league."
Tebow detractors who think his celebrity has outlived its shelf life probably can't relate to his popularity in SEC country, where his followers revere him for his faith, off-field charity work and the values he represents. Nine years after Tebow won a Heisman Trophy under Urban Meyer at Florida, he has a hold on the collective sports psyche in the region where he attained his fame. Gators fans will love him forever, and even Florida State fans, who are conditioned to dislike him, can't help but respect his achievements.
Jo-Ann Walker, a New Jersey native, grew up as a Mets fan in the 1980s. She drove about 150 miles from Mount Dora, Florida, to Port St. Lucie and arranged several Tebow T-shirts in a minitribute along one of the cyclone fences. She's a two-time cancer survivor who finds Tebow to be an inspirational figure, and she was overjoyed when he signed a copy of his 2011 book, "Through My Eyes."
"I moved down here from Jersey, and I kept hearing about this football player with the scriptures, and I said, 'Let me take a look,"' Walker said. "He's very humble. He's very real. I pray that he can be part of the public eye for his foundations and God's kingdom."
The Tebow love spans generations. Andy Favata, a Long Island native, is a Florida alumnus who's married to a Florida alumna and has a daughter currently going to school in Gainesville. He's a lifelong Mets fan with vivid memories of the 1986 World Series, so it was a no-brainer to make the short drive to Tradition Field with his 13-year-old daughter, Bella, and check out Tebow's debut.
"I grew up at Shea Stadium watching the Mets," Favata said. "Two hours after the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs, I was there screaming and hugging people I didn't know. Tim Tebow is one of our favorite Gators. So when you see him with a Mets jersey on, you've gotta come."
Although it was hard to tell from the first day, it appeared the Tebow-related momentum increased as reporters spread the word of his appearance at Tradition Field on social media. So what happens Tuesday and the day after that? Will the interest wane, or will sports fans in the area continue to stop by for an autograph or picture or because of the curiosity factor?
"It's usually crickets. It's mom and dad or a couple of scouts watching. A lot of people don't even know what instructional league is. Obviously, this is going to add a lot of notoriety to the definition of instructional league." Paul Taglieri, Mets senior director of Florida operations
It's a mutually beneficial relationship for player and team. Tebow's publishers were no doubt ecstatic Monday when a reporter at his news conference asked him to talk about his new book, "Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life's Storms," which is scheduled for release in October. Tebow spoke with passion about the book and the message of encouragement he's trying to convey.
Tebow's book sales and Mets' minor league ticket sales are likely to receive a boost next spring when he joins the low-A Columbia Fireflies, high-A St. Lucie Mets or wherever else the parent club chooses to assign him. Tebow is a natural magnet for attention, and he's going to sell tickets, hot dogs and bottled water regardless of how much those economic considerations factored into the Mets' decision to sign him.
In the grand scheme of things, the experiment will only pay dividends in New York if Tebow can shake off 11 years of baseball rust and prove he can hit a curveball. But charisma and name recognition alone should be enough to make turnstiles click in the minors. To no one's surprise, the Mets appear to have a cash cow on their hands.