A helicopter circled overhead and about 400 fans and 70 members of the media watched from the ground as Tim Tebow played catch.
The most famous minor league baseball player since, perhaps, Michael Jordan,
arrived at the New York Mets’ minor league facility Monday for his first workout in the Florida Instructional League.
Along with a few dozen other players, Tebow, a former professional football player, played catch, took batting practice, participated in
baserunning and fielding drills, then spoke extensively about following his passion to play baseball.
“It was one of the hardest decisions of my life to choose football over baseball,” he said.
Tebow, 29, is as much a nationwide social phenomenon as he is an athlete, a celebrity almost just for being a celebrity. His off-the-charts fame far outweighs his accomplishments on the field, but in this state, where he won a Heisman Trophy Award and led the University of Florida to two national football championships, he is held in particularly high regard.
The fans in the back fields of the facility cheered when he performed the simplest running drills, and they chanted, “Tee-bow, Tee-bow,” when he walked past them. With every step he took, more than a dozen cameras were pointed in his direction to record every move.
Not even Mike Piazza or Tom Seaver, at the height of their fame with the Mets, drew this kind of attention.
“I’m humbled by people showing up and rooting for you,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome. I’m grateful for it.”
Wearing a No. 15 Mets jersey — which is now for sale, of course — Tebow said that he was humbled by the attention and denied that playing baseball was a publicity stunt. He said his goal is to make it to the major leagues one day.
But he has work to do. He has some natural power at the plate, but he has yet to face live pitching in a game. Defensively, he looks at times like a quarterback trying to play the outfield. At one point, while playing catch with someone at a space of about 20 yards, he threw the ball over his partner’s head and over a 4-foot chain link fence.
During batting practice, he hit several balls off the fence in center field, along with several ground balls to second base and a few pop-ups into the netting of the cage.
“I want to prove the coaches right and the Mets organization and play with my teammates,” he said, “and try to be the best baseball player I can, and, more important, the best person I can.”
Earlier this month, Tebow signed a standard minor league contract with the Mets, plus a $100,000 bonus — the most the Mets could pay without taking a luxury tax hit — after holding a workout for 28 major league clubs at the University of Southern California.
As a quarterback, he played for the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets in the NFL. He was invited to the New England Patriots’ training camp in 2013 and was cut on Sept. 1 of that year, before the regular season began, and that ended his football career.
He said he would not return to football if a team like the Patriots, whose quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo injured his throwing shoulder Sunday, expressed interest in him.
“No, sir,” he replied. “I am part of the Mets family.”