COLUMBIA, S.C. – The Bojangles Berm is perched just beyond the fence in left center field at Spirit Communications Park, a grassy expanse that offers fans of the Columbia Fireflies a chance to stretch out on a blanket for the discount price of $5. During the Fireflies’ inaugural season, space was often ample, save for the Fourth of July, when a crowd lured by fireworks pushed attendance past 9,200.
Thursday night, however, the Fireflies will get a glimpse at life with Tim Tebow, and a minor league experience perhaps not seen since Michael Jordan rode the buses of the Southern League in 1994.
“You don’t often have a chance to market a player in the minor leagues,” Fireflies president John Katz told USA TODAY Sports. “The player is with you a short period of time, and then they’re moving up, moving up. At this level, by the time you figure out who’s a superstar, they’re at the next level.
“We have a unique opportunity with Tim.”
Indeed, when Tebow, 29, starts in left field for the Fireflies against the Augusta GreenJackets, it will mark a convergence of celebrity, athletic curiosity and the regional phenomenon that is Southeastern Conference football.
Tebow’s Heisman Trophy and two national championships he made off with while at the University of Florida paved the way for a brief NFL career but a far more enduring status as gridiron icon, one he’s parlayed into an analyst role with ESPN’s SEC Network.
Within hours last summer of Tebow announcing his launch of an unlikely baseball career – he hadn’t played the sport since 2004, his junior year of high school – the Fireflies’ social media manager pounced. Not knowing Tebow would sign with the Mets, the club photo-shopped Tebow’s image onto a Fireflies uniform and tweeted out the image.
For his new ballclub, which averaged 3,785 fans in its first season, the hulking left fielder with the big power and questionable bat is already a unique fit.
Tuesday, when Tebow met with local media members, baseball questions were nearly matched by football inquiries. Tebow was more than happy to opine on current South Carolina coach Will Muschamp – “I think he is getting better at being a head coach” – Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley – “He has really good movement in the pocket and he also has really good second-level throws” – and nearby Williams-Brice Stadium – “One of the more underrated in the SEC.”
Gallery: Tebow in the minors
The baseball? That will be more challenging. Tebow batted .194 (12 for 62) in the Arizona Fall League and .148 (4 for 27) in Grapefruit League play this spring.
In the South Atlantic League, he won’t face anyone like Max Scherzer, the National League Cy Young winner who struck him out on three pitches in an exhibition game against the Washington Nationals last month. He will still see a beguiling array of pitches, from prospects both emerging and erratic.
Failure seems imminent, either in the big picture of never getting to the major leagues, or the immediate task of surviving the long bus rides and competition against longtime ballplayers, some a decade his junior.
For his new ballclub, however, the hulking left fielder with the big power and slow bat is already a unique fit.
“He is as humble a person as I’ve ever met, and he’s as driven a person as I’ve ever met,” says Katz, who first met Tebow at Mets camp last month. “You can hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes.
“If you had a question that this wasn’t a serious thing for him, you’re completely wrong. This guy is dialed in.”
Thursday, Katz’s ballpark will burst with folks wondering how it will all turn out.