TAMPA, Fla.—As it happens, Steinbrenner Field represents a crossroads between Tim Tebow’s two lives. The stadium houses the high Class A Tampa Yankees and sits a stone’s throw from Raymond James Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A few years ago, Tebow might have been in a training camp somewhere getting ready for another run at landing a spot as a team’s quarterback. Now, he’s an outfielder for the Mets’ high Class A affiliate and is inarguably the most famous player in all the minor leagues.
Crowds follow Tebow wherever he goes, and the two teams he’s played for this season—St. Lucie and low Class A Columbia—have each set franchise attendance records. Visiting teams, too, feel the bump. The Florida Fire Frogs played four games with St. Lucie since Tebow was promoted and the crowds they drew represent 36 percent of that team’s season attendance.
The crowd on hand on Thursday featured all manner of Tebow jerseys—plenty from Florida and the Mets, a sprinkling of Broncos uniforms, and even one from Tebow’s brief time with the Patriots. Perhaps the best outfit for Tebow’s first trip to Tampa belonged to a fan named Javon from the University of South Florida. He wore a Michael Jordan jersey from His Airness’ days with the White Sox during his 1994 season of baseball.
This is beautiful. Fan coming to see Tebow and wearing a Michael Jordan White Sox jersey. pic.twitter.com/6pT3BBlaky
— Josh Norris (@jnorris427) August 11, 2017
The fans don’t necessarily come to see the ballplayer, however, they come to see the man. They come to see someone who’s spent the last decade in the spotlight both for his athletic endeavors and for his humanitarian works. He wasn’t in the lineup on Thursday night, but still the fans came from all parts of the state to see a player and person whom they hope will make a mark on their children by the way he lives his life.
Bobby VanSweden, who has made his living helping pro golfers (including stars like Dustin Johnson, John Daly and Brittany Lincicome) get fitted for the right clubs, brought his 12-year-old son Carson to Thursday’s game with the express purpose of seeing Tebow. Both father and son were clad from head to toe in Gators baseball gear, and Carson hoped one day to join the legion of baseball stars to come through Gainesville.
“He’s a great role model for young people, for young ballplayers,” Bobby said. “My son’s a ballplayer. We’re big Florida fans. Carson’s dream is to play for coach (Kevin) O’Sullivan at Florida. So we wanted to come out and support Tim, but also see the Tampa Yankees play as well.”
Like Tebow, Carson VanSweden plays both baseball and football. And when Carson watches Tebow, Bobby wants him to see beyond the results in the box score.
“He was a phenomenal player,” Bobby said. “He’s the kind of guy who puts his mind to something and he does it. Just like right now. It’s kind of the same as Jordan. He’s just trying to live out a dream like Jordan did. They were both baseball players but they chose a different sport as profession to begin with, and when they retired they tried to live out a dream.”
The pair met Tebow before the game, took a photo with him and got a baseball signed for Carson. So even though he wasn’t in the starting lineup (though he did enter the game in the eighth inning as a defensive replacement, to raucous applause), the VanSwedens walked away with a souvenir from Tebow’s first minor league game at Steinbrenner Field.
In a brief press conference before the game, Tebow said his goal this season couldn’t be achieved by filling out any column in the box score. Instead, he counts his successes with the impact he’s made on the people he’s met at every stop in the minor leagues. From the fans to his teammates to the broadcasters and, yes, even the media, he wants to make a difference.
“For me, I want to be someone that’s a believer. A believer first and foremost in my God, in my teammates, in my abilities and why I’m here,” he said. “I’m a believer in people. I want to bring the best out of people and bring the most out of people. Whether it’s in my relationships with family, friends, everybody. You want to be someone that uplifts people. I want someone’s life to be better because I’m in their life. I don’t their life to be worse because I’m in it.”
Christina and Dustin Bull, both wearing tons of Florida gear, including a plastic Gator hat, didn’t bring their two sons with them on Thursday, but they planned to bring them to one of St. Lucie’s games in Clearwater next week. Like the VanSwedens, the Bulls weren’t concerned with how Tebow played on the field, but rather how he carried himself off of it.
Despite being too young to have seen him play in college, both Bull sons have posters of Tebow up in their room. And Christina makes sure to show her boys videos of Tebow doing the kind of things that have made him famous.
“I show them all the nice stuff he does stuff for fans and kids,” Christina Bull said. “Like the one where he did the prom for all the special needs children so they could all have a prom to go to, and of course the one that came out yesterday with him meeting that autistic boy. He stopped what he was doing in the game to shake his hand.”
The Tampa Yankees pre-sold roughly 2,000 tickets for this game, and they credentialed 21 members of the media (roughly 20 more than usual, one member of their PR team said), so Tebow’s run as the biggest draw in the Florida State League in years stayed intact. Steinbrenner Field is the biggest field in the FSL with a capacity of just more than 11,000 fans. It hasn’t sold out an FSL game since Roger Clemens made a rehab start during his whirlwind tour through the minor leagues en route to his big league comeback with the Yankees.
Once the crowd realized Tebow wasn’t in the starting lineup, it didn’t take long for fans to start chanting their displeasure. Sporadic bursts of “We want Tebow!” billowed up from the masses seated behind the visitor’s dugout, letting the world know that they did not come here to see a late-season Florida State League game.
They want Tebow pic.twitter.com/gHfPKN4VqL
— Josh Norris (@jnorris427) August 11, 2017
Thursday’s game drew 3,232 fans, nearly 2,000 more than their season average. With Tebow in town for a weekend series, there’s a chance Tampa could fill its park for the first time in a decade. And while most of the extra fans will be on hand to see their favorite quarterback turned outfielder, not everybody on hand is wishing Tebow the best.
One fan came to Thursday’s dressed in bright orange, but it wasn’t for the Gators or the Mets. He’s a die-hard Tennessee Volunteers fan, and he wouldn’t miss a chance to give Tebow the business once more.
“I’m right over the dugout, I'm a season-ticket holder," he said, pointing to the “T” on his hat. "So he has to see this."