A helicopter circled overhead. Below, about 400 fans and more than 70 members of the news media gathered at the New York Mets’ year-round training complex. They were all there — on the ground, in the air — to watch Tim Tebow play catch.
The most famous minor league baseball player since, perhaps, Michael Jordan arrived at the Mets’ minor league facility Monday for his first workout in a Florida instructional league camp. Fans cheered and chanted his name, dozens of photographers took thousands of pictures, and national sports network correspondents issued live reports as if this were a postseason game in October.
None of this was particularly surprising. Still, it was different.
Normally, the first day of an instructional league camp in September is watched by parents of one or two players and is accompanied by a completely different sound.
“Crickets,” said Paul Taglieri, the executive director of the Mets’ minor league facilities and the person who has overseen the instructional league here for almost two decades.
But like so much else in Tebow’s life as an athlete and ongoing celebrity, Monday became a spectacle, one that also included gee-whiz humility from Tebow and some earnest hard work.
“I felt like such a kid,” Tebow said afterward, beaming, as he spoke with reporters. “Totally felt like a kid.”
A former below-average professional football player who has not played organized baseball since he was a junior in high school, Tebow, who turned 29 in August, took the field with 57 other aspiring players in the Mets organization who are much younger.
Tebow played catch, took batting practice, participated in baserunning and fielding drills and later spoke extensively about following what he termed his lifelong passion to play baseball.
“It was definitely a dream of mine as a kid, ever since I was young,” he said, “and to be honest with you, I thought that I was probably going to play baseball for the majority of my life.”
At this point in his life, Tebow is famous, to some extent, for being famous. However, Florida is also the state where he won the Heisman Trophy and led the University of Florida to two national football championships.
Which makes him even more famous here than elsewhere.
On Monday, the fans in the back fields of the complex 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 television cameras were pointed in his direction.
Not even Mike Piazza, at the height of his fame with the Mets, drew this kind of attention.
“I am humbled by the fans and the support from the fans, because it gives you a platform,” Tebow said after his work was over for the day. “It gives you an opportunity to walk into a hospital and make a kid smile.”
When Tebow arrived at the complex Monday, he found a Mets jersey hanging in his locker bearing the same No. 15 that he wore on the football field — at Florida and with the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets in the NFL.
In an age of hyper-marketing, it was not surprising, either, that Tebow’s Mets shirt was a hot seller on the Mets’ online store even before he finished his workout.
Minor league players do not usually have their jerseys on the market, but Tebow’s representatives, Major League Baseball’s licensing arm and the Majestic company, which manufactures the shirts, worked out a special agreement, according to Ed Price, a spokesman for Tebow’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen.
“I think it’s cool,” Tebow said, almost sheepishly.
Tebow said that he was humbled by all the attention he was getting for trying to switch sports and denied that his attempt to play baseball was a publicity stunt. His goal, he said, is to make it to the major leagues.
He has work to do. He has some natural power at the plate, but he has yet to face live pitching in a game above the high school level. Defensively, he looks at times like a quarterback trying to play the outfield. Then again, sometimes he used to look like a baseball player trying to play football.
At one point on Monday, while still warming up with another player at a distance of about 15 yards, he threw the ball clear over that player’s head — and a four-foot chain-link fence.
During batting practice, Tebow hit several balls off the fence in center field, but also hit some harmless grounders to second base and a few pop-ups into the netting of the cage. It was too small a sample size for it to mean anything, but Tebow is battling the skepticism of many baseball people, who doubt he will make it to the top level of the minor leagues, let alone the majors.
“I’m not doing it for them,” Tebow said. “I’m doing it to pursue what’s in my heart.”
In the NFL, Tebow’s last stop as a quarterback was with the New England Patriots, who invited him to their training camp in 2013 but cut him. That ended his football career, other than as a college analyst for the SEC Network, a commitment he intends to continue this fall.
On Monday, he was asked if he would consider a return to football if a team like the Patriots — whose temporary starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, was injured on Sunday — reached out to him.
“No, sir,” he replied politely. “I am part of the Mets’ family.”