- Conversations with loyal followers of a certain 30-year-old minor-league baseball player
TAMPA — It’s raining on George M. Steinbrenner Field, but the believers remain seated. The Yankees built this place for $30 million in 1996, and with over 11,000 seats it’s the largest spring training venue in baseball. In the summers it’s the sparsely attended home of the Yankees’ Class A-Advanced affiliate, but on this Sunday, it’s the house of Tim Tebow.
His devotees wait patiently in the rain, because this is Florida in August and showers tend to pass in a hurry. About five minutes after the scheduled 1 p.m. start, a 22-year-old righty from South Carolina deals the first pitch on behalf of the home team, and soon enough it’s the top of the second inning: Tebow’s up. The hundreds clustered in the infield bleachers let out a roar. Brandon Fry, 25, of Tampa, cups his hands around his mouth and calls out from his seat behind home plate, “Jesus loves you Tebow!”
Top 2nd: Tebow flies out to leftfielder Trey Amburgey. 3 out.
He’s 30, unmarried, the son of evangelist Christian missionaries, Bob and Pam. People drive from all corners of the state and sit through rain delays to watch him play baseball, his second sport, at one of its lowest levels of professional competition. One time, he won the Heisman Trophy. Twice his University of Florida football team won the national championship. Once, he won an NFL playoff game.
But now he rides the bus, he eats wrapped-up sandwiches and dresses in bare-bones locker rooms next to anonymous 20-somethings. And when the team bus stops at an L.A. Fitness somewhere between Clearwater and Tampa, he works out next to the regular folk, who realize they're doing leg curls next to Tim Tebow and work up the nerve to ask for an autograph.
He obliges the fans in the gym, on the way to the bus and in the bleachers. But he won’t talk to the media today, the Port St. Lucie Mets say. He’s just here to play ball. Ask anybody around here in a No. 15 Gators jersey and he ought to be playing a different sort of ball this August.
“I think he got a raw deal in the NFL,” says Cheryl, a physical therapist from Lakeland, Fla., about 40 minutes east of Tampa. (She won’t give her last name.) “I think he’s a real nice guy. From all the things I’ve been reading, he had as many wins and stats as everybody else, but nobody would keep him.”
Rick Loyzkar, 62, sporting Gators gear and a bushy white beard, drove two hours south from Gainesville with his mom, Phyllis, 86, and his older brother Rob, 63. Gators season tickets have been in the family since 1971. “I think he didn’t play fast enough for the game,” Rick says. “And I think also if you brought him in he was too much of a distraction, because if the starter starts to fail that loyal Tebow fanbase in the crowd is going to start cheering for him.”
His mother has been waiting patiently to offer her theory.
“I also think the guy in Denver, John Elway, didn’t like him,” Phyllis says of the Broncos general manager. “I think he was jealous of him.”
In 2011, Elway inherited Tebow from the previous regime, which had made him the 25th pick of the 2010 draft. After two seasons with Tebow, 14 regular-season starts and one thrilling playoff victory over the Steelers, Elway engineered the signing of Peyton Manning and traded Tebow to the Jets. Three years and two teams later he was out of football, sitting behind a desk for ESPN. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he announced an open baseball workout in August last year, despite not having played the sport since his junior year in high school.
“I remember when he threw that touchdown pass and I was hyped as s---,” says Fry, wearing a soaked dark blue broncos t-shirt with TEBOW on the back. “John Elway treated him poorly. We probably wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl with [Tebow] two years ago, but he’s just such a good person.”
Top 5th: Tebow called out on strikes. 3 out.
“Good.” It’s the single most popular word used to describe Tebow by his fans.
“I love Tim Tebow,” says Dorothy Flint, a 78-year-old retired call center operator from Tampa. “He’s a good person. He’s the greatest athlete I think there is. I think what the NFL did to him is horrible. He is a good football player. No doubt about it.
“He’s good-looking. He’s smart, a great athlete. Look at all the stuff he does for society. If they made more like him we’d have a great country. But there aren’t many like him.”
Steve Loscalzo Sr., 66, and Steve Loscalzo Jr., 40, drove in from Spring Hill, an hour north. They’re Baptists. Dad wears a tan ball cap with JESUS stitched across the front in red letters. The “J” is punctuated with the horizontal beam of a crucifix.
“I have to say I like him for his faith,” Steve Sr. says. “My wife liked him on that TV show where they were building houses for people [FOX’s Home Free]. It looks like it’s all sincere. You get the impression that he’s genuine. Not that he’s not allowed to ever do something wrong.
“I sometimes wonder, if he ever makes a mistake, is everyone going to throw in the towel?”
The closest Tebow ever came to making a mistake, at least in the eyes of many of his most conservative fans, was in 2013, when he canceled an appearance at the First Baptist Church in Dallas after it was revealed that pastor Robert Jeffress had attacked same-sex marriage and Islam in previous sermons.
Said conservative radio host Bryan Fischer at the time: “Does [Tebow] disagree with him when he says that homosexuality is a sin? Does he disagree with him when he says that Islam is a false religion? If Tebow does not in fact disagree with Jeffress on any of these points, then his decision looks like nothing more than craven capitulation to the nattering nabobs of negativism and intolerance.”
In previous years, Tebow’s position on gay marriage had been a closely guarded secret, kept out of view by those in charge of crafting his personal brand. Wrote Sally Quinn of the Washington Post in 2011: “When asked questions he clearly has not been asked before, he ponders and tries to respond as openly and honestly as he can. Only once, when asked about same-sex marriage, did his publicist, on the other end of the phone, protectively jump in to object that that was off message.”
His fans here are eager to talk about Tebow and today’s hot-button topic in the NFL. Unprompted, U.S. Army veteran Ronnie Grey draws the comparison between Tebow and Colin Kaepernick. Both are out of football because they’re outspoken, Grey says, but in different ways. Grey's young daughter, wearing a Florida Gators cheerleading uniform, paws at the crucifix tattooed on his arm: “You’re talking too much, daddy!”
“A lot of times if you stick to something that’s counter to popular opinion for too long, you usually are out the door,” Grey says. “Tim’s is more in a positive way, most people would say, and Colin’s is more negative, most people would say. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning never do that. Maybe they don’t have a view, or maybe they figure it’s not worth it.”
Fry is less equivocal.
“Kaepernick’s stats aren’t that good,” Fry says. “O.K., he did decent last year. He had 16 touchdowns with four interceptions and two rushing touchdowns. It’s just all that extra bulls--- behind it. When you compare them, it’s like a bad distraction versus a good distraction.
Top 8th: Tebow strikes out swinging. 2 out.
Everyone has a story about the day they fell in love with Tebow.
For some, it was September 27, 2008, when the Gators lost in the fourth week of that season to Mississippi. Tebow delivered a post-game speech that is now memorialized on a plaque on the Gainesville campus.
“I’m sorry,” he said, lip quivering. “Extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal. Something Florida’s never done here. But I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season, and you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless.”
Sandi Patino, Florida class of ’88, attended the game with her two children and husband, a former staff writer at the Tampa Tribune and job casualty of the newspaper’s acquisition by the Tampa Times.
“When he promised he wouldn’t lose another game, and he didn’t lose another game, you’re thinking, Wow, how is that possible,” Patino says. “There are sort of miracle things that he just wills to happen.
“Earlier in the game, one woman yelled, ‘I believe in you Tebow!’ And I’m thinking, you kind of do want to believe in him.”
For Jeremy Gruber, 36, it was the Steelers game. He’s a Broncos fan in Orlando, where he supervises a substance-abuse program. His father is a diehard Steelers fan, and they watched the 2011 wild-card playoffs together. After four quarters of sub-50% throwing accuracy, Tebow hit a streaking Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard touchdown in overtime.
“My dog was wearing a Tebow jersey, and I was sitting with my dad and he was very upset,” Gruber says. “He didn’t like the dog wearing the jersey in the first place, so winning that game was pretty sweet.”
By the top of the ninth, the Mets have mustered only one hit, and it’s safe to assume Tebow won’t bat again. A 28th-round pick from Charlotte pops out to third to end the game, and the fans pack it in. Yankees win 3-0. Johnny Westland, 41, collects his young son with the baseball mitt on his hand and heads for the exit. He drove in from Lake City, two-and-a-half hours north. He says he works maintenance in the UF dorms.
“He might not ever get out of Single-A,” Westland says of Tebow, “but me and my kid are always going to follow him wherever he goes. I think what he’s got inside of him, always trying to do the right thing, goes further than sports does. I always say my wife’s only allowed to sleep with one other guy, and that’s Tebow—for procreation reasons only.
“His problem is he started baseball so late. When he went to the Jets he should have started working with [Derek] Jeter right away. The Jets is where careers go to die anyway.”
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