I had planned on going through the front gate.
It was 10:15 on a lovely Tuesday morning in Los Angeles and Tim Tebow's "private" baseball showcase was scheduled to begin in 15 minutes at USC's Dedeaux Field. I walked up to a makeshift registration tent, where I was greeted by a pair of friendly faces and a box of store-bought donuts resting on a table. Then, a snag: unbeknownst to me, there was a media list—one that VICE Sports most certainly was not on. A portly man in sunglasses and a blue shirt approached and politely told me to leave.
My recourse was the same as any self-respecting person on a deadline. I found a side entrance, cupped my cell phone to my ear, pantomimed a conversation, and strolled right into the stadium. I took a seat behind a stone pillar on the first-base side of home plate, and dutifully waited for someone to kick me out.
After 15 minutes, I realized no one was coming. I overheard someone crack that CAA—the agency representing Tebow and organizing his showcase—should really be called "CIA" for its premium on secrecy and while that might ring true normally, it most certainly was not the case here.
This was about pageantry far more than it was about performance, which meant a great deal of time and effort were marshaled to create an elaborate illusion that what was unfolding was a Very Serious Baseball Exhibition for a top-tier talent. The name of the game was optics.
The portly man spotted me several times over the next three and a half hours; he didn't kick me out because it was in everyone's interest for Tebow to get as much coverage as possible. CAA printed up a headshot and bio for him as though he were just another prospect, never mind that no other 29-year-old non-baseball player could summon an audience like this to gawk at him playing the sport.
And let's be clear: Tim Tebow is not a baseball player. He's not even a big-time athlete anymore, and he hasn't been for quite some time. Twenty-eight Major League teams and a hilariously gratuitous contingent of media understood the reason why we had gathered. We were there to watch Tim Tebow, because Tim Tebow means page views and ticket sales. (A good friend told me the night before that I was part of the problem for attending this at all. He is not wrong.)
Tebow, however, was absolutely there to play baseball and, next to his Christian faith, the one thing about him that is beyond reproach is his earnestness. Tebow is not doing this to merely make the major leagues. No, the former quarterback told a reporter, "The goal would be to have a career in the big leagues."
If any of the scouts or reporters at Dedeaux on Tuesday were truly interested in a player with a shot of cracking the big leagues, they would have written up David Aardsma, a former Mariners closer who served as one of Tebow's two batting practice pitchers and sat comfortably at 92 miles per hour on the radar gun, and at one point touched 96.
But for Tebow the bar has been set much lower, more in the neighborhood of not totally embarrassing himself and perhaps hitting a dinger or two along the way.
To his credit, he surpassed those modest expectations. Few people, if any, left the showcase blown away, but it wasn't that bad, either. Tebow's 60-yard dash times were all over the map, and merely league average at their high end (6.76), but still strong for someone who, at a listed six-foot-three and 255 pounds, would be one of the larger players in the game.
Tebow's power, expected to be his best tool, did not disappoint; during batting practice, he smacked one home run off the right-field scoreboard and another into the trees. The bat speed was better than advertised, and he sprayed balls across the outfield.
He tripped over himself trying to field a grounder in the outfield and his arm looked shakier even than what he flashed under center. Aardsma carved him up in the majority of their live at-bats. (Tebow did slightly better against the other pitcher, Chad Smith, who played for the Tigers and the A's, and threw a more manageable 89.) But Tebow did not embarrass himself, or at least not nearly as much as expected.
Still, it was all a performance. There were, charitably, 35 minutes of baseball activities interspersed over three and a half hours. There were three very strategic wardrobe changes, all featuring Adidas gear. He ran the 60 in a skin-tight compression shirt and shorts, a perfectly preening choice for a player who knows that his physique is the single biggest attribute major league teams can dream on. A navy blue baseball uniform with orange accents evoked his days at Florida, the one point in his athletic career where even the most exaggerated portrayals of Tebow's greatness did not go far enough. He did the post-showcase interview in a white Adidas shirt with a stars-and-stripes logo, because no one is more gratuitously American than Tim Tebow. (Yes, there was a Kaepernick question; yes, Tebow dodged it.)
Misdirection was everywhere. The portly man sidled up to some media folks after Tebow's live BP, casually announcing that his people charted him as getting nine hits in 19 at-bats. In actuality, it was more like six, with perhaps only two of those clearing the infield. As soon as Tebow completed his 60, a handler of some kind sidled up to him and announced a time of 6.6, well below the outside consensus. "Crushed it," the man assured Tebow. One especially audacious scout pegged Tebow's raw power as an 80 on the 20-80 scale, something that made the rounds on Twitter but that no one took in attendance took all too seriously.
A more accurate assertion might have come from Tebow's agent at CAA, Brodie van Wagenen, who said that "five or six" teams expressed serious interest in signing his client. Tebow flashed just enough promise to inspire optimism that he won't become the wrong kind of box office attraction: the sad kind. A savvy organization with a rookie ball team in the Gulf Coast could easily barnstorm him across the Southeast. Who in SEC country wouldn't want to see Tim Tebow hit a home run?
Chad Moeller, a former big league catcher and Tebow's private coach since June, summarized the challenge at hand. "I don't think this is one you're going to take your time on because he's not a young kid," he said, knowing full well that time is exactly what Tebow needs after 12 years away from the sport. His mind is racing his body, and the odds are dramatically stacked against the result working in his favor.
Tebow, as ever, is up for the challenge. For all his intransigence on settling for anything less than NFL quarterback in football, Tebow made it abundantly clear on Tuesday that he is exceedingly flexible when it comes to baseball. He'll play any position, any time. Arizona Fall League? Sure. Winter ball in South America? Why not? Whatever it takes. He picked up his own cones between drills.
Tebow told us that this is about not living with regret—an admirable sentiment. He'll try and he'll probably fail, but that won't prevent any of us—people like me who cover him, people in baseball who employ him, people like you who consume that coverage and maybe pay money to that team to see him live—from taking in the spectacle. Which is why Tebow's baseball journey could be a long one. No one will be eager to drop him until every last drop has been wrung.
"Is he going to get an opportunity that other people won't? Sure," Moeller said. "But you won't find many 255-pound men that can run a 6.6, 6.7, whatever it was, and hit a baseball like that."
You won't find many men who can attract such an audience, either.
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