As the rain splashed on the tarp at First Data Field, the home of the Advanced Single-A St. Lucie Mets, it was clear that evening’s game against the Daytona Tortugas would be postponed.
Not a single player from either team was in sight.
But that didn’t matter to the nearly 600 fans who crowded around the home dugout. When it comes to “TebowMania,” waiting out a thunderstorm just to get a glimpse of, and maybe an autograph from, the former Heisman winner/NFL quarterback/ESPN broadcaster/baseball player, is worth the risk.
“Ask him, he’s the (Tim) Tebow fan,” laughs Matt Courts, pointing at his friend as they both stand in the pouring rain. “I told him, (Tebow) was gone hours ago. He’s already home. I’m ready to roll, but he wants to wait it out.”
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Like so many of the fans nowadays at First Data Field, Courts and co-worker Drew White are not locals. They came from Memphis, Tenn., and were in the state for business, working about 90 minutes south of Port St. Lucie.
When they heard Tebow would be in town they decided to make the drive, even with a 5 a.m. flight awaiting them in the morning.
“Would we do it if he wasn’t here? Zero percent chance,” Courts said.
The Tebow effect
Courts and White are just a small sampling of the chaotic nightly scene in Port St. Lucie ever since Tebow, 29, was called up on June 26. In fact, ever since the Mets signed Tebow to a minor league contract last September after the long-time quarterback announced his desire to return to baseball, it’s been Tebow-time, all the time.
A family of four from Virginia walks around all dressed in St. Lucie Mets No. 15 “Tebow” shirts. A couple all the way from Ormond Beach are decked out in Florida Gators gear from head to toe, all the way down to the socks.
A father-son duo from Palm Bay, both sporting Gators hats, are in town for their second game in as many weeks.
“We bought tickets that night,” son Art Dwyer said of Tebow’s June call-up. “It’s not too bad of a drive, and we wanted to see Tebow!”
So do a lot of people.
On July 4, only Tebow’s fourth home game, the Mets drew a crowd of 6,974 – the second largest in St. Lucie history. In the first 11 home games after his arrival, the Mets drew more than 36,000 fans to the stadium, good for an average of nearly 3,300 per night. That’s more than twice the average attendance of 1,501 for the 12 Florida State League teams.
“A perfect example is Wednesday night,” said assistant general manager Traer Van Allen. “We had 600 fans at a game where it rained pretty much all over the city that day. Just the fact that we had that many was a true testament to his appeal and drawing-power. Fourth of July was like a Mets-Red Sox, Mets-Yankees spring training game. It was unbelievable.”
“TebowMania” hasn’t just had an impact in Port St. Lucie, the spring training home of the New York Mets, either.
During the weekend series against the Fort Myers Miracle (July 1-3), 19,808 fans came out to the park, including 9,478 in Monday’s series finale — a Fort Myers record. During a weekend series at Jupiter, nearly 6,500 people attended the Friday and Saturday games. The last time the Mets visited Jupiter for a weekend series, in early May, the two-day attendance total was less than 2,000.
Still, the hype on the road — the Florida Firefrogs, who play in Kissimmee, have created special ticket packages and extended box office hours ahead of this weekend’s series — doesn’t compare to the frenzy in Port St. Lucie.
Because of the increased exposure, credential requests and security efforts have been stepped up as well. When news of Tebow’s promotion first hit, Mets media relations director Adam MacDonald said he fielded close to 50 credential requests for the introductory press conference and opening game.
“I’ve been with the Mets a long time now, and we’ve had a number of major league players come here,” Van Allen said. “What Tim and his fans and the people that want to see him are doing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen here before.”
As a result, the team has increased security around the stadium, Van Allen said. How tight are things right now? Any Tebow-related questions must be run through the St. Lucie Mets’ front office. Stadium employees, including ushers, security guards, and those who work in the pro shop are not permitted to speak with the media.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in our souvenir sales numbers,” said general manager Paul Taglieri, who refused to provide any specific numbers. “We’ve put a couple of (additional) orders in already. I think our initial order was extremely conservative. Stuff flew off the shelves pretty quick so we’ve put in one, possibly two reorders on the shirts and novelty items.”
Taglieri, with the Mets since 1999, added that, even though the team has seen guys like Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, superstar catcher Mike Piazza, and current star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes come through on rehab assignments, this situation is on a different level.
“When those guys were here, they were here for a day or two,” Taglieri said. “This is obviously a little different. This has definitely had a significant impact on our attendance. You can recognize that. The energy has been a little different because he’s here.”
That energy was on full display during Thursday’s doubleheader.
After Wednesday’s washout, fans lined up in a sea of orange and blue outside the First Data Field gate well before the 4 p.m. first pitch. When gates finally opened it was a race to the corner of the Mets’ first base dugout. That’s where the Tebow autograph line starts to form, and, before long, it ran all the way up the stairs.
Unfortunately, on this day, the former Florida Gator quarterback isn’t playing the field. Tebow is slated to hit sixth and serve as the team’s designated hitter in both games. Still, the section erupts in a Tebow chant shortly before players take the field, holding out hope for at least a glimpse of the man.
“I’ve always been a fan,” said Glenn Morin, who graduated from the University of Florida in 1963 and made the trip with his wife from Ormond Beach. “I think because he’s a strong Christian, he’s got a lot of following he wouldn’t have normally. We were following him when he was in South Carolina (with the Columbia Fireflies to start the season), but when we saw he was coming here we had to come to a game.”
The local couple picked a good day to come watch. Later that night, with the Mets and Tortugas tied at 4 in the bottom of the seventh, Tebow crushed a walk-off home run (minor league doubleheaders are seven innings each) on the very first pitch he saw, just clearing the left field wall.
The blast was Tebow’s third since getting called up last month, and extended his hitting streak to 11 games. The game-winner sent First Data Field and its nearly 2,700 fans into a frenzy, with chants of “Tebow” ringing throughout the stadium as he circled the bases. When Tebow touched home, he was greeted with a Gatorade shower.
“From the first time I saw him take swings at spring training all the way to now, he is light-years ahead,” Mets manager Chad Kreuter, a former major league catcher, said after the game. “He’s catapulted himself ahead a couple seasons almost. He was a newbie, and you look at where he was when he showed up to instructional league, and the numbers weren’t very good at all. Now, he’s battling during at-bats, not striking out a whole lot, and his swing path is phenomenal.”
Tebow admitted after the game it was the first time he’d belted a walk-off shot since high school.
“Junior year,” laughed Tebow, who attended Nease High School in Ponte Vedra. “That was the district championship, so that felt pretty good, but this one was special.”
While he struggled earlier this season with Columbia, the former quarterback has seemingly found his groove since joining St. Lucie. Tebow is hitting .308 and has 12 RBIs to go along with his three home runs in 20 games. He insists there’s no secret to his newfound success at the plate.
“Just working with the coaches and more time playing baseball,” Tebow said. “A lot of great teammates talking to me about pitches, you know, ‘This is what I just saw, this is what’s coming.’ Just seeing more pitches, have better timing, be through the zone longer. I’m just trying to work at the game.”