The New York Mets made headlines on September 8, 2016. It was a move that was talked about extensively, ranging from studio news reports to social media posts. The headlines had nothing to do with what the big-league club was doing on the field, despite occurring in the midst of a pennant chase.
The headlines were focused on the team’s controversial signing of former Heisman winner Tim Tebow.
It was only a minor-league contract, but it was given to a guy who hadn’t played organized baseball since 2005, his junior year at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The move left people scratching their heads. Was this a marketing gimmick, or was this to develop a potential major league player?
Regardless of their reasoning, the signing was official. But amidst all the controversy that surrounded the signing, what if Tim Tebow is just what baseball needs?
There is no denying Tebow is a polarizing figure. For every die-hard supporter of Tebow, there is a harsh critic. What else is to be expected from an athlete whose entire career leans more anecdotal than factual. From saving fans to homering in debut at-bats, Tebow has seemingly done it all.
According to a report by Jayson Stark of ESPN, only three baseball players showed up in a recent poll that described America’s 50 favorite pro athletes. The poll, which was conducted between November 2016 and February 2017 surveyed more than 6,000 American sports fans. The ages of the fans varied with the youngest polled being 12. The poll asked the fans to identify their favorite player and were welcomed to name any player, regardless if they were active or retired.
The three that showed up in the top 50? All retired with the most recent player having last appeared in a major league game in 2014.
The three players, being Derek Jeter (No. 13), Babe Ruth (No. 30), and Pete Rose (No. 50), indicate that baseball needs to do a better job of marketing its stars to their fans. There is no denying that stars are what make sports. Not only do the stars move the needle in terms of merchandise sales, but also attract at the gate.
Take for example a 2014 report written by Darren Rovell of ESPN, which noted that the Cleveland Cavaliers had “capped season-ticket sales at slightly more than 12,000 tickets” following Lebron James announcing that he would be returning to the team that originally drafted him in 2003. While this specific phenomenon might not be indicative of what every star can do to a city or team, it is certainly not exclusive to basketball.
When it was announced that Tim Tebow would start the 2017 season playing for the Mets Class A affiliate Columbia Fireflies, Tebow merchandise sold instantly.
How instantly, you ask?
So much so that Tim Tebow adult sized t-shirts had completely sold out within 24 hours of being available to purchase, according to a report written by The Slate.
Part of baseball’s problem is the culture that appears to be passed on from generation to generation. Young players are taught to not show any flair or pizzazz. Go against these directions and expect repercussions. Don’t admire your home run for too long. Don’t show up the opposing team. Don’t stand out. Pitchers have made careers for themselves being labeled headhunters, players who act as enforcers when brash players go against the grain.
All the more reason why baseball needs Tebow, more than Tebow needs baseball. Throughout his football career, Tebow has been the consummate “team guy.” He aligns with baseball’s unwritten rules of showmanship. Yet, despite this fact, there will still be old school baseball fans that argue Tebow didn’t earn his roster spot and that he needs to “pay his dues.”
However, critics of the Tebow signing forget that this type of signing isn’t a new age way of thinking. Players with special and unique skill sets have been given major league contracts before, with the most famous occurring in 1974.
After winning the 1973 World Series, Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley signed Herb Washington to a one-year, no-cut contract. Washington had been a record-setting track and field athlete at Michigan State University and was now working as a sports broadcaster for Channel 6 in Lansing, Michigan.
Never shy in his support of the designated hitter, Finley signed Washington with the idea that Washington would serve as the A’s designated pinch runner. Washington would never record a plate appearance or play an inning in the field. His primary objective was to steal bases and score runs.
Washington hadn’t played organized baseball since junior high, almost eerily comparable to Tebow. In the 105 games Washington appeared in for Oakland, he stole 31 bases while scoring 33 runs. Whether you want to consider the “pinch runner” experiment a success is up to you, but no one can deny that Washington was still a contributor to a World Series winning club.
“He contributed to the team,” shortstop Bert Campaneris told Matt Kawahara of the Sacramento Bee.
“(If) we needed an important stolen base, he’d come through. He could fly.”
What, if any, contributions Tim Tebow makes to the Mets must wait to be seen. For now, he is just starting his professional journey, playing for the Class A affiliate Columbia Fireflies of the South Atlantic League. However, the fact that he is attempting this at all is something baseball should appreciate as it tries to increase in popularity with a younger demographic.
[Featured Image by Rob Foldy/Getty Images]