Firefly still lit: Tebow grinding in Columbia

Team remains undecided on possible upper-level promotion

Firefly still lit: Tebow grinding in Columbia

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Tim Tebow flipped his palms upward, glancing at the mess beneath. On his right hand, a silver dollar-sized callus bulged from the padding on his thumb, the blood of long-since-burst blisters still visible. On both hands, smaller pockets of hard skin resided at the base of each finger.

One of Tebow's pant legs was stained bright green, the result of early afternoon sliding drills. Prior to that, Tebow participated in the first of his two daily batting cage sessions, plus a 90-minute weight room circuit. All of it was a primer for that evening's game against the Lakewood BlueClaws -- a three-hour, 14-minute affair on a 55-degree, wind-blown night. Next week, Tebow and his Class A Columbia teammates will bus 10 hours up I-95 for a series in New Jersey.

Welcome to the reality of Minor League Baseball.

"It's not the grind of football, where you're like, dang, some days I don't know if I can get out of bed," Tebow said. "This is more of a monotonous, every day, having to lock in with that focus. It's the awareness every day to make sure you're not just trying to get by, but you're getting better."

Tebow is, to his credit, doing precisely that. A month into his first full season in professional baseball, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback is batting .244 with two home runs in 24 games. Over the last 10 of them, he is hitting .314 with three walks.

"Right now," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said, "I think he's exceeded a lot of people's expectations."

Spirit Communications Park is Columbia's new anchor, a stone's throw from the college town's State House, Supreme Court and other tree-lined old buildings. Over the next half-decade, the city plans to erect additional construction beyond the outfield fence, making the neighborhood a self-contained destination.

The park opened to rave reviews last season, when the Mets moved their South Atlantic League Class A affiliate there from Savannah, Ga. This year, president John Katz said, the Fireflies are drawing roughly 1,000 more fans per game to the park.

It's not terribly difficult to ascertain why.

An hour before first pitch on Friday, dozens of fans milled through a shop behind home plate, where one full rack sells nothing but Tebow T-shirts.

"There's a lot of people here," one fan commented as she sifted through the offerings. "There's a lot of people here."

"It's certainly been noticeable," Katz said. "It's been great for the city and for us."

On the road, fans have flocked to see Tebow, most recently selling out four consecutive games last weekend in Hickory, N.C. But it happens at home, too. The left-field seats at Spirit Communications Park are more popular this season, given their perch overlooking the town's most famous resident. A group was standing there Friday night when one blurted out, "I love you, Tim Tebow!"

"Tim Tebow, you're a bum!" shouted another, as several nearby fans booed him.

"Tim Tebow, I adore you!" yelled a third, restoring order to the section.

Half an inning later, hundreds of fans held up camera phones as Tebow slashed a single through the left side, eliciting the night's loudest ovation.

"If you get support, that always feels good," he said. "All the fans you get to say hey to, sign for, put a smile on their face -- that's awesome. But at the same time, there are a lot of fans that will quickly boo you and quickly bash you, and you've got to take the good with the bad."

One of the first purchases Tebow made upon arriving in Columbia was a ping-pong table for the clubhouse, which is generally populated by players eight years his junior. During batting practice on Friday, outfielder Desmond Lindsay grabbed a football and pump-faked tosses to Tebow, who cracked a grin as he good-naturedly ignored him. When he finished his own batting practice rounds, Tebow began hitting fungoes to Andres Gimenez, the team's recently promoted 18-year-old shortstop.

The whole group seems to mesh in spite of their differences in age, background and celebrity, though it is unclear how long this arrangement will last.

Earlier this week, Alderson showed up in Jose Leger's office, quizzing the Fireflies manager about Tebow's readiness for a possible promotion. All parties agreed that Tebow needs more time in the South Atlantic League, one of full-season baseball's lowest rungs. But at age 29, if Tebow wants to climb toward his Major League dream, he will need to advance to tougher competition.

"Right now, I think he's acquitted himself pretty well at Columbia," Alderson said. "We'll see what that competition holds for him over the next period of time, then we'll constantly sort of reassess where he is and what he needs to do. … He's fine where he is right now."

The Fireflies, certainly, are more than happy to host him indefinitely in the heart of SEC country. So for as long as Tebow wants to continue -- and he says, repeatedly, that he has no plans to the contrary -- this experiment will as well.

"I love what I'm doing," Tebow said. "And when you have a chance to love what you do and you're passionate about it, it's fun. You don't wake up and go, 'Man, I've got to go face this day.' You go, 'I'm excited about this day.' And that's a good feeling."

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.