Tim Tebow has been the most talked about NFL player since entering the league in 2010. Even now, "Tebowmania" keeps fans captivated, as the "intangibles vs. ability" debate transcends the football field, making him as polarizing as any American athlete.
How would the drama have played out if Tebow went down the MLB route instead?
Veteran scout Tom Kotchman wonders the same thing, telling Rob Bradford of WEEI.com about how the Los Angeles Angels had legitimate interest:
“We wanted to draft him,” Kotchman remembered, “but he never sent back his information card. Either it never got to him, or … It’s Tim Tebow. Who knows if it got to him, and if it did we just never got it back. Otherwise [we] were going to take him.”
And Kotchman knows amateur talent better than anyone. He fathered 10-year major league veteran Casey Kotchman, spent 29 years managing and evaluating in the Angels organization, and has been inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame. The Boston Red Sox currently utilize his knowledge as a Florida-area scout.
Stephen Hargett worked with Kotchman back in the day. He recalls that Tebow "had a strong arm and had a lot of power" from the left side as a player at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida. In 2006, the junior outfielder batted .494 with four home runs.
All the club needed was that darn information card. It posed "a series of questions to the player, including their interest in playing professional baseball," Bradford explains.
Let's presume that Tebow had a passion for America's Pastime, and as a late-round draft pick, he accepted a modest signing bonus to begin his career.
The following hypothetical tale incorporates plenty of Tebow's experiences and attributes: his eternally optimistic perspective, humility, great athleticism, awkward mechanics, obsession with John 3:16 and the influence of sheer luck. Hargett's aforementioned observations of him as a baseball player also come into play.
Surely, it would have been a turbulent journey...
"Tebowmania" in Major League Baseball
You can imagine Tebow settling in at Pioneer League rookie ball in 2006, assigned to one of the corner outfield spots. Peter Bourjos is there, too, but defensive prowess earns him the center fielder's job and a slightly quicker route to the majors.
Instead of coming up with Bourjos in August 2010, Tebow debuts the following season as competition for a slumping Torii Hunter. He arrives on an off day in 2011, but not just any off day. June 16, the 16th day of the third month of the regular season, with the Angels only 33-37 overall.
Initially, Tebow only platoons with the right-handed Hunter. Success comes quickly. A remarkably high batting average on balls in play compensates for his awful strikeout rate and lack of instincts in the field.
Manager Mike Scioscia likes what he sees. When Tebow is available on the bench in the later innings of close contests, Scioscia yanks Bobby Abreu or Hideki Matsui. The rookie phenom comes through in the clutch with walk-off home runs against Clayton Kershaw, Brandon League and Jose Valverde.
America takes notice of Tebow because of his unorthodox celebrations. Rather than leaping onto home plate in jubilation, he goes down on one knee and thanks God.
Fans call it "Tebowing." It goes viral.
At the All-Star break, the Angels are 52-40 and a perfect 15-0 when Tebow gets on the field. He's batting .362/.400/.812 with seven home runs—and 22 strikeouts—in 50 plate appearances.
Despite the production (not to mention millions of write-in votes from the public), he gets snubbed from the 2011 All-Star Game. However, David Ortiz captains the American League Home Run Derby team. Big Papi chooses Tebow instead of Jose Bautista. Many people in the industry take offense because Bautista led the majors with 54 bombs the previous year.
Dominating the derby at Chase Field messes up Tebow's swing for the second half of the season. Yet seemingly whenever he makes contact, it turns out to be pivotal to an Angels victory. His BABIP still suggests unsustainable luck.
Los Angeles backs into the playoffs at 89-73. They win the AL West, a single game ahead of the Texas Rangers.
Tebow finishes the season batting .298/.397/.462 with 18 home runs. He steals 15 bases, but gets caught 12 times. That earns him the AL Rookie of the Year award and a fifth-place finish in MVP voting, ahead of established stars like Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano.
Sabermetricians go ballistic and point to his ordinary 1.2 WAR (weighed down by defensive miscues). Even the old-school analysts notice an abundance of seeing-eye hits and wall-scraping home runs that barely reached the seats. One way or another, everyone is talking about Tebow.
The hysteria peaks during the ALDS. The underdog Angels prevail in five games against the New York Yankees, with Tebow driving in 12 runs, an all-time record for that round. The headlines read "L.A.'s messiah" and "Say 'halo' to the future."
Tickets for the upcoming matchup with the Detroit Tigers disappear in an instant. Unfortunately, with a World Series berth on the line, the overpowering opposing starting rotation shuts Tebow down. He contributes two meaningless singles in 15 at-bats and whiffs 10 times.
The Angels head home in a sweep, but their rookie outfielder is already a global star. He's overvalued in 2012 fantasy drafts and wooed by all the huge advertisers. His No. 15 jersey becomes the first one in years to outsell Derek Jeter's. We see and hear about Tebow constantly over the winter.
Then, shockingly, new general manager Jerry Dipoto trades him to the New York Mets for Ike Davis, straight up. The Angels wanted to clear space for top prospect Mike Trout. They make another bold move by spending big bucks on Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish, who leads them to the best record in the American League.
Meanwhile, the Big Apple explodes in anticipation of Tebow. "Finally," Mets fans say, "we have somebody to start in place of that bum Jason Bay!" For context, Bay batted just .251/.337/.386 from 2010-2011, and had shown signs of regression from the first year to the second.
Their 2012 season is a disaster from the get-go. Bay edges out Tebow in spring training for the starting job and the critics pounce on manager Terry Collins. The media questions his usage of Tebow—primarily as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement—when it's clear that his best tool is power. All the while, Tebow keeps an upbeat attitude and says he's "willing to play wherever they need me."
He only sees action in 75 games, batting .204/.289/.348 with seven home runs. His hits don't magically find holes in the defense anymore, and Citi Field's vast dimensions take away several potential long balls. Once rosters expand in September, Collins gives Tebow a "mental break" as the Mets tie the Miami Marlins for last place.
As if Bay wasn't already a laughing stock, he bats an abysmal .165/.237/.299. The home crowd boos him mercilessly. The Mets eat the rest of his bloated contract to get him off the roster.
Then spring training 2013 approaches. Tebow has become such a distraction that New York decides to trade him for virtually nothing.
Where does he wind up? The St. Louis Cardinals, arguably the sport's best-run organization.
It's a peculiar fit. After all, they already boast an excellent outfield of Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday and Jon Jay.
As it turns out, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny has always had an affinity for Tebow. He praises the 25-year-old's work ethic and reminisces about taking extra time to prepare for him whenever the Cards faced the Mets.
With input from assistant hitting coach Bengie Molina, Matheny comes up with a radical idea: putting Tebow behind the plate. He was unimpressed with Tony Cruz's performance in 2012 and insists that Tebow has the necessary arm strength and size to be a solid defender at the position.
"Tebowmania" gradually fades. The move to a smaller market has something to do with it, but more importantly, everybody agrees that Tebow would never supplant superstar catcher Yadier Molina.
Predictably, Tebow goes through growing pains. He even gets sent to the minors midway through the season.
However, every big game he has makes the Cardinals the lead story on SportsCenter.