PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — New York Mets second baseman Neil Walker has played in 949 major league games.
Wednesday was the first time he ever had a Heisman Trophy winner on his side as Tim Tebow made his spring training debut for the Mets.
"I've had a few Heisman winners [visit] the locker room, but never somebody of his stature in the same lineup," Walker said before the Mets beat the Boston Red Sox 8-7 in a split-squad game at First Data Field.
For Walker and the rest of the Mets, Tebow's presence in Wednesday's lineup was barely noticeable. Batting eighth as the designated hitter, he was a distraction to no one. "If he came in here looking for publicity, he's certainly not doing that. He's in here to work. He's in here to take his at-bats," Walker said.
From the looks of Wednesday's performance, Tebow is going to need a lot more work. In a game as ugly in person as it was portrayed on social media, the former quarterback went 0-for-3, fanning twice on called third strikes and hitting into a double play with the bases loaded. (Though the DP did bring in a run to tie the game at 4-4 and generated an ovation from the crowd of 6,538.)
Yes, there were some embarrassing moments, such as when Tebow wandered toward the Red Sox side of the field when he approached the on-deck circle before his first at-bat.
"I thought that was the ball boy," Boston starting pitcher Rick Porcello said.
But overall, the sentiment in the stands was positive.
"It's nice having Tebow here," one Mets fan said while leaving via the stadium's lone elevator.
In a fitting reminder of the many dings any athlete must endure, Tebow was also plunked by fellow former Florida Gator Brian Johnson before getting doubled-off on a line drive.
"Where is the love?" Tebow joked after the game.
"I've been good at taking hits my whole career. That comes easier than everything else," Tebow said.
.@TimTebow steps to the plate for his FIRST at-bat in a #SpringTraining game: https://t.co/lNaAimk6Eb https://t.co/a5mEv0cnR82017-3-8 19:48:55
Indeed, after a near-pristine college career, the literal and figurative hits have come fast and furious at Tebow since.
His bumpy NFL career was highlighted by a playoff win with Denver over Pittsburgh during the 2011 season. After subsequent tries with New England, Philadelphia and the Jets, he ran out of NFL invitations. The past few months have seen him try his hand at baseball, a decision lampooned by many. Just last week, ESPN.com's David Fleming wrote of Tebow's "Relentless Pursuit of Failure."
The internet flailed away Wednesday with each whiff, misstep or uncorked swing.
But is what Tebow is trying really so bad? An elite athlete who craves competition so badly he'll take whatever criticism comes to try his hand at a game that could use a little star power? That's a problem?
That he was there at all, taking batting practice before digging in against 2016 American League Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello, drew respect from Red Sox manager John Farrell.
"For a guy who played at such a high profile in sports, for him to say, 'I'm willing to take a run at this,' I think it's a pretty cool thing," Farrell said.
Especially after not playing organized baseball for 12 years.
"It's hard for a guy who plays every year. So when you have that kind of gap, it's a window into the mindset that anything is possible. He's a been a guy—from the outside looking in—who has been scrutinized as an athlete his entire professional life. He's someone who obviously believes in himself," Farrell said.
Walker sees Tebow's ability to handle all of it as a huge plus.
"You're prone to criticism every time you go out on the field. The guys who can handle the good days and the bad days and mentally forget about the negativity that surrounds professional sports are the ones that reach their goals," he said. "You have to have thick skin. You have to have a positive attitude day in and day out, especially in baseball, because it's so failure-oriented."
While Tebow has yet to prove himself a consistent athlete on the professional level, he has proved, in the 11 years since he left Nease High School for the University of Florida, that his skin is as thick as a bull gator's.
A fearlessness of failure makes baseball the perfect sport for him.
"If you're failing 70 percent of the time, that's a good career," Walker notes." The common thread for players at the highest level of professional sports is the mental side of things. He's been prone to criticism his entire career."
To Tebow's way of thinking, it's impossible for him to fail as long as he never quits.
"You have to be mentally strong and handle it and be honest with yourself. … A lot of my past experiences have really helped me for this."
The fascination with Tebow as a baseball player isn't entirely wrapped up in his name.
At 10:33 a.m. Wednesday, Tebow strode toward the batting cage wielding a bat built by a company called "Dinger." About 30 media types ringed the semicircle behind home plate at First Data Field. They were joined by nearly as many members of the Red Sox split-squad players eagerly watching from the visiting dugout.
Tebow proceeded to smash several home runs during his mid-morning display from the left side of the plate. He worked to the opposite field, hitting the monstrous scoreboard in left-center field and swatting three balls off the blue wall in dead center.
Farrell was impressed.
"When you look at the raw power in BP, it's pretty evident," Farrell said. "When you're doing something else in another sport, it also says you have pretty good hand-eye coordination."
Tebow tried to play things low-key. He ate lunch—salmon and broccoli—with his fellow minor leaguers (the Mets have 14 players in the World Baseball Classic), and he ever-so-politely declined an ESPN reporter's request for an on-camera interview after batting practice.
He couldn't dodge his star power altogether, though. Before the game in the Mets clubhouse, Tebow was asked to autograph several baseballs, one of which was delivered to pitcher Rick Gorzelanny across the room by Curtis Granderson.
Still, it was clear he wanted to limit any disturbance his presence created.
Farrell, Walker and Porcello all agreed that Tebow's presence with the Mets—he will play a defensive position Friday against Houston—remains a positive for a sport in need of positives.
"There's been so much talk about our game and what needs to improve," Farrell said. "We have a really good game. A great game. These situations like Tim Tebow being part of it, I think it's a positive."
"Baseball is a sport that hits every genre, every ethnicity; it doesn't matter what your background is. If you have the skills to play this game, you should have the opportunity," Walker added.
Mets manager Terry Collins and Tebow said they see neither an end game nor a master plan in this baseball journey. This will be a long haul.
One day at a time. One step at a time—even if it happens to be toward the wrong on-deck circle.
"As an athlete, you can't let one day define anything," Tebow said. "Other people are sensationalizing it. Regardless of what happens, it will be the best of all time or the worst day of all time, but for me, it's just a day. It's just the next day. It's just the next opportunity to get four at-bats [and learn from it]."
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who covers baseball for Bleacher Report. He is a columnist for the Boston Herald and tweets @RealOBF.