John McGrath

John McGrath: Can Tim Tebow make transition to baseball? Only God knows

AP

The career reinventions of former NFL journeymen who haven’t started a game in five years normally aren’t newsworthy, but Tim Tebow is anything but normal. During parts of three seasons he spent primarily as a backup quarterback, Tebow managed to become America’s most polarizing pro athlete.

He managed to do this, I might point out, without instigating a domestic dispute, or punching a teammate, or taunting an opponent, or driving recklessly, or holding out for a restructured contract, or testing positive for steroids, or behaving in any way that doesn’t conform to the definition “solid citizen.”

And yet Tebow still had an ability to alienate people — even those who don’t follow sports — because of his outspoken views on issues that fuse religion and politics. So it’s no surprise Tebow’s plans to pursue pro baseball, announced Tuesday, found him mocked on two continents.

“The odds suggest that Tim Tebow is daydreaming if he thinks that he will play in the MLB,” Jon Ivan-Duke, spokesperson for the London bookmaking firm William Hill, wrote after making Tebow a 20-1 long shot to realize his, um, daydream. “There is a small chance a team might sign him so they can sell more jerseys. Perhaps he’d have a better chance running for president.”

That can’t happen until Tebow turns 35 — six years from this Sunday, when he’ll celebrate his 29th birthday. Tebow’s age is among the many factors working against his bid to become a 30-something rookie. Another is the time he’s spent away from the game. Tebow hasn’t participated in one since he was a high school junior contemplating early enrollment at the University of Florida.

Surely Tebow is familiar with Michael Jordan’s similarly challenging attempt to turn himself into a full-time baseball player on the premise he was pretty good at it in high school. Midway through an NBA career that established him as a basketball deity, Jordan revealed the sheer difficulty of hitting (and catching, and throwing) a hard ball.

Compelled to take on baseball by something, or somebody — the circumstances remain mysterious, 22 years later — the world’s most dominant team sport superstar put together a 1994 season at Double-A Birmingham notable for his perseverance. He hit .202 as an error-prone outfielder with some speed (30 stolen bases in 48 attempts) and little power (three home runs).

Before Jordan became prominent in discussions about the greatest athlete of the 20th century, the distinction belonged to Jim Thorpe, the college football legend who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics. Thorpe also played baseball, and was skilled enough to survive six years in the majors as a minimally productive “fourth outfielder.”

Jordan was overmatched by baseball; Thorpe retired with a negative Wins Above Replacement Player score. And Tim Tebow believes he’s got that special something denied Jordan and Thorpe?

Seriously?

“This might sound like a publicity stunt, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Tebow’s representative, Brodie Van Wagenen, said Tuesday. “I have seen Tim’s workouts, and people inside and outside the industry — scouts, executives, players and fans — will be surprised by his talent.”

You might recall Van Wagenen as the deal-maker who arranged the 10-year, $240 million contract that lured Robinson Cano from the Yankees to the Mariners. Among the two men who oversee baseball at CAA — the Creative Artists Agency — Van Wagenen is one of those agents whose words carry weight.

If he insists his client’s foray into pro baseball is legitimate, I’m inclined to believe him.

Here’s what I know: As a high school junior, Tebow hit .494 and earned all-state honors. His coach described the left-hander as a “six-tool” prospect who could hit for average and hit with power as well as run, catch and throw. The sixth tool was Tebow’s character — his determination to set an example for the rest of his team — the kind of character that put a Heisman Trophy on his shelf as a Florida Gators sophomore.

The list of pro athletes who excelled at football and baseball can be condensed into two names, Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson. Sanders’ legacy is best described by a trivia question: Who was the only athlete to own championship rings from the Super Bowl and a World Series? (An even better trivia question regarding Sanders: Who was the only athlete to score a touchdown and hit a home run in the same week?)

Sanders ended up dedicating his talent exclusively to covering receivers and returning punts and kicks, a decision that paid off with the cornerback’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Jackson, a Pro Bowl selection with the Raiders and an All-Star with the Royals, was blessed with Hall-of-Fame potential in both sports. Only a hip injury suffered in his 38th NFL game — an injury severe enough to require replacement surgery — prevented him from a bronze plaque in either shrine.

Compared to Sanders and Jackson and, for that matter, any first-round draft choice, Tebow’s NFL career was a bust. He appeared in 34 games and started 14. Occasional moments of magic were mitigated by inaccurate passes thrown without timing or touch.

Onto Plan B, with the B standing for baseball.

I’ve got little in common with Tim Tebow — a dinner conversation with him would go south in a hurry — but we’ve got this in common: He’s a daydream believer, and so am I.

As for the London bookmakers who set the odds of Tebow’s reaching the majors at 20-1, a suggestion: Stick to soccer, rugby, cricket and golf.

If they had any inkling of the challenge awaiting somebody attempting to play big-league baseball after a 12-year hiatus, the dumb blokes would have put the odds at 2,000-1.

  Comments