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  • Mark SaxonESPN Staff Writer Close
      Mark Saxon covers the St. Louis Cardinals for ESPN.com. He served as the Dodgers team reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. through the 2015 season. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — After Tim Tebow finished shagging fly balls, he jogged into the New York Mets dugout and got his bat and helmet. He walked out to take batting practice with the other starting outfielders, Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes, and designated hitter Jay Bruce.

Just one problem: The Mets’ BP was running late, and the Houston Astros were stretched and ready to take the field for their warm-ups. After chatting with Bruce near the cage, Tebow smiled, grabbed his gear and headed to Field No. 2, next to the parking lot and away from the crowd, to take his swings.

Tebow may be a major brand, but he is not yet a major leaguer. Will he ever be? The educated consensus seems to be "no" among the baseball cognoscenti, but that hasn’t stopped the Mets from making him part of their show this spring. There’s no harm in the Mets making Tebow a sideshow either, really. It beats watching Garth Brooks try to hit a major league pitcher. Trust me.

But that doesn’t mean it's a distraction the Mets need and something old-school baseball people like. After it was over — Tebow went 0-for-7 with three strikeouts in his two games with the big boys — Mets manager Terry Collins indicated that would be the last we’ll see of Tebow on the main field. He offered generous praise, saying, “You see the power in batting practice, and, if he can get it to translate into the game, it’s going to play.”

It may take a second or two for that one to sink in. Getting batting-practice power to translate into a game can be like getting putt-putt golf acumen to translate to Augusta during the Masters.

A fairly small crowd of fewer than 5,000 fans showed up for Act 2 of “Tebow Plays the Big Field” on Friday. It ended with four more outs, but he certainly didn't embarrass himself.

He hit a few ground balls reasonably hard. He even worked the count to 3-0 in his last at-bat and had a chance to win a game for the Mets, who lost 7-6 to the Houston Astros on Friday. He took a strike, then swung through a couple of pitches from lefty Brian Holmes.

The beauty of Tebow is that he thinks a lot more like the guys he was playing with Friday than like the rest of us. The rest of us don’t have a Heisman Trophy. The rest of us never brought a team down the field to win an NFL game. So what was going through his mind?

“Gosh, try to hit a dinger and win it. I so wanted to,” Tebow said. “For me, that’s honestly something I still work on, grit your teeth and go to work. I was talking to Jay for a while about it. He was just like, ‘Breathe. Be smooth.’ There are just so many little things like that. So much of my life, I would grit my teeth, and, in the fourth quarter, I was just going to try to find a way to get it done. It’s understanding how you go about things, what you have to do.”

Tebow went 12 years without playing baseball, and he will turn 30 in August. He probably doesn’t have time to make it to the major leagues. Still, stranger things have happened. Even if the Mets’ baseball operations people haven’t the faintest faith in that happening, what’s wrong with their marketing people giving fans a glimpse of one of the most popular athletes in America? From a civilian standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you wear a baseball uniform for a living, you might have another perspective.

One major league veteran with more than a decade of MLB service time, now on a rival team’s coaching staff, said he thought Tebow’s presence in major league spring training games wasn’t right. For one thing, the coach doubted Tebow’s desire to reach the majors, wondering if he instead was working toward a book or movie deal. The coach also lamented the missed opportunity for a player with more realistic major league aspirations, say Champ Stuart or Travis Taijeron, two non-roster outfielders trying to get on the Mets’ radar this spring.

“I guarantee you there’s somebody over there who would have loved those four at-bats,” the coach said. “You smoke four balls and maybe open some eyes.”

OK, so a couple of young players might have been slightly hurt by Tebow’s presence in the games. The Mets took advantage of Tebow’s massive popularity to sell jerseys and tickets. Neither of those two outcomes is ideal, but still, he was fun to watch. Fans were at their loudest anytime Tebow was involved Friday. They cheered when he caught an easy fly ball and missed the cutoff man, for crying out loud. He watched three balls soar over his head for home runs, giving the pitcher courtesy trots on two of them — though they were long gone — and earnestly chasing one toward center field another time.

Unless the Mets decide they need a little attendance boost or they suffer a string of injuries to outfielders, Tebow figures to spend the rest of his spring on the back fields. He’ll probably spend the rest of his season playing in small towns, riding buses and eating in country dives and diners, at least as long as he can stand it. He claims he’s committed to making a serious run at the profession. He said he’ll stay in touch with the Mets players he met and try to learn from the process.

“It’s never as good as it seems, it’s never as bad as it seems,” he said.

He might be saying that to himself a lot over the next six months or so, but whether he’ll be saying it a year from now is anybody’s guess.

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