Florida State League president Ken Carson made it a point to seek out Tim Tebow before a recent St. Lucie Mets game at Clearwater."I wanted to thank him," Carson said.The former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL playoff quarterback-turned-baseball hopeful is certainly deserving of some heartfelt words of appreciation.
Florida State League president Ken Carson made it a point to seek out Tim Tebow before a recent St. Lucie Mets game at Clearwater.
"I wanted to thank him," Carson said.
The former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL playoff quarterback-turned-baseball hopeful is certainly deserving of some heartfelt words of appreciation.
The Florida State League annually ranks at the bottom among all the Minor Leagues, just above the Rookie-level, in average attendance numbers. With Tebow as a gate attraction for the last half of the season, though, the 12-team Class A Advanced circuit is flirting with a potential attendance record.
"I just wish he had gotten here earlier so he could have made it to all the ballparks," Carson said.
Promoted from Class A Columbia in late June, the University of Florida legend quickly helped the St. Lucie Mets zoom past their attendance record for a season. It is when St. Lucie hits the road, though, that crowds really spike. Fort Myers, aided by holiday fireworks, packed in 9,478 on one game. Charlotte drew a record 7,515 when Tebow visited. A crowd of 7,157 came out in Tampa to see the Yankees and Mets. Clearwater drew 8,216 for a midweek game.
Tim Tebow bats for St. Lucie on July 21 against Florida. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)
To say those are outlier attendance figures would be a major understatement. In many of the ballparks, the number of people in the stands has historically been just a couple hundred.
That was pre-Tebow, of course.
More than a third of the first-year Florida Fire Frogs' home attendance so far came during a series with St. Lucie, with Tebow helping to attract 18,026 for four games in Kissimmee.
"You used to be able sometimes to just about count the crowd, if you wanted to call it that," St. Lucie first baseman Peter Alonso said. "There was no energy. Now you have a lot of fans every night and there's a lot more excitement. They come because of Tebow, but everyone gets pumped up."
Tebow poses for a photo with a Gators fan in Tampa on Aug. 13. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)
Attendance is up about 13 percent in the Florida State League, all thanks to just under eight weeks of Tebow, an athlete revered in the state regardless. The average of 1,527 on an attendance of 1,046,021 through 685 dates so far this year put the league in range of a possible record heading toward its final two weeks.
The Florida State League attendance of 1,296,962 -- an average of 1,642 per date -- was set in 2011.
With Tebow for a full season, the mark would have had no chance to stand.
"I'd compare it somewhat to when Michael Jordan was playing in Double-A in Birmingham, because he had that kind of draw," Clearwater general manager John Timberlake said before Tebow helped draw 22,939 for a four-game series against the Threshers, a Phillies affiliate. "His appeal is certainly massive when it comes to generating fans."
Tebow has drawn comparison's to NBA legend Michael Jordan's attempt at baseball in 1994 when he left the Bulls for the Double-A Birmingham Barons in the Southern League. (Cliff Welch, Getty Images)
Jordan returned to the NBA after one Minor League season and Tebow, who turned 30 recently and is batting .215, may not even make it to Double-A in his belated baseball flirtation. But most of the curious fans watching Tebow aren't there to critically evaluate his baseball skill set -- they are there as devotees of the college football legend and what he represents as a person.
"A lot of the people coming to the games don't necessarily care that much about baseball," Carson said. "They care about, and love, Tebow."
Tebow takes the field in front of onlooking fans in Clearwater on Aug. 14. (Nathan Ray/Threshers)
Always obliging for autographs, Tebow rarely disappoints his fans even on days he goes hitless with a couple strikeouts. One game he stood by and encouraged a youngster who was nervous about singing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. Another time he left the on-deck circle to say hello to a boy with autism and then hit one of his five home runs for St. Lucie.
Chalk up another one for the Tim Tebow Legend.
"When I talked to him for about 15 minutes in Clearwater, I wanted to thank him for the fans he's drawn, but also the way he's handled everything," Carson said. "He's been wonderful."
"Despite all the attention, he acts like anyone else," said Alonso, a Florida native himself and also a former Gator. "He's a really good guy to have as a teammate."
In a league not known for filling seats, Tebow has been a boost at FSL ballparks this summer. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)
St. Lucie, in its 30th FSL season, had never drawn more than 105,379 fans before this year. With five home games remaining, the Mets were at 122,215 and could finish second in the league behind Clearwater.
The St. Lucie average before Tebow arrived was 1,745. Since, it is 2,402.
The Mets' largest home crowd this year, boosted by holiday fireworks and Tebow, was 6,974. The second biggest could come Friday, Sept. 1, for the home finale.
It will be Tim Tebow Bobblehead Night.
Guy Curtright is a contributor to MiLB.com.