Tim Tebow’s baseball journey begins in South Carolina

New York Mets' Tim Tebow reacts after striking out in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game against the Washington Nationals Monday, March 27, 2017, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Tim Tebow got comfortable in his first visit to his new minor league home Sunday and vowed to give his all in his latest professional sports venture with the Columbia Fireflies.

The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion quarterback at Florida signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets last September, went through an instructional league last fall and took part in spring training last month before getting assigned to the club’s Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.

“For me, this is not like a vacation. This is not something I want to do for publicity,” Tebow said. “This is a business trip. This is work.”

The work begins Thursday night when the Fireflies open against Augusta with Tebow starting in left field, Columbia manager Jose Leger said.

“He’s going to be playing,” said Leger, only 5 years older than the former football star.

That’s OK with the 4,000 or so fans who turned out for the Fireflies’ arrival and autograph session. Dozens already had Tebow’s No. 15 Fireflies jersey. Tebow is familiar with success in Columbia — he accounted for 649 yards and nine touchdowns in beating South Carolina twice here in 2007 and 2009 — and is glad to have fans in town on his side this time.

“They have been great and I’m looking forward to things starting here,” he said.

Although, the one-time SEC Network analyst hedged his bets when asked whether he was pulling for the Gamecocks’ women’s basketball team in its title-game matchup with fellow Southeastern Conference member Mississippi State later Sunday.

“I’m pulling for the SEC,” he said with a smile. “Politically correct.”

Tebow took some swings with the crowd tracking his every move.

Leger said Tebow’s presence won’t be a distraction for the young team, which has two pitchers who are 25 — the closest in age to the 29-year-old Tebow.

“I think he’s going to serve more of an asset to the players,” Leger said. “He brings a lot of experience to the table. I think more than anything, he’ll bring motivation and a spark on the team.”

Former South Carolina Gamecocks outfielder Gene Cone was picked by the Mets in the 10th round of last year’s draft and is excited to share the Fireflies outfield with Tebow this season.

“He’s a great guy. Obviously, you know he’s a great competitor — the man won two national championships,” Cone said. “We’re jelling around him pretty good.”

Tebow, who first played baseball at age 4, said each time he’s immersed himself in the game, he has improved. He thinks this stop in Columbia — he had no timetable for how long or short his baseball pursuit might last — will further enhance his credentials. Tebow was an all-state baseball player at Nease High in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, but gave up the game to enroll early at Florida and concentrate on football.

Tebow was a first-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos in 2010, starting an up-and-down five seasons in pro football. He was the toast of the Rocky Mountains when he led the Broncos to their first NFL playoff win in six years by defeating Pittsburgh in 2011. But he was traded to the New York Jets before the next season, where he was never much of a factor. Tebow spent time in camp with New England in 2013 and Philadelphia in 2015, getting released before the regular season each year.

Tebow revived his baseball dream last year and the Mets signed him to see what he had. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Tebow showed his power, muscling a couple of balls over the fence.

“I still love the game of football and sometimes I miss it,” Tebow said. “But I’m pursuing something else that I love. You can love more than one thing and I love what I’m doing right now.”

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