- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2017

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — More than 830 miles separate Hagerstown, Maryland, and the Gainesville, Florida, campus of the University of Florida, where a bigger-than-life bronze statue of Tim Tebow stands outside the football stadium. 

Tebow, 29, plays these days with a different ball — and in much smaller stadiums. But he’s still the center of attention wherever he goes. 

On Sunday, the football star-turned-minor-league-baseball hopeful wrapped up a four-game series against the Hagerstown Suns as a bottom-of-the-batting order outfielder for the Columbia Fireflies, a Class-A New York Mets affiliate. He went 3-for-14 against the Suns, the Class-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, including striking out four times on Friday. 

The near-sellout crowds didn’t seem to mind, cheering wildly and pulling out cell phones to record their hero every time he stepped to the plate.

The Suns, who usually attract a home crowd in the hundreds, hadn’t seen so many people since Stephen Strasburg made a rehab start in Hagerstown on Aug. 7, 2011.

More than 4,000 fans turned out for Sunday’s finale, while attendance at the first three games of the series each drew around 6,000.

People in the crowd offered up different stories with a common theme: Tebow.

Abbie Ski, 19, drove three-and-a-half hours from Falls Church to watch Tebow. Deanna Starkoski and her husband bought tickets two months in advance so her son could see the 2007 Heisman winner. Tre Starkoski, 13, has a FatHead of Tebow in his room and wears a No. 15 jersey when playing lacrosse.

Florida or Denver Broncos jerseys could be spotted throughout the crowd, but 53-year-old Mark Ecker wore a Tebow Fireflies shirt. And there was 57-year-old John Compton, who got a Tebow autograph afterwards.

In Compton’s case, Tebow autographed a baseball and inscribed “John 3:16” at Compton’s request.

“It was exhilarating,” Compton said on Friday. “I was the last one he signed. He stopped at me and kept going.”

The fan interaction is nothing new. A girl told Tebow she named her puppy after him and it wasn’t the first time he had heard something like it. Despite the repetitiveness, Tebow manages to enjoy it.

“You have a lot of support of people and it’s really great,” Tebow said. “A lot of people will always say they’re rooting for you, they’re praying for you. That means a lot to me. And then you have people on the other side. And that’s nothing new to me. I feel like I’ve had that for a long time.”

Tebow understands his willingness to talk openly and often about his faith both endears him to his diehard fans and makes him a target for skeptics.  

“Anything that I’ve ever done is to love God and to love people,” Tebow said. “So I’m not going to think about someone else’s perspective or their dislike for me. In spite of that, I still want to love them because we’re all loved by the God of this universe.

“And that’s something that I want to take that love he gives me and love every single person, regardless of how they feel about me.”

Playing in the minors can take its toll: The bus rides through the night are long, teams don’t generally stay in luxury hotels and players don’t generally eat in fancy restaurants.

And Tebow’s fame makes it hard to go out to eat in towns where he’ll be immediately recognized. In Hagerstown, the only exploring Tebow did was to a Gold’s Gym.

But it’s a lifestyle he’s embraced. Tebow signed a contract extension to be a college football analyst with ESPN, but he still plans on trying to make the major leagues, even if it’s unlikely. He’s batting just .216 with the Fireflies and has batted eighth lately.

“It’s really fun. I really like competing,” Tebow said. “I love the pursuit of it. I love how hard this game is. … To be able to adjust and compete and work at something and strive to get better at something, I enjoy the whole process. “

He’s taken on a different role in the locker room than the one he had as a quarterback leading the Florida Gators to the national championship in 2008.

Fireflies manager Jose Leger said Tebow leads more by example than as someone who gives motivational speeches. In the NFL and especially at Florida, Tebow was often the loudest voice in the room.

“The one thing he does, he talks to the guys individually,” Leger said. “He goes and grabs them individually and tries to get them advice on how to be a professional.”

Leger said Tebow doesn’t get rattled about his performance. Age and perspective give the 29-year-old a sense of composure some of Columbia’s younger players lack, Leger said. 

Tebow said he doesn’t allow himself to think of ever potentially making the majors, focusing only on what he can control.

“I hope the young kids that are watching me, I hope I transcend the games, bigger than just trying to hit the ball or catch the ball, or steal bases,” Tebow said. “I hope they see me as someone who is striving to go after their dreams, someone who knows that life is a lot bigger than sports. It’s a lot bigger than baseball.

“I hope I can encourage them to understand how much they matter, how much they’re important, how they’re valuable beyond measure, beyond what anyone here would say, they’re valuable to the God of this universe. Their life means something so to go out and live that way, live like they matter every single day.”

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