-- PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Tim Tebow threw a wrinkle into the baseball season when he enticed dozens of reporters and scouts to trek to Los Angeles in late August to watch him run a 60-yard dash, shag fly balls and crank batting practice fastballs over the fence.
For his next trick, Tebow will ascend to the ranks of the Spruce Bluff Preserve, the Botanical Gardens and the Treasure Coast Model Railroad Club as a Port St. Lucie tourist attraction.
Tebow's professional journey begins for real Monday when he joins 57 other aspiring New York Mets for the team's three-week instructional league at Tradition Field. The event is open to the public, and the Mets have fielded enough inquiries to expect more than the usual trickle of back field stragglers.
"I've never seen more than seven people at our instructional league before,'' Ian Levin, the Mets' director of minor league operations, said with a laugh. "I'm making that up, obviously, but it's typically just family and friends. This will definitely be a different instructional league.''
Tebow, a former Heisman Trophy winner, two-time national champion at Florida and NFL quarterback with the Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles, is taking a high-profile plunge into a new sport. After signing with the Mets for a $100,000 bonus, he'll try to buck convention and carve out a career in baseball despite an 11-year absence from the game.
Ever since Tebow revealed his plans to pursue baseball, he has been the focus of a debate over the worthiness of the experiment. Supporters are intrigued by the entertainment value of a natural athlete chasing his dream. Skeptics dismiss the Tebow story as a publicity stunt and think he's receiving an inordinate amount of attention for someone with a minuscule chance of reaching the big leagues. Tebow also has received criticism for his plan to leave the instructional league for a day or two each week to continue his TV work with ESPN's SEC Nation.
Amid the dissenting views, Tebow approaches his quest with his typical brand of can-do optimism.
"I'm excited about it. I really am," Tebow told Newsday last week during a national media tour. "I've loved the game of baseball. Hitting a baseball is one of my favorite things to do in sports. I'm excited about the journey, the challenge, the difficulties, all of it. It's going to be a lot of fun and it's something that's definitely exciting for me."
The Mets signed Tebow knowing that he's raw and has a big learning curve ahead of him, so instructional league is a natural place to start. It's a compressed learning lab that allows young players to polish their skills in a structured environment with an emphasis on individual instruction. Tebow's progress in Florida will help determine whether he's ready for the Arizona Fall League or winter ball, or if he's better served working one-on-one with coaches during the offseason heading into spring training.
The Mets are sending 24 coaches to Port St. Lucie to oversee 29 pitchers, eight catchers, 12 infielders and nine outfielders (a group that includes Tebow). Tebow and his fellow instructional leaguers will arrive at the park at 7:30 or 8 a.m. each day. After breakfast and morning meetings, they'll hit the field from 10 a.m. to 1 or 2 p.m.
The Mets' minor leaguers are scheduled to play five games against other organizations and several more intrasquad games in Port St. Lucie. Factor in weight training before or after games, and Tebow will be logging some days of eight hours or more in the 90-degree heat. Former Boston College pitcher Justin Dunn, New York's top pick in June's first-year player draft, has the highest profile among the other 57 players in camp. The oldest instructional leaguer after the 29-year-old Tebow is pitcher Cameron Griffin, who turned 25 in June.
The youngest attendee, Venezuelan outfielder Raul Beracierta, turned 17 in May. Dominican shortstop Gregory Guerrero, who signed for a $1.2 million bonus in 2015, is also 17. He's the nephew of former big league All-Star Vladimir Guerrero.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has expressed the hope that Tebow will have an impact on New York's prospects with his energy and wide range of life experiences. Tebow's give-and-take with players of high school and college age is likely to be one of the more intriguing facets of his instructional league experience.
"Development comes from all different areas,'' Levin said. "There's on-field development that comes from the coaches and playing games, and there's off-field development from your peers and the environment. I haven't spoken to Tim yet, but from everything I've seen about him, he's a very positive person and obviously a hard worker who's become successful in his own right.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him interact with the players. It brings another perspective and another viewpoint that could rub off on our guys in a positive way.''
Judging from the media attention and the number of Mets fans who'll be dropping by Tradition Field this week, Levin and his colleagues in New York's front office aren't the only ones who are curious how Tebow will fare in his strange new world.