By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Charlotte Stone Crabs pitcher Travis Ott experienced something strange at a game in Port St. Lucie.
When the left-hander struck out a St. Lucie Mets batter, the home team fans gave the hitter a standing ovation as he walked back to the dugout.
“It was a little confusing,” Ott said.
Not so confusing when the player who struck out is Tim Tebow.
“It was different,” Ott said. “I don’t think I’ve ever really pitched in front of that many people before, but you try not to pay attention to it when you’re on the mound.”
The strange phenomenon known as Tebow-Mania is coming to Charlotte County when the former University of Florida and NFL quarterback-turned-minor- league-baseball-player faces the Stone Crabs for a four-game series at Charlotte Sports Park starting Saturday.
Tebow hasn’t played home games in the state of Florida since he quarterbacked for the Florida Gators in 2009. He now calls Port St. Lucie home, as he plays for the Advanced-A minor league affiliate of the New York Mets.
The signing of Tebow by the Mets has created much discussion. There are those who feel he was only given the opportunity as a publicity stunt — which the Mets’ general manager has more or less confirmed — and those who believe he deserves a chance.
For the most part, Tebow has lived up to the hype, at least since being called up to St. Lucie on June 26. He had a healthy .306 batting average with three home runs and 14 RBIs as of last weekend. He also had a 12-game hitting streak at one point.
“I think I’m more comfortable seeing more pitches,” Tebow said in an interview with TC Palm earlier this week. “Playing baseball for longer, I think that helps. Also (hitting coach) Luis (Natera) and (manager) Chad (Kreuter), getting to work with them every day and just what we’re doing out there — taking pitches, seeing, tracking. I feel more comfortable with my swing, feel more comfortable with my game plan I’m having against pitchers and then just playing more baseball helps, too.”
Charlotte Stone Crabs pitcher Burch Smith thinks Tebow has done a good job to meet the high expectations.
“He’s a better hitter than I thought he would be,” said Smith, who faced Tebow on July 6. “He has a good eye for the strike zone from what I saw.”
Whether he’s performing well or not, Tebow’s presence has been good for attendance in the league. For a Saturday game on July 14 between the Mets and the Fort Myers Miracle, there was an announced attendance of 4,615. Compare that to the previous Saturday for the Miracle against the Palm Beach Cardinals, where the attendance was 1,303.
The 29-year-old is used to all of the attention, but for Tebow, it’s not about his performance on the field, but what he does off the field.
“You never want a platform to feel normal because you might not always have a platform,” Tebow said. “You don’t want it to feel normal to make someone smile because you might not always have that chance. For me, that’s something that’s so real and tangible. … Those opportunities are more important than anything I’ll (do on the field).”
Crowds of around 4,000-5,000 fans are expected for at least some of the games against the Stone Crabs. It might be smart and save a significant amount of time to buy your tickets in advance, rather than waiting in line prior to one of the games.
Tickets can be purchased on StoneCrabs.com or by calling 941-206-HITS.
The Stone Crabs will have special promotions each of the four games while Tebow and the Mets are in town.
This Saturday is Christmas in July. The first 500 fans will receive a Stone Crabs ornament. There will also be fireworks following the 6:05 p.m. game.
This Sunday is the Stone Crabs’ usual community free Sunday where both tickets and parking are free. If you show up early for the 12:35 game, you can have a pre-game catch on the field.
The Stone Crabs will hold faith night and University of Florida appreciation Monday at 6:35 p.m. They finish the series at the same time the next night with $2 Tuesday.