By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Charlotte Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns remembers it all too well.
Tim Tebow was a junior at Nease and Johns was an assistant coach at Orange Park. The two Northeast Florida high schools were meeting in the district championship and Johns squad was an inning away from the title.
But Tebow had other ideas.
The former Florida Gators and NFL quarterback turned St. Lucie Met left fielder hit a walk off three-run homer to give Nease the championship back in 2006.
“I thought then he was a really good player,” Johns recalled. “Obviously, he was good at everything — basketball, football, baseball — so part of me pulls for him being a Jacksonville kid.”
So did close to the franchise-record 7,515 fans who came to Charlotte Sports Park for Saturday’s opener of a four-game series between the Stone Crabs and the Mets.
And they weren’t disappointed.
After going 0-for-3 to start the night, Tebow pounded a fastball off Charlotte reliever Roel Ramirez in the seventh inning and sent it over the wall in center field for a three-run home run that brought the fans to their feet. It put the game out of reach and a smile on the faces of a lot of fans who were in attendance just to see Tebow play.
It was the fifth dinger of the year for Tebow, who finished the Mets 10-3 victory by going 1-for-5 at the plate. He also added a pair of solid defensive plays in the outfield.
“That was awesome,” said Bob Craft, a 40-year-old Englewood resident who frequents Stone Crabs games, but also is a Gators fan. “He’s down in the count, looks like he’s going to strikeout and ‘bam!’ out of the park. What a shot!
“It was easy to get here tonight. We’ve been planning this all day.”
Tebow chants were heard every time he stepped to the plate as fans of all walks of life showed up for “Tebow Mania.” While some wore the Tebow jersey of his current employer, many also showed up in his patented Florida Gators uniform while others were seen wearing his Denver Broncos and New York Jets colors from his time in the NFL.
Some of Tebow’s followers even made the trip to the game from out of state just to see him. Tom Lutz, a 29-year-old resident in Charleston, South Carolina, and life-long Florida Gators fan, booked his trip to Port Charlotte the second Tebow was promoted from Columbia in the South Atlantic League to St. Lucie in the Florida State League.
“As soon as he was called up, I decided to come down here. I looked at the calendar and said, ‘well, let’s go down to Port Charlotte and have a weekend down there,” Lutz said.
Lutz said he’s been a supporter of Tebow since meeting him at Penn State’s football camp one summer while Tebow was a student at Nease. When Tebow decided to commit to Florida that only solidified Lutz’s love for the player.
“I was already big a fan of him, but once he went to Florida, that was awesome.”
It was a pretty awesome night for all who showed up in Tebow attire. Tebow even took time before and after the game to meet some fans next to the Mets’ dugout and sign autographs.
“There are a lot of people here and this isn’t like this at this time of the year,” Craft said. “Obviously, he’s got a drawing and he’s a class act. He’s signing stuff for kids for awhile, he goes over and talks to little kids and it’s awesome.”
Tebow didn’t just impress fans with his bat or generosity. He made a stellar diving catch in left field in the first inning to rob Angel Moreno of an extra base hit, drawing a round of applause from the crowd.
He did it again an inning later, this time scooping a ball to prevent Kevin Padlo from reaching base. The play brought another roar from the seats.
In short, he did it all for his fans Saturday night.
“What he’s doing is pretty impressive,” Johns said. “He didn’t play baseball for 12 years and for him to be able to compete is pretty extraordinary. This is not an easy game, especially the skill of the game where you just can’t go into the weight room and get stronger and bigger and faster and think you’re going to be successful. I think he’s done a pretty good job.”