By JOHN KEKIS,
AP Sports Writer
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Tim Tebow sure knows how to rise to the occasion.
Playing his first game in Double-A ball, New York Mets’ unique minor leaguer hit a three-run homer on the first pitch he saw. The ex-football star drew a huge ovation after connecting on a frigid Thursday night for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, who beat Portland 6-0 in their Eastern League opener.
“It’s pretty special and it feels really good,” a smiling Tebow said afterward. “It’s a great day and it was a fun day, but it’s just one day. We’ve got to be focused on the next day.”
Tebow has made that impression before. He also homered last April in his first at-bat with the Class A Columbia Fireflies of the South Atlantic League.
This time, the former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida and NFL quarterback sent a liner far over the fence down the right-field line as the announced crowd of 5,247 at NYSEG Stadium stood and cheered the 30-year-old outfielder.
The lefty-swinging Tebow capped a five-run first inning against righty Teddy Stankiewicz, a second-round draft pick by Boston in 2013. The Sea Dogs are a Red Sox affiliate.
Tebow finished 1 for 4. He grounded into a force play in the third inning, grounded out to shortstop in the fifth, and struck out swinging in the seventh.
“I’m trying to improve every single day, so to get off to a good start definitely gives you confidence,” Tebow said. “But baseball’s a game where it’s never too high, it’s never too low. It’s just one at-bat, just one pitch. You’ve got to stay focused.
“Tomorrow will be another day where I have to improve. I’ve got to get back in the cage and work … on all the things that I’ve been working on to try to improve.”
The frigid temperatures sent many fans home after Tebow’s third at-bat, apparently satisfied they got what they came to see.
Jeff Kellam and wife Joan, regulars from nearby Owego, stayed put until the end.
“I was pretty cynical,” he said. “There was a picture in the paper this morning of Tim Tebow and two other unidentified players. I thought, this is going to be kind of hard for the rest of the guys. The guy that got a two-run homer (Peter Alonso) — nobody’s going to talk about that tomorrow. I just want to be fair to the other players that have worked their way here, maybe even harder than he has.”
Tebow’s performance came far from the warmth of Florida where he became a household name on the gridiron. His Double-A debut came as snowflakes wafted through the evening air and temperatures hovered in the 30s.
All of the field-level box seats at NYSEG Stadium were sold on the blustery night, and although plenty of seats were empty, Tebow’s arrival lured Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon north from New York City to take a closer look at the organization’s most unusual prospect.
“He’s another ballplayer. I understand all the excitement because it’s Tim Tebow,” Wilpon said. “We look forward to having him perform and move up the system, which he’s doing. That’s why he’s here — moving up the chain.
“He did well last year in A ball. Now, he’s got to prove himself here and probably have to go to Triple-A at some point. “He’s a hard worker. He’ll do whatever he has to do to succeed.”
Tebow, who was not on the Mets’ 40-man major league roster, was re-assigned to the Rumble Ponies after going 1 for 18 (.056) with 11 strikeouts in seven big league exhibition games. He was hampered by a left ankle sprain and had been used solely as a designated hitter or pinch hitter.
Tebow started in left field against Portland and batted seventh. He was greeted with a nice round of applause at pregame introductions. The only glitch in his debut came when he ran into a chain-link fence chasing a fly ball in foul territory along the left field line in the third inning Thursday night, but he quickly shook it off.
When Tebow batted in the fifth, he worked the count full and the crowd began to chant his last name before he grounded out.
“Any time you have support, our entire team is feeling really good,” Tebow said. “It’s something our team really fed off.”
Tebow split last season, his first in the minor leagues, between a pair of Class A teams — Columbia, and St. Lucie in the Florida State League. He hit a combined .226 with eight homers and 52 RBIs in 126 games.
Early in spring training, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said he thought Tebow had the talent to make it to the big leagues. Alderson said the experiment wouldn’t last forever, but he remained optimistic because Tebow had made “meaningful progress.”
Joe Pochkar, a season ticket-holder from nearby Endwell, called Tebow’s arrival a win-win for an area along New York’s Southern Tier that’s been among the slowest regions of the state to recover from the financial crash a decade ago.
“He works very hard at his craft, and his passion and work ethic rub off on other players,” he said. “It’s more than just the ability. So he hits a buck seventy-five, if he gets all the other players with his passion and attitude and desire, it’s fantastic.”
“A lot of people rag on him for doing what he’s doing. This guy’s positive, he’s a nice guy, good for the community,” Pochkar said. “He’s 30. He took a long time off. Double-A separates the men from the boys. We’ll see.”
Binghamton’s unusual nickname comes from an area that bills itself as the “Carousel Capital of the World.” George F. Johnson of Endicott Johnson Shoe Co. fame donated several carousels to the area, and the ponies from a handful of carousels that still remain entertain kids today.