Tim Tebow is easily the biggest larger-than-life figure to come to Hickory as an athlete in at least a decade. When South Caldwell product Madison Bumgarner pitched for Augusta (Ga.) against Hickory in April 2008, the Crawdads drew a crowd of 4,805 for a Thursday night game. As I type this, already three of the four games for the series to begin today are sold out, with the Sunday game having only a couple of hundred tickets left. Without having records prior to 2005 to back it up, I’m guessing it’ll be the most-attended four-game series at L.P. Frans Stadium since the 1990s.
There is quite the fervor with Tebow. When I attended the game on April 10 at Columbia, S.C. Tebow jerseys were everywhere. When he came to bat in the seventh with runners on, the chant of “Te-bow, Te-bow” reverberated throughout Spirit Communication Park. It was a fascinating scene to watch rabid SEC fans in Columbia that hate everything non-Gamecocks, especially the vitriol they have for things University of Florida football, celebrate Tebow.
Love him or hate him, there’s been nothing like him to come to the South Atlantic League and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for fans to see a transcendent athlete that for most they have only seen on a TV screen.
The expectation from some is that Tebow will rise quickly to the New York Mets. That’s not how baseball works. It’s called a grind for a reason. Sure, there is the occasional homer, but there is also the baserunning blunder – he overran second and was caught in a rundown in the game I saw.
The big story is Tim Tebow being in the league and is one of the biggest figures to come to the South Atlantic League since at least Bryce Harper played with Hagerstown. First of all, what was your reaction and what was your team’s reaction would you found out you were going to have Tebow on the roster this year?
Leger: To me, as a manager, it’s a challenge, because we’re speaking of an athlete that has had some success in a different sport and now coming to playing baseball, and being a little new to him, due to the fact that he was away from the game for such a long time.
So, I say a challenge because it’s my job to try and get him better and try to get him to the next level. I know that just as it is a challenge for us to get all the players better. For me with him it was going to be, okay, I’ve got to get him better, but I’ve also got to make sure that he knows the little things about the game that he probably hasn’t gone through in the past couple of years: game situations, base running, how to approach different leads, his rhythm at the plate, his throwing, the everyday grind and opposed to when you’re in football you play once or twice a week. I knew it was going to be a challenge.
The reaction of the fans and the city and the other players has been great. I know the other players get a lot out of him due to a guy having such a good career in a sport like football and being a leader in another sport, and bringing that leadership with him, and for them to see his work habits. Guys can see that and were looking forward to this. The city was actually looking forward to seeing him playing baseball. The excitement we had this past week has been awesome. It’s been a great experience.
He’s had a career where he’s had pressure – a big time SEC quarterback at Florida, winning the Heisman Trophy, going into the NFL. Is there a different kind of pressure for him coming into this at 29 and playing a different sport, or is he – in the time you’ve been around him – been impervious to that?
Leger: I don’t think there’s pressure at all. He’s enjoying what he’s doing. He’s taking it day by day. He’s working very hard and he’s already seeing progress and we are seeing progress. So, it’s going to be a journey and he’s enjoying it. He’s going day by day to see what happens. He’s trying to control the things within his control, within his reach.
I think he’s not worried about it. There’s no pressure at all. He’s done a lot already, showing that he can hit a little bit – he’s hit two home runs in this past series. He’s getting better defensively and I think the sky’s the limit on him getting the best out of his ability.
Is he in a situation where he can help your guys with pressure – with the pressure of playing in a full 140-game season? For a lot of these guys, it’s their first full season and the bus rides and all that comes with that. Do you see him having a role in dealing with that pressure?
Leger: Yes, he could be “that guy” that the guys look up to, just because he’s leads by example and the things he does. Right now, as we speak, he’s in the cage hitting with our hitting coach. He was here early shagging balls on the field while three other players were getting extra work. So that tells me, he didn’t need to be there, but he wanted to be out there catching extra fly balls. And now he’s taking extra swings in the cage.
Yeah, he knows he’s got some catching up to do, but he’s doing his best and the guys see this. So, the guys see that this guy is working hard and say, “Who am I not to work hard?” So, he leads by example and he always says the right things to the guys. Every now and then when he talks to the guys, you don’t even notice it, but he’s getting everybody’s ear on how to go about their business and how to be a professional.
A lot of guys, this is their first 140-game season and they’re getting on that bus ride to Lakewood, N.J. and Delmarva (Md.) and all of those places that you guys have to go this year. Is he more prepared for that sort of grind than maybe the average 19 or 20-year old that’s starting out in a full season?
Leger: What can I say, I don’t know. We shall see how he’s going to respond to that. I know the guys see his body and his built – he’s very strong. So, I don’t think there’s a concern about his body holding up and being able to go through the bus rides and then wake up the next day and go and /play baseball. It is a challenge for everybody. It’s hard for me as a manager and I don’t play.
I know it’s going to be a little tough for some of these young kids as well, and the travel and all that. It’s a game of adjustments and we’re going to be ready for that. I know that Tim’s got to go through the travels and it’s some of the grind that you’ve got to go through when you’re in the minor leagues.
What’s the biggest thing at this point that Tebow will have to go through? You mentioned it -a little bit, as far as the intricacies that he’s had to deal with, that you don’t deal with as a high school player. Give me some examples of what he’ll have to pick up at this level.
Leger: I think his base running and getting more reps in the outfield. If you think about when he played in high school, it was aluminum bats and the ball coming off the bat and it’s a different read, because you kind of go off the sound. The same thing you do in baseball with wooden bat and I think he’s still getting used to it.
I think the more reps he gets in the outfield and base running and knowing when to run and when not to run, and all this. The more he plays at this level, the better he’s going to feel. The more reps he gets, the better he’s going to get.
The guy is smart and he gets it. He knows that it’s a matter of paying attention and just going through it and doing drills and all that. Hopefully, at the end, he understands, “this is how I’ve got to run the bases. This is what I need to do defensively.” Once he puts it all together, I think it’s just going to be going to the next level and start doing the same thing.
One of the things that kills a lot of people at this level is they can hit fastballs, but then struggle once they face pitchers that can spin the baseball a little bit. How has he adjusting to that, so far?
Leger: He’s done well. He’s seeing the breaking ball. He’s taken some good breaking balls in the dirt for balls and he hasn’t swung. His strike-zone vision has been actually pretty good. I think it’s, like I said, just a matter of repetition for him.
For all the guys, you and the Mets have goals where you’d like to see this player at A, B and C at the end of the year. What are the goals for Tebow by the time he’s going home from wherever in September?
Leger: We don’t have like stats or numbers set for him in order to move to the next level. We’re kind of paying attention to the little details like, talking the proper path in the outfield, knowing where to throw the ball in different situations – when to throw to second or when to throw to the plate to keep the double play in order – running the bases, all these little details. Once you see that, okay, he can go up. You check boxes. Okay, so, he’s doing this right, he’s doing this right.
On top of that, his at bats, the consistency of his at bats at the plate. The more consistency we see with the strike zone, the better chance he has. Once he accomplishes all that, I think they’re going to move him to the next level. I don’t know if it’s sooner or later. He might be here with me the whole time or he might be gone the next month. It’s not my call. My job is to try to get him better. But, I think that’s what they’re looking at. They’re looking at him getting better in those areas and hopefully getting him promoted soon.
There has been football players that have come in – guys that were good two-sport athletes that decided to play baseball and not football coming out of high school – and they struggled with putting the athletic ability to baseball ability. What’s the thing Tebow will have to figure out as far as putting that baseball ability with the athleticism?
Leger: I’ve had players like this. Last year, I had a player Ivan Wilson, who was good at football and baseball. You see him practice and he was impressive, but he never translated to the game and he decided to retire. I had another player in Bradley Marquez for two years at Kingsport (Tenn.) and it was the same thing. Sometimes, the ability doesn’t translate to the sport, but you’ll never find out until you throw him into the fire to see what he’s got. So far, he’s proven that he can play. I think that time is going to dictate that.