By Sterling Pingree
This weekend just past, the Portland Sea Dogs welcomed in the New York Mets double-a affiliate the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. In most years, this would only be notable so as to ask: “What exactly is a Rumble Pony?” This year however, it caused me enough interest to drive two hours from Bangor down to Hadlock Field to catch Thursday’s double header because the left fielder was Tim Tebow.
Minor league baseball is all about enticements, creating reasons why the average fan who has no idea about the prospects of Josh Tobias making the big league roster, or the rehabilitation of Tyler Thornburg, would come out to the ballpark. This is an especially arduous uphill climb for our Portland Sea Dogs because of our region and the weather that April typically brings. In April this year, the Sea Dogs had to postpone most of a home stand because of snow. One of those games, Patriots corner back Stephon Gilmore was scheduled to appear and throw out the first pitch. That game was canceled but Gilmore’s a football player and he showed up anyway for the appearance. What I’m getting at is you need a draw in minor league baseball, whether it’s bobble head give aways or Star Wars nights, you need a hook.
Tim Tebow is as great of a hook as Double-A baseball could ever ask for. Tebow sandwiched a 2007 Heisman Trophy between two national championships as a Florida Gator and was drafted late in the first round by the Denver Broncos. Tebow has been a lightning rod for media attention because of his throwing motion, his outspoken Christian beliefs or his refusal to play a position other than quarterback. ESPN found a formula for most of the last decade and it’s that if you want to generate web traffic or raise people’s blood pressure, just run a story about Tim Tebow with an attention grabbing headline. Slow news day? “10 reasons Tim Tebow could take the Cleveland Browns to the Super Bowl, next on Golic and Wingo.” Lebron not playing today? “Could Tim Tebow bring Manti Te’o’s girlfriend to life? You’re listening to the Dan Le Batard show.”
For minor league baseball, Tim Tebow is manna from Heaven, he’s drawn attention nationally more than a decade and now he’s bringing it to cities like Reading, Hartford, Trenton and Portland. Thursday night at Hadlock you saw tons of Patriots gear, some Broncos and even a few Mets fans. I ran into a teacher at my old high school named Darren Allen, who was at the game with a group of 9th graders and he had spent much of the trip down explaining to his group of 14-15 year olds who Tim Tebow was. Because if you think about it, they would have been roughly 3 years old when he won his first national championship and in kindergarten when he was drafted by Denver. But even without these students from Mt. Abram Regional High School seeing Tebow play first hand, Darren had something he could sell to them. “The left fielder was a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at Florida where he won two national titles, won a playoff game against Pittsburgh, couldn’t start at QB for anybody and now he’s playing baseball.” For my generation who grew up with athletes like Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and even Brian Jordan playing two sports, this was fairly normal. I can only imagine trying to explain to a 9th grader why Tom Brady’s former back up is batting 8th for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.
The Tebow impact is so great that the Sea Dogs pro shoppe is selling Tim Tebow Rumble Ponies t-shirts. In the over 20 years that I’ve been going to games in Portland, I can never remember a time that any item from an opposing team, let alone a particular player, has been sold at Hadlock Field. Rule number one of event promotion is that you’ve got to give the people what they want, in this case what the people want to see just so happens to play for the opposing team.
Sports is about buzz and who moves the needle. Two years ago it was Andrew Benintendi and Yoan Moncada, last year it was Rafael Devers and this year it was supposed to be Michael Chavis. With Chavis popped for an 80-game suspension for steroids, it looks like the Eastern League will turn its lonely eyes to you, wherever you go, Tim Tebow.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.