The wind was whipping around the U.S. Post Office in Binghamton, New York, when a voice blew at me from a concrete bench. It was a hobo lady. “What time is the game?” she asked. “3:05,” I said, marching forward on Henry St. toward NYSEG Stadium. It was 2:14 p.m. She was the type of hobo lady from the old television series The Twilight Zone. Suddenly in your face, overacting ever so slightly. I was almost expecting this hobo lady because Binghamton is the hometown of The Twilight Zone creator and host Rod Serling.
This particular Twilight Zone episode would be titled “A Golden Sombrero for Tebow” and Serling’s trademark intro, usually done on camera with a lit cigarette in the foreground of the opening scene, would go something like this:
“Submitted for your approval: a former college football star gives up his fame and pigskin career in an attempt to play professional baseball. Not only was he a rare talent as a quarterback, he was a rare young athlete who valued the spiritual life in an era of idolatry and greed. But his dream of baseball success appeared to be dying in the arms of an icy April in a tough city in the southern tier of New York state. It was there in a ballpark an aging, underground sportswriter desperate to write a website story found Tebow engaged in a Biblical struggle with… The Strike Zone.”
I continued my lonesome walk to the ballpark having checked in early at a downtown Binghamton hotel packed to the gills with regional Moose Lodge conventioneers. They rode the elevators with Busch tallboys in hand, their spouses with laminate badges dangling over plasmatic highballs in white-knuckle clutches.
Back on the streets of Binghamton, citizens were unhunching their shoulders as the sun was blasting down for the first time in weeks. The mercury was in the mid-50s as I spotted the Mad Monks bar, the only joint near the ballpark, and headed for its dark door. There’s an innate thrill that comes from boldly throwing open the door of a dive bar for the first time as a complete stranger, especially if you’re alone. Find one near a ballpark and there will always be an old guy in there who remembers. The bartender, Charlie, had one customer. “I’ve been to every game so far,” the customer said of the Class AA Binghamton Rumble Ponies (formerly the Binghamton Mets). “That’s how stupid I am.” Charlie the bartender played the role of the old guy who remembers. What does he remember?
Wally Backman managed in Binghamton and hit the Monk almost every night. “Dewars,” said Charlie. “And cigarettes.” Ex-Met Tim Teufel also managed in Binghamton. “He made me get Presidente beer. It’s from the Dominican,” Charlie said from beneath his large, new Rumble Ponies ballcap. He’s got pocket schedules galore stacked near the Slim Jims, but he’s a Yankees fan as seen by his collection of photos on the carpeted walls of his tiny bar. He deals with team ownership because his joint is just up the first base line and foul balls come screaming over the top row of the NYSEG Stadium seats and have taken out a window or two. I was immediately greeted with baseball bonhomie and took advantage of the Mad Monks “Tebow Specil” (sic) which was $2.50 cans of beer from an ice chest. “He forgot the L,” said the solo drinker as I ordered one. “It should say TeBLOW.”
Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time NCAA football champion as quarterback of the University of Florida Gators, has been a Spring Training and minor league sideshow in the New York Mets system since September of 2016. He tends to homer in his first at-bat, as he did in Columbia and Port St. Lucie, both A-ball stops on his baseball revival tour. Tebow will be 31 this August and, like Michael Jordan before him, can’t seem to hit the old-fashioned curveball. Amici Pizza, a block down from Mad Monk, had a message board inexplicably proclaiming “Free Pizza for Tebow.
I also found a craft beer restaurant, now ubiquitous in every city, serving a “Tebow Time” New England Pale Ale. Absolutely undrinkable! I wish someone would take the chemistry sets away from all these hipsters brewing beer all over New York State. Binghamton was abuzz when Tebow was first assigned to AA by the Mets. The Press & Sun-Bulletin, the Gannett daily serving Binghamton (but available in print at only one convenience store), began a “Tebow Watch” well before Opening Day.
Then the crappy weather came and the fans were frozen out, as were most ballparks on the entire upper Midwest and northeastern sectors of the U.S. Attendance was of course minimal for the first homestand. Tebow homered on his first pitch on the road and then it went downhill from there. The lefty born in the Philippines to missionary parents will be 31 this August. Most of his teammates on the Rumble Ponies squad are 24 or 25 and the media buzz and fan focus surrounding Tebow sort of makes them invisible. Reporters disregard the Bowie BaySox pitching tactics against Binghamton in lieu of a chat about the NFL draft with the employee of the SEC Network, a gig Tebow can always fall back on if his Roy Hobbs-Meets-The-Pharisees thing doesn’t work out with the Mets.
The Binghamton ballpark holds about 6000. It’s a nondescript and undersized AA facility with tomb-like cinderblock concourses underneath the stands. The generic, early-1990s feel doesn’t impede the excellent sightlines and close seat proximity to the field. I bought a single ducat online in advance from the club and it was second row off the on-deck circle. Turns out I was in the former seat of a famous season ticketholder’s dead husband, according to the story she told the people seated behind me. As she droned on the tale of woe, I shrunk down with my cheap beer and looked for Serling in the Binghamton dugout to bail me out.
Instead, I saw young players focused on beating the visiting Erie SeaWolves who answer the Detroit Tigers organizational phone when it rings. It was nice to be enjoying the first spring sun watching two classic bad-weather Eastern League cities going at it on the diamond. Just when the Deposit Middle School choir finished the National Anthem (sounding like the creepy version near the end of the opening theme of Showtime’s Homeland) the Tebow fans filled the front row.
A couple to my left had wearing a Denver Broncos Tebow orange t-shirt. To my right, two pimply collector fellows toted front pages of Sports Illustratedfeaturing Tebow and his New York Jets jersey already signed with a black Sharpie pen by Mr. Tebow himself. He wears number 15 in baseball, just as he did while toiling in the NFL.
Despite the first bright sunshine of the season, the official count was 2192 in attendance to see these two sub-.500 squads play ball. A guy named Scott in row three who works at the state hospital congratulated the collector guys and said he’s glad Tebow is in Binghamton because “he brings a lot of money into the community.” Others spoke of the meteor showers expected later that night, and then I noticed a few hives on my forearm that I tend to get when I’m surrounded by Mets fans, especially minor league Mets supporters. (Last spring, I was in Las Vegas at the Mets AAA affiliate, how does this happen?)
I’m pretty sure the scoreboard played Tebow reading the stadium alcohol policy as he jogged his way out to his position in left field in front of an enormous Coors Light billboard. The irony runs hot and cold in a yin/yang of the genteel and the violent. The “Rumble Ponies” name was chosen by fans on the team website in 2016 to honor the legacy of abundant carousels throughout the Binghamton area. But the stadium spirit crew uses “Let’s rumble!” as a fighting inspirational catchphrase every three minutes. Are you child-like stationary equine entertainment or are you the Sharks and the Jets? Make up your mind, for Christ’s sake. Which brings us to Tebow’s first at-bat. In the bottom of the second inning, wearing the jersey that just says “Rumble” across the chest, the guy who 11 years ago piled up 424 yards of offense and seven touchdowns to beat the South Carolina Gamecocks 51-31, stepped in as the number 7 hitter in the Binghamton order. He wore shiny Adidas cleats and was facing a righthander named Kyle Funkhouser. The fan commentary ran as such:
“We love you Tebow!”
“Do it for Jesus!”
(Umpire calls questionable strike on Tebow).
“Keep the faith, ump!”
Tebow swung and missed badly, striking out to end the inning, stranding his teammate Jhoan Urena on first. As Tebow walked back to the dugout, I had to add a line. A line which happens to be the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept!” I got a few laughs, and the Denver Broncos t-shirt couple got up and looked like they were going home. This could be fun.
Other than the kneeling Tebow meme that lasted for a year on the Internet (a year being three weeks in 2011), the man has played it pretty straight with the media. He still Tweets tons of scripture and has several self-help religious books on the market. His personal website is quite slick in a Fathead type of manner. The Rumble Ponies media relations types have vowed to only have Tebow press access “if he has an impact on the game” according to Press & Sun-Bulletinwriter Rob Centorani.
I moved out to the left field line standing area to keep Tebow company. Of course, there were Tebowers out there already. An older gentleman decked out in University of Florida Gators gear with a younger guy in an NYPD hoodie. Both had gloves. The orange t-shirt Denver Broncos couple had also relocated to be close to their savior. From there, the angle on the game changed and the sun beats down and you see the beauty of the cut-off men aligning with the rightfielder and his throw was crisp and actually hit the glove of said cut-off man and the symmetry of baseball remains unchanged and will always be a thing of beauty.
There was a distant Gate 4 to the ballpark out there with an industrial tower and old smokestack looming beyond the Post Office parking lot and a freight train yard. The grit seemed to please the Erie bullpen guys and their post-industrial Detroit organization élan. The side view of Tebow is a man of size and athletic ability. The dude looks like he could play well into his 40s. I looked behind me and there were lurking high schoolers with crew cuts, hanging out solo, and a pacing mental patient guy. It was like the holding pen for the extras from The Green Mile. In the foreground of the Tebow view were far too many signs on the low fence declaring “This is a tobacco-free stadium!” and now the old quarterback is Billy Sunday all of the sudden.
The Rumble Ponies took the lead 3-2 in the bottom of the fourth after a hustling triple by Jeff McNeil who then scored on a wild pitch. Urena singled again. Tebow came to the plate for the second time. I noticed a lot of ketchup-on-hot dog fans in the concourses and emerged just in time to hear a guy yell “Chris Farley died for you!” when Tebow took a strike. Two pitches later, Funkhouser struck Tebow out looking.
As he took his position in left for the fifth inning, I realized Tebow had yet to have a ball hit his way. During a between-innings fan contest on the field, one of the young college guys from the third base seats did a Tebow kneel after the Rumble Ponies employee with the microphone asked “Can I get a ‘Let’s Rumble!’ from ya?”
It didn’t look good for our hero as Erie brought in lefthander Matt Hall to limit further Binghamton damage. A kid and his dad, decked out in Hall of Fame baseball gear, had moved to the left field line. “I’ve got Tebow fever, dad,” the kid said all deadpan as Tebow stood motionless, examining a fingernail. The cruel New York Postpointed out back in February that the big club sees Tebow’s presence in the organization as somewhat of a gag. His Mets media guide entry from last year lists his “signing scout” as a guy who in reality works as a team merchandising executive.
After an underwhelming seventh inning stretch, Tebow led off the inning against the lefty Hall who dispatched him with a called third strike before fans could settle back into their seats. At this point, Tebow’s swing looked like not even the Pool of Bethesda could save it. Three at-bats, three strikeouts. “Go back to double-A!” one of the college kids yelled. As the top of the eighth unfurled, Tebow still didn’t have a fielding chance in left. Erie failed to score so the whole crowd received a voucher for a free donut at Dunkin’ Donuts.
In the bottom half of the frame, a double and hit-by-pitch meant Tebow got a fourth at bat. Hall made him look silly and struck him out swinging. A kid emerged from a birthday party somewhere under the third base stands. “Tebow got a golden sombrero!” he screamed, news delivered by his father, no doubt, as his party mates looked at him like he was a spawn of the Nephilim. For the three people who have read this far and don’t already know, a Golden Sombrero is archaic baseball vernacular for a batter striking out four times in one game. As the ninth rolled around the scoreboard in right played a muffled interview with Tebow about his Tebow Foundation. Audio could’ve been better, to say the least. Erie went down easily in the top of the ninth, the Rumble Ponies won 4-2 and in astounding fashion, Tebow didn’t have one single ball hit to him for the entire game.
Outfielder trio postgame celebrations are currently popular in the majors. The three pasture-dwellers assemble in center for elaborate high-fives or acrobatic fist-bumps. Nothing so simple or mundane in Binghamton. Tebow indeed saved the best for last. The ritual unfolds thusly: centerfielder takes the glove from rightfielder then squats as a football center. Tebow moves in for shotgun formation as the QB. Rightfielder lines up next to centerfielder who then snaps his glove to Tebow who then lobs it to the rightfielder who runs a post pattern toward second base. It was a delightful sight, commendably clever and probably the most seldom seen of all baseball celebrations, to be sure.
This subconscious gesture could also lend credence to the rumor Tebow will accept coach Steve Spurrier’s offer to come to Orlando to quarterback the first franchise in the Alliance of American Football spring league set for next year right after the Super Bowl.
At Mad Monks after the game, there were a few more patrons under the stained drop ceiling. The same fan guy from the pregame announced he was missing Sunday’s game because he has to go to a baptism.
“It’s okay,” said Charlie the bartender. “Tebow would approve.”