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      Let's Take Tim Tebow At His Word
      Photo by Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
      September 19, 2016

      Let's Take Tim Tebow At His Word

      On Monday afternoon, the Mets' team-owned cable network broadcast put Tim Tebow on television. During his press conference, he grinned and and testified and even bubbled up into a full giggle—such as when asked if he felt like a kid when he put on the jersey, and after he shouted out Jacksonville and Duval County. Sometimes, the press conference cut to splitscreen. On the left, Tebow shouting out Jacksonville. On the right, a loop of footage from his first instructional league workout with the Mets at the team's spring training facility in Florida. In that window, Tebow circled up with the other players the team had sent to Port St. Lucie, most of whom were identifiable as the team's 2016 draft picks. He drilled baserunning basics and took a few batting practice swings; the camera made a jittery pan to the outfield to show a couple of his high-trajectory shots thudding to earth a few feet shy of the fence. Tebow also flashed the implausible throwing form that made his brief, blaringly over-parsed, and mostly hilarious career as a NFL quarterback so miraculous.

      When people were much looser about using that word about Tebow, the way he threw was what made it stick. It wasn't just that Tebow won some games as a quarterback despite his obvious deficiency in almost every NFL-grade quarterbacking skill, although that was a big part of it. It was that, despite the fact that he looked like a middle school kid's drawing of A Great Big Professional Football Player, Tebow's body was transparently and almost poignantly at cross purposes with itself every time he tried to throw the ball. His mechanics were those of a man trying to pat his head and rub his stomach at the same time, or stuck in an invisible hailstorm, or being circled by a pissed-off wasp.

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      With every coach's attempt to iron those mechanics out such that they resembled those of not every but any other NFL passer, they got even weirder. By the time Tebow was in camp with the New England Patriots in 2013, he was somehow crouching and ducking as part of his throwing motion, even when under no more duress than a July drizzle. At any point during the years when he was falling out of the league, Tebow could have given in and put his other talents to work at another position; teams offered, and were he to announce that he is finally ready to embrace his destiny as an H-back it's not unreasonable to think that some NFL team might take a shot. He's still just 29, after all. That's a little old to start a baseball career, as many people have pointed out since Tebow signed with the Mets in early September, but it still seems kind of young to be retired.

      But there in the split screen on Monday, Tebow said that if the New England Patriots called—which, Tebow had to clarify for the reporter asking the question, they had not—he would tell them that he was in Port Saint Lucie with his "Mets family," and that he would stay there. Except for the Saturdays when Tebow will be fulfilling his obligations as a part of the game day crew on the SEC Network, he plays baseball now. This is new enough that there's still some freakshow bloom on it—per SNY, 70 media credentials were issued for Monday, 400-plus people showed up to watch the workouts, and reporters who might otherwise be covering a Mets team in the middle of the National League Wild Card race or literally anything else were in the facility, and very much on the case, such as the case could be said to exist.

      In all of this—the bemused/breathless live-tweeting of a stupendously tedious day of non-baseball, the presence of gawkers and dead-ender Tebow acolytes who like him, as one woman told the Wall Street Journal's Jared Diamond, "because he knows when to kneel"—you can see the late-arriving apotheosis of the whole weird Tebow Thing that was so inescapable back in 2011. What was unsustainable about the Tebow moment, beyond the bizarre aesthetic facts of his throwing motion, was how much wild rhetoric and tryhard politicizing was leveraged on his wobbly left arm and earnest Christian faith. People hunting for a specific kind of grievance to wear as their own found it in Tebow, and they spun some truly weird shit around him—that he had somehow been touched by God in a way the NFL's other objectively miraculous talents were not, that various opaque elites were first persecuting and then blackballing him because they detested his open religiosity, that the media was conspiring to conceal the truth of all this from the public. There was a lot of it, but there was also the sense that none of it was ever actually quite about him.

      There was always the sense that the conversation was going on despite Tebow, who was then as now just as earnest and pleasantly vanilla as he could be. More than that, Our National Tebow Conversation was mostly a way for variously interested parties to make the same points they otherwise and always would make, and to use this meaty, pleasant, scatter-armed jock as a shield in an old and boring battle against old enemies. There was always the sense that the Tebow Conversation could have gone on just as well—or, anyway, just as loudly—without him, and indeed it has. This idle fuming about elites and the taking on of various presumed persecutions by people privileged enough to want to feel persecuted is now just what a big portion of our political and public conversation looks like. To the extent that Tim Tebow is free of it, or ever will be, he's lucky.

      In another universe, Kyle Orton is greeted like this. Photo by Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

      If it seems unfair to reduce Tebow to such a passive role in his own very public life, there are two reasons for that. One is that it is unfair to presume that Tebow—who delivered folksy and scrupulously substance-free yes-sir, no-sir answers to the assembled media on Monday with the polish of someone who has done it for years—is not an active actor in his own life. Tebow's weird and undeniable will has shaped his career and his life, and it's safe to assume that he is not playing baseball for any reason beyond the fact that he really wants to do it. But the other reason is that the way Tebow has been used in his public life, as a partisan stalking horse and profit center and talking point and punchline, really is unfair.

      The Mets are already making money off Tebow, and they are not being subtle about trying to make as much as possible. They issued him a jersey with the same number he wore during his Heisman seasons at the University of Florida—Tebow said he didn't ask for it, that it was in his locker when he arrived—and that jersey is already one of the best sellers in the team store. A special agreement allows the team to sell Tebow jerseys even though he is not on the team's 40-man roster, and every dollar of the Tebow jerseys and t-shirts sold at the complex in Port Saint Lucie stays with the team. Because the Mets own the teams on which Tebow is likeliest to start next season—either the Florida State League team in Port St. Lucie or the South Atlantic League team in Columbia, South Carolina—they will profit off the gate receipts he brought in, as well. This is where those 400-plus fans showing up to watch a rote September workout shows most impressively. This season, the Florida State League's Lakeland Flying Tigers averaged 334 fans per game, which was an outlier that still doesn't lie quite as far from the norm as you might expect—three of the 12 teams in the league drew far fewer than a thousand fans per game on average. The Port Saint Lucie team draws fairly well by FSL standards, but it doesn't seem a big leap to guess that they'd draw better with Tebow on the roster. Mets management has scoffed at these calculations, and everyone with any familiarity with how Mets management does business has scoffed at that scoffing.

      This is not exactly a bad deal for Tebow, who is being paid $100,000 based off one janky workout and various opacities about character and potential. But it is another chapter in what has become the story of his life. That is not the story that Tebow tells about his faith and work ethic and missionary work around the world, which is a story that happens to be true, if not quite as simple as Tebow can make it sound. That story can be true, and can even be heroic, without being the full story of Tim Tebow, Commodity. Tebow has not spent all these years being bought and sold in public against his will, and has not ever been terribly shy about the scope and scale of his ambitions.

      When Tebow runs for Congress, we'll have reason to be a bit more critical about the story he tells about himself. But for the moment, we might as well believe Tebow not just when he says that he is playing baseball because he wants to play baseball, but when he delivers his bromides about doing his best and not being afraid of failure. "Do what's on your heart," he told the assembled media in response to one of several questions about why he's doing all this. "What you're passionate about. Hopefully that's why y'all are doing what y'all are doing. Because y'all love writing and sharing stories, you know? Not because you were forced to go do it." This is a familiar and flattering ballplayer deflection, and one of many ways to answer a question without answering it. But there's also always been a reason why it's so easy to take Tebow at his word—in all his years at the center of this strange maelstrom of bad faith and unfixable mechanics, his imperfect exertions have always seemed like the only honest thing.

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