Tim Tebow brings rare level of excitement to series in Kissimmee

KISSIMMEE — About 100 fans jostled for position like paparazzi as the minor-league baseball player with star power departed the bus.

After the game, the crowd seeking a brush with celebrity more than doubled.

“We brought a pickup truck on the concourse, got him in the pickup truck and drove him to meet the bus,’’ said Joe Harrington, recalling a scene from his days working for a minor-league team in New Jersey.

Bryce Harper was a big deal, and Harrington had not seen a player attract so much attention from fans since then.

Until Tim Tebow.

Harrington is now the president of the Florida Fire Frogs, who will host the St. Lucie Mets and the former Heisman Trophy winner from UF in a four-game series. The first pitch of the opener, weather permitting, is set for 7:05 Friday night at Osceola County Stadium.

It will be Central Florida’s only up-close look at Tebow, 29, as a baseball player this season.

“I really admired what he accomplished at Florida as a quarterback, and I’m a little bit apprehensive of him as a baseball player,’’ Fire Frogs fan Brett Barnhardt said. “But he represents so many things that are the right way to do things as a human being, so I’m all for him giving this a try.’’

A return to his home state has benefited Tebow’s hitting.

Most of the left fielder’s offensive numbers have improved since he was promoted from the Mets’ affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina, to St. Lucie on June 25. He is batting .320 with three home runs — including a walk-off blast — and 14 RBIs in 23 games with St. Lucie and has struck out much less.

Florida State League President Ken Carson has seen Tebow play twice.

“Even if he strikes out, everyone cheers him,’’ Carson said. “They’ve got their cameras out, taking video and taking photos. I’m talking everybody.

“My wife and I were sitting with some of the Mets’ staff [in St. Lucie]. They were like little kids. He hit a home run, and they were jumping up, high-fiving each other. He’s got some excitement all over. I’m happy he’s here.’’

If you go: Tim Tebow plays in Kissimmee

So are the ticket counters.

The Fire Frogs should surpass their largest announced attendance this season — 3,283 for their first home game in franchise history on April 6 against the Daytona Tortugas — for each game that Tebow is in town.

Even words such as “standing room only’’ have been uttered. For a team averaging roughly 800 fans per home date in a stadium that seats about 5,300, any shot of enthusiasm is appreciated.

“We are going to see some people who may not have been out to the ballpark yet, and we are going to be able to capture them,’’ Harrington said.

St. Lucie general manager Traer Van Allen said having Tebow (6-3, 255) around has been fun.

“It’s tough for me to comment on his abilities, but it goes without saying that the guy is an athlete,’’ Van Allen said. “You can see it from a fan’s perspective watching our games that he is an imposing figure, compared to a lot of other players on the field.’’

While Tebow’s baseball skills are debatable, the interest surrounding him is not.

Barnhardt, a community manager for a bank, experienced the Tebow effect after it booked a suite for Monday night’s game.

“I’ve had employees from all over the state – because our footprint runs from Jacksonville down to the Florida Keys – call me who are Gator fans that want to come to watch,’’ Barnhardt said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had any availability because they went so fast.’’

John Newstreet, CEO of the Kissimmee-Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, attends Fire Frogs games regularly. As a UCF graduate, he said he is not a UF fan.

“I’m a fan of good guys, though, and Tim Tebow is a good guy,’’ Newstreet said.

Harrington will experience Tebow’s popularity firsthand this week.

He might want to have a pickup truck ready.

Pictures: Tim Tebow in the minors

sruiz@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5008

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