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There were Crying Jordan memes all over the internet last week.
To be fair, there are probably Crying Jordan memes all over it every week, for one reason or another. But this time they fit, because Tim Tebow had just hit his fourth minor league home run.
Michael Jordan only hit three.
There’s no real reason to compare Tebow to Jordan, except that who else could you compare Tim Tebow to? There aren’t that many celebrities who interrupted the rest of their lives to ride buses around the minors.
Tebow hasn’t won any NBA titles and Jordan didn’t win any Heisman Trophies, but 23 years apart and with little more to offer than the strength of their personalities, they each filled small-town ballparks.
“Tremendous charisma,” an American League scout said after watching Tebow in the Florida State League this week. “Just like Michael. You have to be careful you don’t get carried away just with the aura.”
The crowds are big. The aura is big. The baseball talent is…well, at least Tebow seems to be improving.
“He’s actually swinging the bat a lot better,” said a National League scout who saw him earlier this season in the South Atlantic League and then again this week after his promotion to the high-A Florida State League. “And he’s playing better defense. He’s more aggressive, more confident.
“Saying that, he’s not close to being a prospect.”
Baseball isn’t easy, especially when you’ve been away from it for a decade while you pursue another sport. You can work and work, as Jordan did in 1994 and as Tebow has in 2017, but even hitting in the minor leagues can be too much of a challenge.
“Neither of them could deal with breaking balls,” said the NL scout, who saw both play in the minor leagues. “They’re a mystery to them.”
Jordan got plenty of attention in his one season playing baseball.Jim Gund/Getty Images
It’s why Jordan hit .202 in his one season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. It’s why Tebow is hitting .234 this season at his two stops in the New York Mets organization.
Jordan’s swing was too long, said scouts who saw him play. Tebow’s swing is too stiff, too mechanical.
“It’s not the swing you see with a guy who is going to hit,” the scout said.
And yet, in one way it hardly matters. The fans are drawn to Tebow, every bit as much as fans two decades ago were drawn to Jordan. They fill ballparks that are rarely full for any other game, watching the way they would watch no other player.
They cheer when Tebow gets to the on-deck circle, just as fans in 1994 did with Jordan. They cheer when he swings and misses, just as with Jordan. They cheer when he gets a hit—and when he doesn’t.
“The fanaticism is off the charts, just like it was with Jordan,” the AL scout said.
This is how it is, and this is how it was, and this is why it’s really not that bad a thing that the Mets gave Tebow a chance to chase his baseball dream. Sure, it’s more about marketing than it is about developing a player to make a major league impact, but is that necessarily wrong?
“Every time we played Birmingham with Jordan, we saw more kids at the ballpark,” said Dave Trembley, who managed the Orlando Cubs in the Southern League in 1994. “I’ve heard it’s like that with Tebow, too. They’ve really given baseball a shot in the arm as far as attracting people. That’s what Jordan did, and that’s what Tebow is doing.
“These guys do more for the game than you read in the box score. The game is indebted to them.”
Scouts who have watched Tebow rave about the way he treats the fans and his teammates. For the most part, they also come away unimpressed with his baseball skills.
“He works hard, but he’s really stiff,” one said. “The worst outfielder I’ve ever seen. He was diving for balls that fell 20 feet from where he started.”
“One ball almost hit him in the head in the outfield,” another said.
He doesn’t run well (“Takes the smallest steps when he strides,” said one scout). He doesn’t throw well (“The shortstop goes way out in the outfield to get the relay,” said another). He can hit a fastball (he homered off a 96 mph fastball, according to one scout), but even his power might be exaggerated (“I watched all of batting practice one day, and he didn’t get a ball out of the park,” the first scout said).
“You can’t believe the popularity,” the NL scout said.
Jordan was like that. He was coming off three straight NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, when he suddenly announced he needed a break and wanted to try baseball. The Chicago White Sox gave him a chance, and they played him in spring training games and an exhibition game at Wrigley Field before sending him to Birmingham.
He played in 127 games that season with the Barons, at age 31. The next spring, during the strike, he gave up baseball and announced his return to the NBA (where he played six more seasons and won three more titles).
He had 17 doubles in 1994 and 30 stolen bases. And those three home runs.
Tebow hit his fifth home run Wednesday night, in his 73rd game. Last week, when he hit his fourth, the Twitter account @CryingJordan took note:
In other parts of the game, scouts who saw both play say Jordan was easily better. He was a better runner and a better outfielder. And he was such a good athlete that some believe he would have succeeded if he’d gone to baseball earlier.
“Michael was fluid, agile, one of the best athletes of all time,” the AL scout said. “Tebow, on the other hand, is stiff. It’s not fluid. I think if Michael had tried to do it earlier, he could have been a big leaguer. Michael was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Tebow was not one of the greatest football players.”
Tebow isn’t the athlete Jordan was, but he does have the drive of a player who reached the top level of the sport he first pursued.
“The one thing you can’t put a number on is determination,” said another National League scout who saw both Jordan and Tebow. “Don’t count him out. If Michael had kept playing, I wouldn’t have counted him out, either.”
Jordan didn’t keep playing. He was 31 the year he played baseball, but he still had basketball to go back to. Tebow is 29 now, but it’s pretty clear he has put his football career behind him.
He’s a baseball player now. It seems he’s getting better.
And for whatever it’s worth, he has more career home runs as a pro than Michael Jordan did.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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