COLUMBIA — The biggest novelty in minor league baseball is coming to South Carolina.
Former Heisman Trophy winner and failed NFL quarterback Tim Tebow will play baseball for the Columbia Fireflies, the team announced Monday.
The New York Mets have assigned the quarterback-turned-outfielder to the Class A club, which is set to begin its second season at Spirit Communications Park on April 6. Tebow currently is still working with the Mets in spring training in Florida.
There had been speculation since the Mets signed Tebow last fall that the former college football national champion might end up playing baseball in South Carolina's Capital City.
"For us, this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," Fireflies owner Jason Freier told The Post and Courier's Columbia sister paper, Free Times. "I think the thing you can most compare it to is when Michael Jordan decided to take a little hiatus from basketball and try his hand at being a professional baseball player."
Benjamin Hill, who covers the culture and business of minor league baseball for milb.com, said Tebow's baseball journey to Columbia is reminiscent of Jordan's 1994 season with the Class AA Birmingham Barons, an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Jordan hit a meager .202 that season, though he did steal 30 bases and brought massive crowds out to the ballparks of the Southern League.
"That's something people talk about decades later and still tell stories and have oral histories of that season published two decades after the fact," Hill said of Jordan's pro baseball season. "So, I think (Tebow's time in Columbia) is going to have a real long-term effect in remembering the name 'Columbia Fireflies' and having it be in popular culture.
"This is going to be a level of exposure that no minor league team has access to, outside of really once-in-a-lifetime events, like the movie "Bull Durham" elevating the Durham Bulls."
Tebow's scheduled arrival will undoubtedly give the Fireflies a box office boost. The team was a good-but-not-great sixth in attendance in the 14-team South Atlantic League in 2016, drawing about 261,000 fans.
"It's huge for the Fireflies, but it's also huge for the league," Hill said. "Now every team that's playing in the South Atlantic League is looking at their schedule and realizing that they have (home) games against the Fireflies that are basically guaranteed sellouts. (Attendance) is going to increase tremendously around the league every single place he shows up."
The Fireflies play in the same league as the Charleston RiverDogs and Greenville Drive. The Fireflies and RiverDogs are scheduled to play 20 times this season, 10 of those games set for Charleston. The Fireflies' first appearance at Riley Park is a three-game series June 16-18.
RiverDogs President and General Manager Dave Echols said he hopes Tebow stays on Columbia's roster long enough to make an appearance in Charleston.
“From my perspective, my job is to put butts in seats,” Echols said Monday. “That makes Tebow a win-win for Charleston and for South Carolina.”
Nothing is set in stone, but Echols said he could envision promotions on the horizon as Tebow, whose popularity is due in part to his strong Christian faith, draws closer to a possible trip to the Holy City.
“We’ll take it in stride as we go along,” Echols said. “He’s such a popular and successful athlete with an incredible story. And there’s Tebow lovers and haters, the RiverDogs are Yankees and the Fireflies are Mets ... There’s just so many storylines to follow.”
Tebow is expected to wear No. 15 for the Fireflies, the same number he wore when he was a Heisman Trophy-winning football player at the University of Florida. Many University of South Carolina fans are likely still having nightmares about Tebow's football exploits against the Gamecocks. In four victories over USC from 2006-09, Tebow threw for 676 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 214 yards and another eight scores.
The former Florida Gator — who has been, at times, polarizing because of his deep Christian faith — didn't fare as well in the NFL. In three seasons with the Denver Broncos and New York Jets from 2010-12, he passed for 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions and completed just 48 percent of his passes. He went to preseason camp with the New England Patriots in 2013 and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, but both teams cut him in the preseason.
While Tebow struggled in baseball's Arizona Fall League last fall — he hit .194 — and has had a couple of rough outings for the Mets in spring training, Freier says the 29-year-old former football player is committed to making a run at a career in baseball.
"I've spoken to Sandy Alderson, the (general manager) of the Mets and he was very clear ... that Tim Tebow is entirely serious about this," Freier said. "Starting as late in his career as he is, obviously it's more of an uphill battle than if he were 20 or 21. But, he would not be doing this if he were not serious about trying to become a big league baseball player. Someone with the athletic gifts that he has and the personal drive that he has, you can never count somebody like that out."
Derrek Asberry of The Post and Courier contributed to this story.