In 1951 Bill Veeck, the madman-genius owner of the St. Louis Browns, hired the 3’7” Eddie Gaedel to bat. To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Falstaff Brewery, the major sponsor of the St. Louis Browns, Veeck paid Gaedel the going to rate for a “midget” (as Veeck refers to him) and a pro-rated MLB contract. In his grandiose, highly exaggerated, and wildly entertaining autobiography, Veeck–as in Wreck, Veeck recounts showing Gaedel how to properly crouch so that his strike zone was, as Veeck measured it, an inch and a half. But in their top secret practice sessions, Gaedel came out of his exaggerated crouch repeatedly, wanting so desperately to swing the bat. Veeck recalls telling Gaedel that a man with a rifle would be positioned on the roof of Sportsman’s Park, ordered to kill poor Eddie should he come out of his crouch. When called upon, though, Gaedel played it straight and upon his four-pitch walk was promptly substituted for a pinch-runner, bringing an end to his one at-bat major league career. In the aftermath of his publicity stunt, Veeck gloats as the high priests of baseball sanctimoniously rip him to shreds for his gimmickry and vulgarity: “It’s fine to be appreciated for a day, I highly recommend it for the soul. It’s better for the box office, though, to be attacked for a full week.”
Perhaps no sport evinces the conflict between soul and box office quite like baseball. The soul is the central to the mythology of baseball, evident in the speeches and writings of all those who wax poetic about the crack of the bat, the cool of the grass. Baseball takes its soul very seriously and touts its powers of healing sizeable rifts, be they political or generational, by championing events like Jackie Robinson Day wherein the first African-American player is celebrated every year on April 15, and current and past players are asked to consider race and the courage of Robinson. Baseball’s soul lends itself to mellifluous rhapsodizing about it’s soul. To hear Terence Mann describe baseball in Field of Dreams (in James Earl Jones’ stately baritone, no less) is to believe in the “magic waters” of the game, capable of restoring our innocence. Baseball writing, too, is given to praise baseball’s mystical power. In “What Baseball Does to the Soul” Colum McCann reflects: “I never meant to fall in love with baseball, but I did. I learned to realize that it does what all good sports should do: it creates the possibility of joy.”
But baseball also has another side to it, an absurd and materialistic side that exists adjacent to the metaphysical side. So you can attend the game with your dad and feel that all is right with masculinity, or you can leave dad behind and attend “Star Wars Night” with your friends and dress up like Han Solo or a Stormtrooper and receive a Chewbacca Beer Koozie with paid admission. In the minor leagues, the Veeckian spit lives on most clearly in the sheer volume and ridiculousness of the promotions. Veeck, who once gave away a barrel of lobsters and chocolate covered butterflies, would see his handiwork all over the minor leagues where, to name but a few of the hundreds of ridiculous promotions featured throughout the minor circuit, the Harrisonburg Senators had an alpaca race on the baseball diamond, and the Stockton Ports celebrated Asparagus Night with asparagus-themed ballpark food and asparagus-themed uniforms.
Most times, it’s easy to distinguish between the promotions that draw people in and the actual product on the field so that we never really have to reconcile the crass materialism and absurdism of the promotions with the soul-cleansing power of the game between the foul lines. Jackie Robinson Day, for instance, is not accompanied by a Jackie Robinson bobblehead giveaway.
But then along comes Timothy Richard Tebow to throw our healthy compartmentalizing all out of whack–a figure, Gaedelian in spirit (if a few feet taller)–who brings the soul and the box office into conflict with one another. Tebow, erstwhile NFL quarterback, plays outfield for the low Single-A affiliate of the New York Mets, the Columbus (SC) Fireflies. Tebow, of course, won the 2007 Heisman Trophy and quarterbacked the Florida Gators to two college football National Championships. But after his dream of playing quarterback in the NFL busted, rather than accept his lowly fate as a commentator for ESPN’s SEC Network, Tim instead conjured a new dream–the dream of playing professional baseball. After all, for Tim, “dreams” are special things: “Dreams are based on something that’s in your heart that are passions, that are something that you want to go try” [all of it sic]. You would think from his own rhetoric that Tim is exactly what baseball needs, what we all need, a player who can heal our souls and draw us to the sport by the sheer force of his charisma and absence of irony.
And in these fractured and fracturing times, following Tebow’s “dreams” are things that our culture gets to do together, and perhaps no baseball player who finds himself four removes from the majors (Major Leagues, Triple A, Double A, High-A, and Low-A, where Time currently plays) has captivated national attention quite like Tebow. “Tebow homers again for Class A affiliate,” reads ESPN’s front page headline alongside news of Sergio Garcia’s Master’s victory and Russell Westbrook’s record 42nd triple-double. (Included in the news story: Tim caught three fly balls.) ESPN also interrupts its omnipresent NFL Draft coverage to let us know that Tebow had a 3-4 game (with a triple!) and is now hitting a robust (?) .246.
But of course the dream of following Tim without irony is not a proposition writers can just enjoy because his career seems so much like a publicity stunt. So in a news article that tells us “Tim Tebow’s Bat Has Baseball Fans Paying Attention, ” Blake Schuster of the Big League Stew blog at Yahoo! Sports can’t help but offer a critique of his own participation in the Tebow media frenzy: “Look, you know the drill by now: Tim Tebow does something, everyone gets notified and it runs through the sports media cycle for the next 24 hours or so.”
But irony isn’t strong enough to save the soul of baseball from a troublesome publicity stunt, and the high priests of baseball do not react kindly when a publicity stunt tries to pass himself off as a major league prospect. All the Star Wars Nights might be good for the game, but once that publicity stunt makes its way onto the field of play the moral hand-wringing begins. According to ESPN analyst and former MLB scout, Keith Law, Tim Tebow’s baseball career is nothing short of a joke. When Tebow garnered an invitation to play in the Arizona Fall League, Law opined, “His presence here is a farce, and he looks like an imposter pretending to have talent he does not possess.” John Harper writes in the New York Daily News that the Mets should be “embarrassed” to employ Tebow, and wonders if Tebow is using the Mets to “further his brand” before noting that a “sideshow is a sideshow.” Dieter Kurtenbach at Fox Sports asserts that this isn’t just embarrassing to the Mets and to Tebow, but to Major League Baseball itself, asking “How far has the national pasttime fallen?”
For his part, Tebow hits all right notes when asked about this his “dream” and denies that this is a publicity stunt with all the sincerity, humility, and patriotism that one can muster to talk about baseball. In his heart, Tebow believes he’s “entitled” to chase his dream:
I’m so thankful to live in a country where that is the case […] Are you going to let the fear of failure or not making it get in the way of that? For me, failure is not going after it and letting the chips fall where they may. I want to be someone who goes all out and pursues what I love.
If Tebow is a box office draw, his own integrity will make it so that his soul is not cheapened.
Wide-eyed optimist though he may be, it’s debatable whether Tebow is as innocent as he seems. After all, he seems more than happy to appear on ESPN and talk with Bleacher Report about how his career isn’t a publicity stunt even as it garners more publicity. From his storied high school career to his career at Florida to his short but eventful NFL career to his latest professional endeavor, Tebow has always been able to find his way into the media spotlight. There were the Bible verses written on eye black (which were then banned, aka the Tim Tebow Rule), the Super Bowl anti-abortion commercial he did with his mom, the short-lived fad of Tebowing. It’s fair to wonder if Tebow likes sports because they allow him to live out his “dreams” or if Tebow likes sports because they put him in the center of the culture, which is his actual dream. That is, Tim Tebow may be a media whore.
This may all be very calculated maneuvering on Tebow’s part–not just in terms of his brand but also in terms of his soul. After all, a person who writes Bible verses on his eye-black is no doubt familiar with the New Testament and with Jesus’ interactions with “sinful women.” On several occasions, Jesus visits someone’s home, usually a pharisee or wealthy landowner, with whores on the premises (sometimes they even wash his feet with their tears) and he forgives their sins. As admittedly questionable as my theological interpretation is, such parables may be the key to understanding Tim Tebow’s minor league career. It’s possible that Tebow has realized what we all tend to forget when we call this a publicity stunt or an exercise in personal branding: many of us love whores, but no one loved whores more than Jesus.