Tim Tebow and the Lost Art of Barnstorming
I promised myself I wouldn’t do this.
I told myself weeks ago that I wouldn’t write a word about Tim Tebow. I thought every possible angle was totally covered. (Unlike the wide-open receivers that Tebow regularly over- or under throws. Zing! I’ll stop.) But golly-gee willikers (something I can picture Tebow saying), I’ve got thoughts about the Boy Wonder.
Here’s what I’m not going to write about. I won’t tell you about Tebow’s religious beliefs. I won’t rehash his pro-life Super Bowl commercial. I won’t talk about his longevity as an NFL quarterback.
What I will talk about is Satchel Paige and the lost art of barnstorming.
In sports, there was once a time when the sideshows were embraced. Hell, the sideshows often made more money than the main attraction. Satchel Paige was one such sideshow. Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, was an African-American athlete at the dawn of integration. His career is one of the most tragic of all time. By all accounts, he was the most dominant athlete to ever play in the Negro Leagues. His stuff was unhittable. He was a pitching savant, untaught and untrained, who invented scores of his own throwing styles.
He spent his life playing for whoever would pay him the most, from teams in North Dakota to Cuba to Kansas City to Puerto Rico. We don’t know how old he was, how many games he won in his life (he estimated over 1,000) and worst of all, we’ll never know how good he could’ve been playing against his true peers in the major leagues. (He eventually did make it to the bigs, but he was in his 40s by then and far past his prime.)
But he knew the art of barnstorming. Paige was a straight-up strikeout mercenary. He was as cynical and sharp of a businessman as there ever was in professional sports. But at that time, barnstorming wasn’t just for fringe athletes trying to eke out a living.
In the early 1950s, the New York Yankees travelled up and down the West Coast, playing semi-pro teams and even some colleges, trying to drum up interest in professional baseball on the other side of the Mississippi. (This was only a few years before the West Coast would claim New York’s other two teams, the Giants and Dodgers, for their own.) By today’s standards, it would’ve looked ridiculous: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra teeing off on some poor 19-year-old pitcher at USC. But it was the standard then. Sports was business, and it was also entertainment. It was more vaudeville and showmanship than serious and sanctimonious.
Somewhere along the way, that changed. TV contracts, slick agents, big endorsements and 24/7 media coverage turned sports from a form of entertainment into something approaching a religion. With this, barnstorming died. If the Yankees went and played a pick-up game at UCLA today, all of the college players would be banned for life, the Yankees would be suspended, every party involved would be sued by somebody and it would get its own news-ticker tag on ESPN.
Buy why? Why does sports have to be so stone-faced and deadly serious all the time? It’s freaking sports. It’s entertainment first and foremost, or at least it should be. And this brings me back to Mr. Timothy Tebow.
What the Denver organization is doing is unprecedented. By starting Tim Tebow, they’re essentially admitting that they’re a novelty. They are a sideshow. They are barnstormers. They are the Harlem Globetrotters of the NFL. And I’ve loved every second of it.
Tim Tebow is wildly charismatic and has a massive following. He also isn’t very good at playing quarterback. Denver knew both of these things when they drafted him, but they did it anyway. Why? Because sports is a business. Tim Tebow is going to put asses in seats at Mile High Stadium and number #15 jerseys on the backs of every Christian lad and lass in the land. Who cares if he’s good? We’ve been talking about Denver for weeks now, haven’t we? Kyle fucking Orton doesn’t exactly cause that kind of publicity firestorm, does he? If the Denver Broncos are on TV, I’m watching. I don’t know if it can last forever, but right now they’re a gimmicky travelling carnival, ripping off last-second win after last-second win. It’s riveting.
A couple days ago, John Fox said that his team would be screwed if they tried to run a conventional offense around Tim Tebow. Steve Young exploded on SportsCenter, saying that Fox is conceding defeat and accepting that his team is a “sideshow.” I don’t think that Fox is conceding defeat. I think he’s embracing the past, a past that was infinitely more fun and entertaining than watching Tom Brady go 20-25 and throw for 300 yards for the umpteenth time.
Sports has a place for the freaks, the novelties, the offbeat, the sideshows and the showmen. It’s entertainment, after all, and it’s business too. Satchel Paige knew it. The Harlem Globetrotters know it. Tim Tebow is it.