KC Royals: The cases of Bubba Starling, Tim Tebow

(Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports) /

Baseball has been tough on Tim Tebow and the KC Royals’ Bubba Starling.

The athletic lives of KC Royals outfielder Bubba Starling and Tim Tebow, late of the New York Mets, are similar. Both were gifted quarterbacks: Tebow won the Heisman Trophy with Florida, while Starling, a prep star, walked away from a scholarship to call signals at Nebraska and signed with the Royals. Both have struggled to succeed in the world of professional baseball.

Now, as one leaves the game, departure may not be far away for the other.

Tebow retired from the game late Wednesday, falling short of the major leagues at 33. Starling, on the other hand, has played in The Show, albeit it with mediocre results. This year’s spring training could be his last.

Tebow’s path to professional baseball came right out of the Met blue. After a disappointing NFL career, he decided to return to the game he’d last played in high school; just why the Mets pursued and signed him in 2016 is debatable. One camp will say it was a move born of Michal Jordan’s brief stab at pro ball, a one-year stint in Double A during which he displayed raw talent dwarfed by his unparalleled basketball skills; the other will denounce the deal as a management-contrived stunt designed solely to exploit Tebow’s incredible marketability and make money for the franchise.

Whatever its origins, the Tebow experiment ultimately failed. The unlikely home run he hit in his first pro plate appearance—a first pitch blast off John Kilichowski (who, like Tebow, hasn’t made it to the majors) in a 2016 Arizona Fall League contest, and the six homers and .273/.336/.399 line he put up at Double A in an injury-interrupted 2018 campaign, are the main highlights of his unremarkable career. He finished his three-season, 1,048 plate appearance career at .223/.299/.338.

Other than 34 spring training games (the Mets invited him to camp four times), Triple A was the closest Tebow came to New York. He hit .163 in 77 games in 2019 and didn’t make the Mets’ Player Pool last season.

He announced the end on Twitter Wednesday evening:

In what “other directions” Tebow now heads remain to be seen, but continuing his broadcasting career and philanthropy are solid bets. I followed his baseball exploits more out of curiosity than deep interest, but it was clear to me he was at best a long shot to play in the majors. What impressed me, though, was his work ethic and the obvious joy he took in playing the game. He approached his improbable task just as Michael Jordan had. Tebow left with the dignity and class he came in with.

The KC Royals’ Starling is also a ballplayer who’s endured, like a pro, his share of poor play and disappointment. He offers no public excuses for the two miserable seasons he’s had at the big league level (five homers and a .204/.246/.298 line across 91 games). He shows up for work every day and plays hard.

Unlike Tebow, though, Starling was the proverbial baseball sure thing. The Royals, gambling that he’d choose them over the Huskers, made him their first pick in the 2011 draft. He didn’t homer in his first at-bat, but he hit 10 homers in 53 games and slashed .275/.371/.485 at Rookie level Burlington, the first leg of his journey to Kauffman Stadium. But injuries and performing below expectations impeded his career.

Starling was enjoying an excellent Triple A campaign, hitting .310 with a .358 OBP, when the Royals promoted him to Kansas City in 2019. He started well, then slumped to a .215 finish, and hit just .169 in 35 games last season. But there remains something in Starling the KC Royals still like—they non-tendered him in December, then not-so-surprisingly, and despite all the disappointments, re-signed him .

So Starling will be back in the KC Royals’ spring camp shortly, hoping to win a spot on the Kansas City bench. He’s out of minor league options, so workouts and Cactus League games are critical, if not determinative, to his Royal career.

Time is surely running out on Starling, much as it did on Tebow. He’s possessed of more baseball talent than Tebow; now is the time that talent must blossom and propel Starling to the heights he hasn’t reached.

Hopefully, Starling will get there. If he doesn’t, and he and the KC Royals part ways, he’ll go out just like Tebow did Wednesday. With dignity, class, and his head held high.

Next. 3 Royals who must not fail this season. dark

The careers of Bubba Starling and Tim Tebow have been disappointing. Let’s hope Starling’s eventually ends on a higher note.