LAKEWOOD, N.J. - Version 10.0 of Tebowmania - the one in which a 29-year-old man with no chance of reaching the big leagues swipes valuable at-bats from much younger, legitimate big-league prospects - was on display Monday night at FirstEnergy Park.
For some reason, Tim Tebow still draws a crowd. The ballpark was packed for Lakewood's doubleheader against the former NFL quarterback's Columbia Fireflies. Tebow went hitless in three at-bats and struck out twice as his average dipped to .236 in his first professional season of baseball. And still the people wanted to see more, chanting "We want Tebow" as he sat out the second game.
The biggest shame of all is that the large contingent of Mets fans - Columbia is the team's low-A South Atlantic League affiliate - did not even realize that an even better New York story continued to unfold right in front of their eyes. That would be the incredible journey of Long Island native Nick Fanti, a 20-year-old lefty the Phillies selected out of Hauppage High School in the 31st round of the 2015 draft.
High school kids drafted in the 31st round typically end up going to college, but Alex Agostino, the Phillies' New York-area scout, knew Fanti wanted to play professional baseball and would be willing to sign for the right amount. He also knew that not a lot of other teams had much interest in the Long Island lefty whose fastball sat between 85 and 88 mph his senior season.
Agostino admitted that it was somewhat of an accident that he fell in love with Fanti. He had been at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to watch a high school pitcher from Florida when Fanti made a three-inning appearance.
"It was a cold, horrendous day," Agostino said. "Nick comes on the mound throwing 85 to 87, and he just really competes against some high-level kids from Florida. He could throw three pitches for strikes, and he could spin a curveball. We stayed on him hard the rest of the high school season."
Fanti, who had committed to pitch at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., remained worth watching. He threw two no-hitters his senior season but still did not garner a lot of attention from scouts. He knew, however, that the Phillies would draft him. When they offered him a $100,000 bonus and college tuition, he could not wait to sign.
"Obviously it has been a good decision so far," Fanti said.
It has been better than good. After nine impressive appearances, including eight in relief, with the Phillies' Gulf Coast League team in 2015, he returned to that Clearwater-based team last season. In his second season, he went 7-0 with a 1.57 ERA in 11 appearances (nine starts) and struck out 65 hitters in 512/3 innings.
Brian Sweeney, the pitching coach at Lakewood this season, was also Fanti's pitching coach in his first season with the GCL Phillies. The two reconnected again during the Phillies' instructional league season last October in Clearwater. Sweeney, who had pitched for Team Italy in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, told Fanti that in four years he might be experienced enough to pitch in the international tournament.
Fast-forward to a Long Island mall a few days before Christmas. Fanti is in the hat store Lids with a friend who is curious about the green baseball cap with the red brim that has an M on the front. Fanti explains that it's a Team Mexico hat for the WBC.
Twenty minutes later, Fanti and his friend are on their way home when the phone in his car rings. He can see from the caller ID that it is Sweeney calling.
"I spoke to the manager of Team Italy . . . and I told him about you," Sweeney told Fanti. "He checked your numbers, saw a video, and he likes you. Remember how I told you to have your stuff together in four years? Can you do it in three months?"
"Absolutely," Fanti told Sweeney.
Fanti spent the first part of spring training pitching against big-league teams in Arizona for Team Italy before going to Jalisco, Mexico, for the World Baseball Classic. He pitched one scoreless inning against WBC finalist Puerto Rico, allowing a couple of hits and striking out a batter.
Afterward, he had a conversation with Sweeney.
"I told him, 'You just faced the best hitters in the world,' " Sweeney said. "I said, 'How do you think these guys will compare to the guys you might face in Lakewood?' He said, 'It might be a little bit easier.' I always remind him of what we talked about the first year I had him. I asked him, 'How did you get guys out in high school?' He said by throwing strikes. I said, 'Do that. It gets people out here, too.' "
So far it has. He has followed up his 7-0 season last year by going 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA through six starts this season. In his previous start before Monday, he threw 82/3 no-hit innings on the road against Columbia before coming out after 113 pitches. He struck out Tebow twice.
"That one was special to me," Fanti said. "It didn't matter that I didn't finish the game. That was just a great experience."
Reliever Trevor Bettencourt finished off the no-hitter in Columbia, S.C., but Fanti had a chance to sort of complete his no-hitter by facing the Fireflies again Monday. He struck out the first batter he faced but threw a wild pitch on strike three, which allowed the runner to reach base. He retired the next hitter before giving up an RBI single. It was the only run he allowed in five innings.
"He hasn't hit his peak yet, and there could be more velocity as he gets stronger," Sweeney said. "But he already comes with something natural, and that's a deceptive fastball with a really good delivery. He also has a really high baseball IQ. You tell him something once, and he does it."
Who needs Tebowmania when you have Nick Fanti turning his own baseball fantasies into reality?