TAMPA — Before he was a top Mets prospect, before he was an All-SEC baseball player for Florida, before he was a star at Jesuit and Plant, Peter Alonso was just a devastated Ohio State fan.
While the St. Lucie first baseman was raised in Tampa, his parents grew up in Lancaster, Ohio, so the Buckeyes were always present in his household. The 2006 season, when Ohio State went 12-0 in the regular season and made a run to the national championship, was thrilling for Alonso.
Then Tim Tebow happened.
As a freshman backup to Chris Leak at quarterback, Tebow played a key role in the Gators' 41-14 victory in the title game. He threw a touchdown pass and rushed for 39 yards and another score.
How did Alonso react?
"I was heartbroken," Alonso says as he stands outside the Mets dugout at George M. Steinbrenner Field. He pauses to look at Tebow, his teammate with St. Lucie, who's signing autographs and, apparently, listening to what Alonso is saying.
"I was a Buckeye all the way," Alonso continues, his eyes occasionally shifting back to the dugout, "just a huge Ohio State fan."
"But I never really rooted against him," he adds. "I just hoped my team won."
A lot has changed since 2006. The Mets brought in both Alonso and Tebow in 2016 — the former in the June draft, the latter in September as a free agent trying to make it in a sport he hadn't played since high school.
Now, they're teammates in the Florida State League, trying to achieve their dream and helping each other out along the way.
"I didn't know what to expect at first," Alonso said, "but … it's been a great experience so far."
When he started to stand out as a local prep player — he played at Jesuit through his junior year, then transferred to Plant for his senior season — Alonso got some interest from Florida, a perennial contender in the SEC. Eventually, he decided to become a Gator.
Having lived in the area, Alonso knew the standing Tebow had in Florida football lore. Still, he said he was a little thrown when he saw the statue of the 2007 Heisman winner outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
"Clearly his presence is known," Alonso said. "Everyone that's a Gator is a huge Tim Tebow fan. At the school shop, they're still selling '15' jerseys, so there's a huge presence."
Over three seasons for the Gators, Alonso took off. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage improved every year, and he finished his Florida career with a .316/.407/.517 slash line. That production convinced the Mets to pick him 64th overall in the 2016 draft.
When he heard later that year that New York had signed Tebow, Alonso didn't think much of it. At that time, Alonso had finished playing for the Short-Season A Brooklyn Cyclones and was preparing for instructional league, where teams send their draftees and younger prospects to get more experience.
Alonso headed down to Port St. Lucie, which doubles as the Mets' instructional league home. There, he met his new lockermate, a 29-year-old outfield prospect.
"My first Tebow experience was there," Alonso said. "It was actually surprising — I was kind of like, 'Wow, Tebow's my lockermate.' "
As they worked on their game, the two hitters got to know each other during instructional league. Despite the age gap between them — Alonso was 21 at the time — he said they hit it off immediately.
Alonso has played the entire 2017 season with the Mets. While he missed time earlier in the year with a broken hand, he's been the regular first baseman when healthy, with a .285/.360/.530 batting line in 72 games entering Saturday.
Tebow, meanwhile, started the 2017 season in the South Atlantic League with the Columbia Fireflies. After he hit .220/.311/.336 in 64 games there, the Mets moved him up to St. Lucie in June. In addition to boosting his offense — entering Saturday, he's slashed .248/.313/.407 since the promotion — the move reunited him with his instructional league teammate.
"He's a great guy — you can't not like him," Alonso said. "He's a great guy, great teammate, and I'm super happy to be playing with him."
Even when he was a kid, Alonso emphasized that he never disliked Tebow. As a 12-year-old who saw his favorite team humiliated on a national stage, he just associated the Gators quarterback with that defeat. Now that he knows him in person, that's a thing of the past.
Gators football is now a frequent subject of discussion in the Mets clubhouse. Alonso is excited for the team's Sept. 2 season opener against Michigan — even though St. Lucie plays that night, he said he'll try to catch the action on TV.
As he stands outside the dugout, Alonso says that going to Florida was "definitely the best decision I've made."
"What's that, going to Florida?" Tebow turns his head from the dugout, where he's still signing autographs. A satisfied smile rests on his face. "Best decision that you made?"
"Yeah!" Alonso replies enthusiastically, smiling back. "Best decision I've made."