BRADENTON, Fla. – What hurts worse? Getting tackled by an NFL linebacker or getting hit with a baseball thrown at 99 MPH?
Pirates’ outfield prospect Tyler Gaffney knows the answer all too well.
“What do you think is worse? Getting hit by a 260 pound man or one little white ball?” Gaffney said knowingly while talking to him the other day. “Getting hit by a full-grown man? Probably.”
Gaffney has experienced both sides of that debate way too often. He played one season with the Pirates in 2012, playing for the State College Spikes in short-season A-ball, just after being drafted out of college in the 24th round. In that time, Gaffney was hit with a pitch 20 times in 38 games.
He then took a break from baseball and went to football, opting to play his senior year at Stanford. The intention was to take a short break from baseball, then return. But his football career took off, eventually leading to him being drafted 204th overall by the Carolina Panthers. He never got in a game, due to his career being derailed by injuries.
“I’ve been looking for a reason to play baseball again,” Gaffney said. “When I originally left State College, I left with the intention that I was coming back after that year. My life took another spin, and I took advantage of that opportunity. I think I’ve just been chomping at the bit for the last while. At some point, it was time. The injuries kind of helped to guide me this way, but I’m glad to be back.”
Gaffney’s rise with Stanford was surprising. In his first three years with the team, the running back combined for 791 yards on 156 carries. He returned for his senior year, and worked his way into a bigger role, getting 1709 yards in 330 carries.
“I was glad that I got the opportunity,” Gaffney said. “My first steps were to be a good football player again, and then it was to be a starter, and once I was a starter it was to do well. Things just progressed. Once that door opened, I had to take full advantage of it, because that’s what I had been working for.”
Gaffney’s career never got off the ground in the NFL. He suffered a torn lateral meniscus during a pre-season game with the Panthers, and was eventually waived and claimed by the Patriots. He remained with the Patriots for a few years, either on their practice squad, or on injured reserve, and was with them for two Super Bowl wins. He had a shot at the Patriots’ roster in 2016, but another injury prevented that chance.
“I felt great,” Gaffney recalled of that pre-season battle. “I was finally pulling together two healthy years in a row. I had a slight injury in that fourth pre-season game that kind of set me back a little bit. That’s the nature of football. I’m just one of many stories where sometimes the heart wants it, but the body can’t handle it.”
The injuries eventually led him to step away from the game, and make that return to baseball.
“When you get hurt like that, you have a lot of time to think about how things are going, and what’s next,” Gaffney said. “I think things crossed my mind after every injury: ‘Is this worth it? Is this what I want to do?’ The fighter in me told me to keep going, and we’re going to make this football thing happen. I think the writing is on the wall after a couple of injuries in your first four and a half years. I think I knew what I really wanted to do. It just opened my eyes.”
Gaffney is now back to baseball, and his path is very similar to his return to football. He’s returning as an older guy who doesn’t have previous success. It was unlikely when he returned to Stanford that he could be more than a bench guy, and could reach the NFL. It seems unlikely now that he’ll be more than an organizational guy, and unlikely that he could reach the majors. And the hope is that he could surprise in baseball, just like he surprised in football.
For now, Gaffney is getting the feel of the game again. He doesn’t know where he will end up, or if he will start the season with a full-season club. He’s been playing the outfield with the Altoona roster for now.
“I feel pretty damn good,” Gaffney said. “I think there’s some up days and some down days. I’m just taking it day by day, and as long as I’m getting a little better everyday, we’re headed in the right direction.”
Gaffney was hit with another pitch in yesterday’s game, and that’s not the first time it happened in the last week.
“I’ve been hit by a pitch about four times in the last five days or something,” Gaffney said. “That’s just the way it goes. If they throw it inside, I’m not moving. That’s the risk they take, and I guess I just get a couple of bruises from it.”
I joked with him that he picked up where he left off with his baseball career, in regards to getting hit so often. Gaffney, who had a .925 OPS in his one season in pro ball, joked back:
“Tell my bat that, too.”