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2 Super Bowl rings later, Gaffney rejoins Bucs

Minor League outfielder's career path took five-year detour in NFL
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- At one point last summer, Tyler Gaffney thought about coming back to baseball. His job was wearing on him, and he'd been looking for a reason to finally get off that career path. Two days later, Gaffney said, he got another offer.

It was from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

PITTSBURGH -- At one point last summer, Tyler Gaffney thought about coming back to baseball. His job was wearing on him, and he'd been looking for a reason to finally get off that career path. Two days later, Gaffney said, he got another offer.

It was from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I was like, I've got to do this," Gaffney said. "This is probably my last shot."

About a week after signing, Gaffney was placed on injured reserve and waived. That was the final sign he needed. He was ready to be a baseball player again.

"I knew that football was not going to be the deal anymore," he said. "I made my strides back here."

On Thursday, Minor League Baseball's Opening Day, Gaffney took another step forward. The 26-year-old outfielder joined the Pirates' Florida State League affiliate, the Bradenton Marauders. After a physically taxing, mentally trying football career marked by several injury setbacks and two Super Bowl rings, Gaffney is officially continuing the pursuit of his first passion.

"My dream has been the big leagues my whole life," Gaffney said in the Pirate City clubhouse last month. "I think I've been tasting that every time I was hurt. You have time to think about things like that. So now I'm here, putting in my work.

"Now I'm here, five years later. I think the last couple years took their toll on my body. The heart wanted it. The body didn't. I'm finally able to come back to baseball, the sport I love."

***

The Pirates selected Gaffney out of Stanford University in the 24th round of the 2012 Draft. He made his professional debut as a right-handed-hitting outfielder for the Class A Short-Season State College Spikes. Catcher Jacob Stallings remembered Gaffney, first and foremost, for somehow getting hit by 20 pitches in 38 games.

"I remember he played really hard," Stallings said. "Probably every stereotypical thing you would think a football player would play like."

Gaffney batted .297 with a .925 OPS, an impressive season, then went back to school. He wasn't quitting baseball, but he wasn't quite done with college or football, either. He fully intended to rejoin the Pirates sooner than later, because he didn't expect his football career would continue beyond Stanford.

"I didn't go to Stanford to almost graduate," said Gaffney, who double-majored in sociology and psychology. "It was either I could play football again or never play my whole life and be done. You can't just pick up football again somewhere."

But he was a surprising star as a senior, rushing for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Cardinal. That attracted the attention of the Carolina Panthers, who selected Gaffney in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Gaffney never played a down for Carolina, however, after suffering a torn lateral meniscus in training camp. The New England Patriots claimed him off waivers. Gaffney said he stayed "extremely involved" while on their injured reserve list in 2014, turning in weekly reports to coach Bill Belichick as the Patriots went on to beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

"I got to learn a lot about how to be a successful organization. I took full advantage of that, learning from Tom Brady, learning from Bill Belichick," Gaffney said. "What other player-coach combo could you compare to that?"

Gaffney remained sidelined in 2015 after another season-ending knee injury. Finally healthy, he played well and rushed for 152 yards in the '16 preseason. But Gaffney was sidelined again, this time by a foot injury, and returned to the injured reserve list. He was released, re-signed to the Patriots' practice squad, added to their active roster in October and eventually placed back on their practice squad.

"I'm a fighter. I've always been told, 'You're not going to make it,'" Gaffney said. "I knew that I needed to take full advantage of it. It's not every day you get this opportunity to, one, be in the NFL and, two, be on the Patriots. So as soon as I was hurt, I knew I was rehabbing for a reason."

He remained with the Patriots through their victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. In late December 2016, Belichick credited the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder for his work imitating opposing running backs in practice.

"He's a smart guy, very team-orientated," Belichick told reporters. "If you ask him to do something, he's going to give you a great look. There's nobody that takes more punches than he does."

***

Those punches started to add up. After every injury, he wondered if it was time to ditch football and rejoin the Pirates.

"I started to figure out the writing's on the wall and this isn't the move your body needs," Gaffney said. "It's been wearing on me. I'd been looking for reasons to come back. Every year, I got closer and closer. I almost came back last year."

Gaffney never lost contact with Pittsburgh's front office, including senior director of Minor League operations Larry Broadway, assistant GM Kyle Stark and Dave Turgeon, his former manager in State College and now the Pirates' coordinator of instruction. In mid-January, Broadway said, he heard Gaffney was ready to return.

This spring, Gaffney settled into the same Pirate City locker used by Jameson Taillon during big league camp. The Pirates called him up from Minor League camp for a few Grapefruit League games, giving him an opportunity to reconnect with former teammates like Stallings and Tyler Glasnow. The Bucs put Gaffney on the travel roster for a game against the Red Sox at JetBlue Park.

"They welcomed me with open arms, and I couldn't be more excited to be back," Gaffney said.

Gaffney is starting the season with Class A Advanced Bradenton, three long leaps from the Majors. There's no questioning his athleticism, but getting there won't be easy. The average age on the Pirates' Opening Day roster was 27.5, and Gaffney will turn 27 later this month. Hitting is hard enough for players who do it year-round, much less those who go 5 1/2 years between at-bats.

"It's a learning process," Gaffney said. "I'm hoping to learn faster than most."

It's not as if Gaffney is a stranger to the sport or a decade removed from baseball like former quarterback-turned-Mets Minor Leaguer Tim Tebow. Two weeks ago, Broadway said Gaffney was "holding his own pretty well" and finding his timing at the plate. Stallings said he wouldn't be surprised to see Gaffney succeed.

"It's not like he's been sitting on the couch," Stallings said, laughing. "He's been staying in shape and playing for the Patriots."

That could be valuable in the clubhouse, regardless of how he fares at the plate. The Pirates always loved the "edge and intensity" that defined Gaffney's play, Broadway said, and now he brings years of broader perspective along with recent championship experience.

"He has a chance to make an impression on anyone with just the way he goes about his business and the confidence, belief and edge that he brings all the time," Broadway said.

And Gaffney must be the only player in the Pirates' system with two Super Bowl rings, right?

"I think so. Unless someone surprises me," Gaffney said, grinning. "Those aren't the easiest to come by."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Tyler Gaffney