Tyler Gaffney looking forward to first hit

The first time Tyler Gaffney stepped into a batter's box as a professional baseball player, he was hit by a pitch.

Hey, some guys just crave the contact.

He doesn't remember the exact game when he got his first professional hit. He thinks it was five or six games into his career. He still has the bat. But now that Gaffney has traded batting gloves for shoulder pads and is returning to play running back for Stanford, he's not going to have to wait as long for that first hit.

"My friends on the team are talking about wanting to be the first ones to hit me," Gaffney said. "I can't wait. They've all be texting me, telling me they are going to be the first one to hit me."

Gaffney cited his love for football and wanting to complete his degree as the primary reasons for passing on professional baseball after just one season. He said he's working out the details of getting out of his baseball contract and all of that is taking place "behind closed curtains." In one year of minor league ball, he hit .297 with an on-base percentage of .483. He was regarded as the No. 43 prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

When Gaffney was drafted in the 24th round in 2012, he was coming off of career highs in the 2011 football season. He rushed for 449 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. He also had 79 receiving yards and a score. In a heavy rotation of running backs, Gaffney was able to solidify himself as the No. 2 option behind Stepfan Taylor.

"I loved the Pirates organization," Gaffney said. "They taught me a lot. We did some Navy SEAL training and a lot of character building. It was a great experience. But I think it comes back to needing to get my degree and needing to have that football mentality. That drew me back."

During his year away from football, he had the surreal experience of watching the game through the eyes of a fan. Between the grind of minor league baseball, he also made time to closely follow the Cardinal through their run to a Pac-12 championship and subsequent victory in the Rose Bowl.

"Every game, every week, I was all over it," he said. "Who wouldn't have wanted to be a part of that? It was wild. As a player, you're on the field and not really noticing the fans before the game or during the game. The only interaction is at the walk or after the game. You really start to appreciate how they respond to good plays and bad plays. It was great to be able to see the fan atmosphere."

Gaffney plans to rejoin the team on April 1 and will get some live work in spring ball. He hopes he'll be able to play in the spring game on April 13. A gym rat by nature, Gaffney said even if he hadn't been a professional athlete for the past nine months he'd still be in football shape.

His return comes at a fortuitous time for the Cardinal. Having gone to three consecutive BCS bowl games, Stanford is riding a trend of glowing national perception and the Cardinal are expected to be a preseason top-5 team and national championship contender. The missing piece of the puzzle was experience at the offensive skill positions.

The Cardinal lost five of their top six receiving options from the 2012 squad and Taylor -- a three-time 1,000-yard rusher -- who carried the load for the Cardinal with a league-high 322 carries. They have an outstanding offensive line and Kevin Hogan is 5-0 as a starting quarterback. But exactly who would receive Hogan's handoffs and passes was a bit of a question mark.

Gaffney instantly injects experience and veteran leadership into the Cardinal offense. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he's built to pound the football, but he's also a skilled receiver and should contribute in the screen and short-range passing game. It's likely we'll see the return of the "Wild Gaff" formation. He'll also be a sounding board for a younger group of backs. Anthony Wilkerson is a veteran runner as well, but he had a career-low 50 carries last year and one touchdown.

Gaffney knows he hasn't won any starting jobs yet. He's going to have to work his way back into the lineup and earn the trust of the coaching staff. But after just completing a rookie season in one sport, he understands how important it is for him to be a leader in another.

"I feel that pressure to be a leader," he said. "We have a lot of talented running backs. Hopefully I can bring some experience and point them in the right direction."