STANFORD, Calif. -- Tyler Gaffney loves to tell a story, reeling off fine details that reporters devour, even using body parts as illustrative props. "See, these two are different," he said, holding his pinkie fingers side-by-side. The comparison reveals a misshapen right knuckle, which looks that way because Gaffney needed to save $150 during his summer as a Pittsburgh Pirates' farmhand.
We can get back to that late later. The real point is, Gaffney knows how to entertain, and so when he discussed an audacious idea after a Stanford football practice this week, one had to wonder whether he was just keeping the conversation lively.
"Deion Sanders, in a perfect world, that's exactly what I want,'' he said. "Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, something along those lines.''
The crossover NFL-MLB concept seems long dead now, its ashes surely resting somewhere in Sanders' house, near a photo of him landing by helicopter at a Braves' doubleheader after practicing with the Falcons. The sports have become too specialized, and the paychecks too big, for a repeat performance. It's inconceivable that anyone would even be allowed to attempt the double, much less want to do it.
Only three players have approached the feat since Sanders and Jackson pulled off playing both sports at the highest level. Brian Jordan, Drew Henson and Chad Hutchinson (another Stanford athlete) all started in one sport at the big-league level, then switched to the other.
Gaffney sounded more than half-serious about the idea, even though two years ago, he walked away from football and Stanford to try to reach the major leagues as an outfielder. Last winter, he about-faced, telling the Pirates' organization he had to give football and college another shot. The franchise issued a statement supporting his decision and indicating that the 24th-round draft pick would be welcome back whenever he wanted to resume his baseball career.
Gaffney said he sat down with his parents in January, brought out a whiteboard and wrote down the pros and cons of returning to the running-back gig for one last year of eligibility. He wanted his degree, and he saw a chance to win a national championship, an opportunity that became clearer and more powerfully alluring when he followed the Cardinal as a fan last fall.
He also missed the college life. He sampled something similar in the minors, living with a host family as he played for the single-A State College Spikes, who share Penn State's field.
"I loved it. They have a lot different fan base than we have here," Gaffney said. "It's like the only thing they have there."
But something was missing, and he knew it. He had never been able to commit completely to football at Stanford because he always skipped spring practice to play for the Cardinal baseball team. The lead running back's job belonged to Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 1,330 yards in 2011, then 1,530 last year before the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the fifth round. Gaffney rushed for 449 yards on 74 attempts in 2011, then decided to commit to professional baseball. (The idea of playing in the minors and sticking with college football, as many others have done -- including Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson -- did not suit him.)
He had a very promising season in State College, producing numbers that almost mirror Gaffney's quirky take on a tough-guy image. He batted .297 but had an on-base percentage of .483 courtesy of this twist on sabermetrics excellence: a 20-walks-to-20 strikeouts, plus an unfathomable 20 HBPs in just 38 games. That is not a typo. In the majors as of Thursday night, the leaders are the Reds' Shin-Soo Choo with 23 HBPs and the Pirates' Starling Marte with 20. They have each played 115 games.
"I swear I don't stand on the plate," he said. "I just don't shy away from the ball."
He was working toward a punch line: "I think getting hit by a ball is a little easier than getting hit by Shayne." (That would be Shayne Skov, Stanford's game-changing linebacker.)
He is expected to share Stanford's extensive running-back responsibilities with Anthony Wilkerson and a highly pedigreed redshirt freshman named Barry Sanders (not Jr.). Still, Gaffney thinks he has a shot at the NFL as well as MLB, and Cardinal head coach David Shaw agrees. "When it's all said and done, he's going to play football for pay in the future," Shaw said recently.
The coach thought he'd have to wait two years for Gaffney to check back into football. He underestimated how pro sports would feel to someone with Gaffney's emotional makeup.
"The minor leagues, it's more a business. You're fighting for a job, you're fighting for salary. As much as you have a team, you're trying to get your own," Gaffney said on the football practice field. "Out here, it's family."
He can't collect a paycheck now, but he also can't be fined. In State College, he stole 11 bases, and on the first attempt, he started a head-first slide. Then he remembered the $150 fine the Pirates' farm hands have to pay for going in head-first, and he shifted his legs forward. The pinkie got jammed in the transition; when he looked down at his hand, the finger was so out of joint, he almost thought he'd lost the part below the knuckle.
"They popped it back into place,'' he said. "There was no fine. They said that was the fine."
As he stood on the Stanford practice field, just a few days into training, that injury seemed like a trifle. When Gaffney and his parents went over the pros and cons of leaving the minors and going back to football, the longevity of baseball careers received great prominence in the "con" column.
"In baseball, you can last a lot longer than three or four days without feeling the way I do right now," he said, with more sly humor in the offing.
"Not a lot of people know this," Gaffney said, "but it's not as physical a sport." A few minutes later, he was talking about mimicking Deion Sanders, and if he was joking, he didn't give himself away.