ATLANTA — When Atlanta took a three-game-to-one lead over Houston, the team had plenty of cooldown as they tried to win their first World Series since 1995. So it makes sense for the team’s newest star to be a gambler in each state. In high school.
During the regular season and in October, Austin Riley has plenty of “MVP! MVP!” Cheers in Truist Park. Not surprising: Riley finished second in RBI (107) and the National League on aggregate basis (313), third in innings (179), in batting average in only his third major league season – and his first season as a daily player for a full year of 162 games. sixth (.303) and 10th (33th) in homers. He drove home a single-win streak at the end of ninth place in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against Los Angeles, hitting .294 with three RBIs in the first four games of the World Series.
But in Southeastern Conference country, Atlanta baseball fans starving for a title can thank high school football’s demands for pushing third baseman Riley towards the diamond.
Riley, 24, was a quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Missouri. He was also a budding baseball star. These two paths collided when his football coach told him he couldn’t miss the seven-on-seven summer practice after sophomore year.
“He said to me, ‘We have another guy here, and he’s really committed,'” Riley said as he stood at the Atlanta bunker on Saturday. “The quarterback was one of the things I wanted to play for, but I also knew I loved baseball and I wanted to pursue that.”
When Riley decided not to play football, the coach invited him to stay on the team as a batsman.
Of course, said Riley, why not?
“I did punting, I made field goals, which was awful,” Riley said. “I hit more posts than field goals. It was kind of funny.”
But, wow, he might punt. And it came as no surprise to those who knew the family. His father, Mike, A bookie in the State of Mississippi He attended training camp with the Detroit Lions from 1987 to 1991 and in 1992 and 1993.
“I was in pre-season camp and I’ve been to the final stage both years I’ve been there,” said Mike Riley.
Austin Riley estimated he averaged 45 yards per punt in high school, and his father said the highest end of his range was 75 to 80 yards. While Austin’s estimate was generous (the MaxPreps website said he averaged a 41.6-yard punt), his father’s was spot on: His son’s longest pun was recorded at 77 yards.
Father and son bonded over one of football’s more specialized skills.
“We were living on a piece of land,” said Austin Riley. “We had plenty of room and we had afternoons to come back to and he could still spiral and turn a ball upside down. That’s how I learned. It all started kicking in the backyard and I got pretty good at it.”
Joining them in the courtyard was Keegan James, a cousin who is now a relief pitcher in the organization of the Colorado Rockies.
“All it did was one long snap,” said Austin Riley. “So we’d go in, get our stuff on, practice for 30 minutes, and then jump. “We have to go to baseball practice.” It was great.”
James played baseball for three years at Mississippi State. Riley also pledged to Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs offered to give him a chance to gamble for the soccer team in addition to playing baseball. He signed with Atlanta after being selected 41st in the 2015 draft.
There were times when he wondered if he was doing the right thing. Riley struggled early in his professional baseball career. He reported to Atlanta’s affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, where he said, “I think I went 0 to 21 with 14 innings before I got my first shot.”
His father remembered it as 0 to 24 with 17 hits. Regardless, he was only 18 and it was as tough as it sounded.
“I’m a homemaker,” he said. “We were doing all these workouts and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t even know if this is for me. Should I go to Mississippi State from now on and pursue professional baseball?”
He laughed as he remembered: “I was getting the tweet ‘Austin will be the shooter by September’. I was being beaten. But when the first hit came, it was a domino effect.”
He was called up by Atlanta in 2019 and initially played left field as the club wanted his bat on the roster. He played primarily on third base in the 2020 season, which was shortened by the pandemic. As a rookie, he polished his strength by scoring 18 goals in 80 games, while also reaching only .226. In 2020, his homer output dropped to eight in 51 games, reaching .239. By this summer, Riley had settled in as Atlanta’s clean-up hitter.
“He came in and made a huge leap and then had to learn his way around the big leagues,” Atlanta short-back Dansby Swanson said this month. “And then, in this day and age, I feel like we all have a composition as soon as it comes out, right? And we have someone’s composition of what our ceiling might be and they’re at their best, and then right away when you’re not, it’s kind of, okay, well, this person is not good at all. I feel like this happens all too often in any sport these days. ”
During the NLCS, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said that Riley’s maturation was really noticeable.
“You see the confidence,” Roberts said. “At full plate, it handles speed, it spins. He can beat the shift so he can control the barrel. He’s a really good shooter. And defensively, he got a few degrees better.”
Riley said she still talks to her mom and dad at least twice a day. He married his high school girlfriend Anna. Their support helped him get through his tough first days in the Gulf Coast League, and now they’re sitting in the stands at Truist Park listening to those “MVPs!” hymnody.
Just a few years ago, he was gambling in the Mississippi-Alabama high school all-star game. He now plays in the World Series.
“It was unrealistic,” Riley said, citing the tough, losing seasons that Atlanta institutions like Freddie Freeman and Manager Brian Snitker had worked out before they arrived. “To me, I feel spoiled because I’ve been in the league for three years and am already in the World Series. A lot of people have been in the league for a long time and have never been here.”
There are times throughout the season when he sees relaxers throwing a soccer ball off the field before batting practice and wonders if he can still spin a high spiral with a quick kick. “But I resist it because it just kicks and pulls something if I don’t yawn right,” Riley said.
What was once a painful decision to quit a sport has turned out well.
“I’m a people pleaser and I love football,” Riley said. “Friday nights, that’s what I miss most about high school. Pre-game, you have little downtime. But I like baseball more.”
He said that telling his football coach that he was going to play baseball and asking Anna’s father for approval to marry her daughter were the two most tense moments.
“Oh yes,” Riley said. “I would definitely take the World Series in the foggy rain to my high school football game on Friday night. Definitely.”