Southaven’s Austin Riley had the opportunity in the 2019 season to live his baseball dream, playing in the major leagues as a member of the Atlanta Braves, who drafted him fresh away from a MHSAA 6A state championship win as a DeSoto Central High School senior.
Riley was the 41st overall choice in the 2015 Major League Baseball draft and chose to sign with the Braves instead of following through on a commitment to Mississippi State University.
The choice sent the talented baseball player on a journey through the minor leagues to being called up to the Braves in May of last year. Riley quickly made an impact, hitting a home run off St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha in just his second-ever major league at-bat. Riley later hit his first-ever grand slam homer on May 29 against the Washington Nationals and ended the month of May with seven round trippers in 14 games to go with 20 runs batted in. That gave him the National League’s Rookie of the Month Award for May.
The season ended with Riley playing in 80 games for Atlanta, hitting 18 homers, 30 extra base hits and 49 RBIs. The Braves were East Division champions, but Austin was not selected to be on their playoff roster.
Riley said he’s spent much of his time since the year ended working out at home on what he called some “kinks” in his swing.
“The biggest thing toward the end of last year was my swing,” said Riley. “It wasn’t feeling right and I wasn’t comfortable up there.”
This past week, he took a moment out to be part of the Southaven Magazine’s cover unveiling that features Riley out front. The magazine is the annual publication done by the Southaven Chamber of Commerce.
“You grow up playing here and you never would have expected to be able to be in these shoes, have the opportunities, and that kind of thing,” said Riley. “I spent 10 years here playing summer ball (at Snowden Grove) so to be recognized on a magazine in Southaven means a lot to me.”
The unveiling event was held at the Snowden House, a short distance from the Snowden Grove diamonds Riley played on as a youth baseball player.
He says he’s met a number of players in the pros who either know about or have played at the Southaven complex.
“People know about Snowden and that’s pretty cool,” Riley said. “You don’t have to go to all of these Perfect Game events or these big events where you have to travel to get your name out.”
It will be seen if Riley gets more playing time this season and where he would play. Riley was drafted as a third baseman and has played a lot at the position, but with Atlanta he also saw time as an outfielder. That was because Josh Donaldson was holding down the “hot corner” for the Braves.
Donaldson signed a lucrative free agent deal earlier this month with the Minnesota Twins and that may open up more playing time for the youngster, but Riley said he won’t know what the Braves have planned until spring training starts.
“He (Donaldson) wanted an X amount of dollars and the Twins gave it to him and I’m sure he’s happy with that,” Riley said. “For me, I’m going to go into spring training and, whether it’s the outfield or third base, wherever they want me at, at the end of the day you need to be able to swing and I’ll have an opportunity somewhere.”
Another Southaven native who knows what it means to be a professional baseball player is current Mayor Darren Musselwhite, who spent three seasons in the San Francisco and Minnesota organizations. Musselwhite assured Riley that he has the city’s support.
“He knows that all of the people in Southaven are big fans and watching him, and whether you hit three jacks (home runs) or go 0-for-3 we’re pulling for you and still proud of you,” Musselwhite said.
Bob Bakken is Sports Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.