10 years ago, in Austin Riley’s world, you never had to ask your friends what the plans were for the weekend. You didn’t have to ask because everyone knew—they were all meeting at Snowden Grove Park for baseball and snow cones. And according to the Atlanta Braves’ third baseman, who was just named 2019 Rookie of the Month in May, those games were some of the most memorable of his life.
Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 1st round (41st) of the 2015 MLB Draft, Austin Riley has made a quick transition from small-town star to big-league player. Even while in the Instructional League, the 6-foot-3inch right-hander impressed Braves’ manager Brian Snitker who said, “He’s a man. I mean, he’s the real deal.”
His outlook for the 2020 season is just as promising. After delivering 18 home runs in 2019, baseball news speculates that he probably has the strength to play a power position and is ready to handle the daily rigors of a lineup spot after showing so much talent during his five minor league seasons.
Southaven produces the “real deal”
The first impression of Austin is his athletic build and quiet demeanor. He’s charming and polite, and chats about his recent experience in the Major Leagues with ease—the epitome of a Southern gentleman who is thankful for the opportunity he has been given and is used to having reporter’s question him about his athletic career. When Austin is home during the off season he is always surprised with the changes in Southaven especially on Getwell Road. All of the new things added,” he says, laughing, “I almost don’t recognize it.”
While locations like Snowden Grove Park were part of his childhood experience, even that has changed and grown, surprising Riley each time he returns home in his offseason. “The fields were in the same place but there were just the bleachers and dugout,” he says. “Now, they’ve got concession stands going up with awnings over the top, and stadium seats.” The park has grown into a baseball and tennis destination and 2021 will usher in soccer.
Riley’s memories of playing at Snowden Grove began when he was just six years old, hitting Tball with his friends. From six-years-old through adolescence and high school, Riley was lucky—some would say “blessed”, even---to experience first-class competition, at fields prepared to teach kids the ropes of the sport. At the time, Southaven was the only premier location for families seeking to get their kids involved in sports and the camaraderie that goes along with it.
His father, Coach Mike Riley, remembers Snowden Grove Park the same way. He recalls that even though a lot of cities now have similar facilities, back when Austin was growing up, Snowden Grove was the only one. It remains an integral part of his life as he coaches Velo Baseball, based out of Hernando.
“When Austin was going through competitive baseball,” Mike Riley says, “which was pretty much when he was 10 through the age when he couldn’t play anymore at the local level, Snowden Grove was a huge part of everything we did. At that time, there weren’t many Snowden Groves around and the opportunities for us to play there attracted a lot of really good teams from surrounding states. It made it really easy for us because everyone wanted to come here to play. The facilities were topnotch. The competition it drew was top-notch. Not only did the kids benefit from playing in high-level competition, but also the superior facility.” It’s this benefit and opportunity for high-level competition that still brings families from miles around to Southaven to enjoy the facilities and watch their kids play. Now there’s even more than topnotch fields and state-of-the-art facilities—there’s local growth through a wide selection of restaurants, shopping centers, and entertainment that attracts players and spectators from all across the Country.
Snowden Grove Park is unique
Although it was home base, Snowden Grove Park wasn’t the only field Riley played at the early competitive levels. He recalls the multiple opportunities presented to him to travel and play other teams while learning even more about the sport he loves. However, a few things stood out to him as being different in these other cities, including the excessive merchandising that was present there that wasn’t present in his hometown field. “I went to Oklahoma, Florida, Atlanta,” he says, “and nothing matched the basic camaraderie I felt playing at Snowden Grove Park. It was unique because when I went to Atlanta and Florida, they were more focused on business, and selling shirts. It was like ‘sell, sell, sell!’” Even after multiple professional camps throughout the states, Riley’s best memories were of growing up, playing at the Snowden Grove fields with the Mississippi Royals. “Every weekend, at Snowden, you would have 15 or 20 teams. We were playing the Germantown Giants, come Sunday and championship rounds.” He smiles when he remembers these younger days and how it shaped him as an athlete. Even better, friendships were formed during those early competitions that moved beyond the fields and are still part of his life today. “I still talk to some of those guys who played for Germantown Giants,” says Riley, with a wide smile. “That’s a fun memory I’ve always kept with me. Playing those same teams and competing.” “The city of Southaven is obviously very proud of Austin Riley,” says Mayor Darren Musselwhite. “We love to see our young people have opportunities and capitalize on them like he has done. It also shows the value of a great parks and recreational system, because it opens up opportunities for our young people. Although it creates opportunities, to get to the level that he has achieved, you obviously have to have great natural talent, as well.”
The long road to the pros
While attending award-winning schools in Southaven, Austin attracted the attention of recruiters, who
would show up at his games with radar guns to measure his pitching speeds. In his senior year at DeSoto Central in Southaven, Riley was scouted in the Atlanta Braves’ 2015 Draft as both a pitcher and a slugging infielder. Known for his above-average fastball and curveball, in his first professional season, Riley averaged .304/.389/.544 with 12 home runs and 27 extra-base hits in 60 games during his time with the Gulf Coast League and the Atlanta Braves rookie team in Danville, Virginia. “Everyone thinks that when you get signed, you go straight to the big leagues,” he says. “But, there’s like six levels you’ve got to hit before you get to it. It’s very complicated. I got drafted in 2015. I didn’t make it to my major league debut until 2019.” Life at home with the Rileys
With plans to play for the Mississippi State Bulldogs, and before being drafted into the pros, Riley began to visit Mississippi State University on weekends to seriously consider it for his alma mater. On one of those weekends, as fate would have it, he reconnected with Anna Riley, a freshman at Mississippi State who he’d attended high school with. “We give each other a little grief because we never talked in high school,” says Austin, who recently celebrated a 1-year wedding anniversary with his wife.
Austin recalls how he knew she was the one in the most unexpected of ways. He was out with her with a group and she was dating someone else. Riley told his friend that night that if she ever broke up with her boyfriend, he wanted to go out with her. As luck would have it, that exact thing happened, and the rest is, as they say, history. The two now share a home in Coldwater, Mississippi, allowing Austin to be near the baseball fields he loves when home and during the off-season. “I’m really a homebody,” he says. “When I was drafted and they told me I needed to be in Florida within three days, my first thought was ‘I’m not ready to leave home.’”
Snowden Grove’s Son
Since his professional debut, Riley has done nothing but impress, and won the Rookie of the Month award in May of 2019. “It was pretty cool, to just be caught up in the big leagues and do that, it was a huge honor. I’m thankful to so many people who put me here, starting with my parents and coach.” Austin says he understands how he could never have accomplished all he has, and continues to do, without the help of so many others, especially his family. For Austin Riley, Snowden Grove Park has been a true field of dreams.