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Saying Yes to Baseball Meant Leaving Football Behind

ATLANTA — When Atlanta seized a three-games-to-one lead over Houston, the team had plenty of hang time while attempting to win its first World …

Saying Yes to Baseball Meant Leaving Football Behind

ATLANTA — When Atlanta seized a three-games-to-one lead over Houston, the team had plenty of hang time while attempting to win its first World Series since 1995. So it makes sense that the team’s newest star was an all-state punter in high school.

In the regular-season stretch and again in October, Austin Riley heard plenty of “M.V.P.! M.V.P.!” chants at Truist Park. It’s no wonder: In just his third major league season — and his first in which he was an everyday player for a full, 162-game year — Riley ranked second in the National League in R.B.I. (107) and total bases (313), third in hits (179), sixth in batting average (.303) and 10th in homers (33). He drove home the winning run with a single in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against Los Angeles and was batting .294 with three R.B.I. in the first four games of the World Series.

But in Southeastern Conference country, Atlanta baseball fans starved for a title can thank the demands of high school football for pushing Riley, a slugging third baseman, toward the diamond.

Riley, 24, was a quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at DeSoto Central High School in Southaven, Miss. He was also a budding baseball star. Those two paths collided when his football coach told him that he could not miss seven-on-seven summer drills after his sophomore year.

“He told me, ‘We’ve got another guy here, and he’s really dedicated,’” Riley said while standing in the Atlanta dugout on Saturday. “It’s one of those things where I wanted to play quarterback but at the same time I knew I loved baseball and I wanted to pursue that.”

Riley’s single drove home Ozzie Albies with the winning run in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.Credit…Ashley Landis/Associated Press

When Riley decided not to play football, the coach invited him to stay on the team as a kicker.

Sure, Riley said, why not?

“I punted, did field goals, which I was terrible at,” Riley said. “I hit the upright more than I made field goals. It was kind of funny.”

But, wow, could he punt. And to those who knew the family, it did not come as a surprise. His father, Mike, was a punter at Mississippi State from 1987 to 1991 and attended training camp with the Detroit Lions in 1992 and 1993.

“I was in preseason camp, and both years I was there I made it to the very last cut,” Mike Riley said.

Austin Riley estimated that he averaged 45 or so yards a punt in high school, and his father said the high end of his range was 75 to 80 yards. While Austin’s estimate may be generous (the MaxPreps website said he averaged 41.6 yards a punt), his father’s was spot on: His son’s longest punt was recorded as 77 yards.

Father and son bonded over one of football’s more specialized skills.

“We lived on some acreage,” Austin Riley said. “We had plenty of room, and there were afternoons we’d get back there and he could still spiral and turn a ball over. That’s kind of how I learned. It all started in the backyard kicking it, and I got pretty good at it.”

Joining them in the yard was a cousin, Keegan James, who is now a relief pitcher in the Colorado Rockies’ organization.

Riley played in the 2014 Under Armour All-American Game. He also had a 77-yard punt for his high school football team in Southaven, Miss.Credit…Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/Associated Press

“All he did was long snap,” Austin Riley said. “So we’d come in, get our stuff on, do 30 minutes of practice and then bounce. ‘We’ve got to go to baseball practice.’ It was cool.”

James ended up playing three years of baseball at Mississippi State. Riley committed to Mississippi State as well, with the Bulldogs offering to give him a chance to punt for the football team in addition to playing baseball. He signed with Atlanta instead, after being taken with the 41st pick in the 2015 draft.

There were times when he wondered if he did the right thing. Riley struggled at the start of his professional baseball career. He reported to Atlanta’s affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, where, he said, “I think I went 0 for 21 with 14 strikeouts before I got my first hit.”

His father remembered it as 0 for 24 with 17 strikeouts. Regardless, he was only 18 and it was every bit as rough as it sounds.

“I’m a homebody,” 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 just go to Mississippi State and pursue professional baseball after that?’”

He laughed as he remembered it: “I was getting tweeted at, ‘Austin’s going to be a pitcher by September.’ I was getting hammered. But once that first hit came, it was a domino effect.”

He was called up by Atlanta in 2019, and initially played left field because the club wanted his bat in the lineup. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he primarily played third base. While he flashed power as a rookie, with 18 homers in 80 games, he also hit just .226. In 2020, his homer output dropped to eight in 51 games and he hit .239. It wasn’t until this summer that Riley settled in as Atlanta’s cleanup hitter.

“He came up and had such a big splash and then kind of had to learn his way through the big leagues,” Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson said this month. “And then I feel like, in this day and age, as soon as we come up, we all have a comp, right? And we have a comp to someone of what our ceiling could be and what they were in their prime, and then when you’re not that immediately, it’s kind of like, OK, well, this person’s not any good. I feel like that happens so often in any sport nowadays.”

Riley routinely hears “M.V.P.!” chants as he steps to the plate. He finished 2021 in the N.L.’s top 10 in batting average, home runs and R.B.I.Credit…Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

During the N.L.C.S., Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said Riley’s maturation was really noticeable.

“You see the confidence,” Roberts said. “Just at the plate, he’s handling velocity, spin. He can beat the shift, so he can control the barrel. He’s just a really good hitter. And defensively he’s gotten a couple of grades better, too.”

Riley said he still talks with his mother and father at least twice a day. He married his high school girlfriend, Anna. Their support helped pull him through his rough early days in the Gulf Coast League, and now they sit in the stands at Truist Park listening to those “M.V.P.!” chants.

It was just a few years ago that he was punting in the Mississippi-Alabama high school all-star game. Now he’s playing in the World Series.

“This has been unreal,” Riley said, mentioning the tough, losing seasons that Atlanta institutions such as Freddie Freeman and Manager Brian Snitker worked through before his arrival. “To me, I feel like I’ve been spoiled because I’ve been in the league three years and I’m already in the World Series. A lot of people have been in the league a long time and have never been here.”

Like Houston, Atlanta has a talented infield of players who have never played for another major league team. From left, Riley; the second baseman, Albies; shortstop Dansby Swanson; and first baseman Freddie Freeman.Credit…Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

There are times during the season when he will see the relievers tossing a football around in the outfield before batting practice and wonder whether he can still turn a high spiral over with a swift kick. “But I resist it because it takes just one kick and something pulls if I’m not stretched right,” Riley said.

What once was an agonizing decision to give up one sport has turned out well.

“I’m a people pleaser, and I loved football,” Riley said. “Friday nights, that’s what I miss most about high school. You’ve got the pregame, your little downtime. But I loved baseball more.”

He said telling the football coach he was going to pursue baseball and asking Anna’s father for his blessing to marry his daughter were the two times he had been most nervous.

Now?

“Oh yeah,” Riley said. “I would certainly take the World Series in the misty rain to a Friday night high school football game. For sure.”

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