SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – DeSoto Central High School’s past and present poetically intersected May 15, 2019.

As the Jaguars prepared for Game 1 of their state championship series at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Mississippi, coach Mark Monaghan awaited the major-league debut of a DeSoto Central product. He remembers hearing from Austin Riley that day.

“Good luck,” Riley said. “I wish I could be there, but I just got the call.”

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The Braves had just promoted Riley, the hot-hitting third baseman who had toyed with pitchers the past few weeks in Triple-A Gwinnett. Riley started in left field against the Cardinals, his game beginning around 20 minutes after the state championship was scheduled to start.

But Game 1 in Pearl was delayed, allowing students, parents and fans to stay glued to their phones as Riley unceremoniously struck out in his first major-league at-bat. Later in the evening, as the high-school teams prepared to play, Monaghan heard a burst of cheering and clapping from the audience.

“I’m thinking they’re getting hyped for pregame,” he said. His daughter and friends dashed into the dugout to inform Monaghan that their championship aspirations were temporarily secondary. Riley had belted a 438-foot homer off Michael Wacha into the left-center seats at then-SunTrust Park.

Monaghan took that as a good sign. The Jaguars defeated St. Martin 3-1 that evening. Two days later, they clinched their third state title – four years after Riley helped them earn their first in school history.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Instilling lifelong values

Atlanta has adopted Riley, but the Southaven-Hernando area always will be home. It’s the community that nurtured him long before he was draft-eligible. Before he stacked 30-homer seasons, he learned his swing at Snowden Grove Park. Before his walk-off hit against the Dodgers in the postseason, he tormented rival Hernando High School among Mississippi greenery.

Southaven came before the World Series title, the top-seven MVP finish, the All-Star honors, and the 10-year, $212 million contract. It’s where Riley’s family, namely his mother, Elisa, and father, Mike, instilled the values about which outsiders continuously rave.

It’s where he bonded with siblings Emily and Zach. It’s where he established and strengthened his faith, an overarching element of Riley’s life. It’s where he found his love for sports. It’s where he learned to hunt, his favorite hobby - nearby Tunica is the prime spot.

It’s where Elisa packed the car and drove her teenager around the country for the betterment of his baseball life. “She played about the most important role in all this,” his father said.

It’s where Riley and his wife, Anna, made their earliest memories. It’s where they married in November 2018 at Hernando United Methodist Church. It’s an area where they still reside, where their son, Eason Michael, born in April, will call a home.

“Knowing Austin and Anna, two really special people, they’ll be great parents,” Mike said.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Southaven, a town increasingly famous for Riley’s success, is located 16 miles south of Memphis, a city first famous for Elvis Presley, Beale Street and the blues and presently recognized for Ja Morant and the Bass Pro Shops housed within a 321-foot steel pyramid. Presley underwent his first recording session at Sun Studio in Memphis (1953). Consider Snowden Grove Park, where Riley began playing baseball at age 6, his Sun Studio.

“Snowden was one of the few facilities in the South,” said Mike, who coached his son growing up. “We were fortunate we didn’t have to travel far to play good teams. Back then, everybody came to Snowden. Wonderful facility, a lot of great memories. It’ll always be special to us.”

Just a mile down the ever-evolving Getwell Road in Southaven, Riley manifested his talent at DeSoto Central. He was a two-way sensation, his hulking power and sharp breaking ball drawing large scouting contingents to “The Top of Mississippi,” as Southaven calls itself.

The 2014 state player of the year hit .408 with 28 homers and 139 RBIs for the Jaguars. He had a 1.54 ERA with 245 strikeouts on the mound. Riley appeared in two state title games, leaving school a champion in 2015. His handiwork also included homering off - and breaking - Hernando High’s scoreboard.

Riley also was a punter, like his father. It was the best means of playing football without interfering with his baseball hopes. He even punted in the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star game.

“I have no doubt in my mind he would’ve been an SEC quarterback or a power forward out there on the basketball court if he wanted to,” Monaghan said. “He was special. … Around here, there’s nobody who’s really done it like Austin.”

Credit: Mills Fitzner

Credit: Mills Fitzner

Making a million-dollar decision

Scouts debated whether Riley was destined to hit or pitch, but he preferred breaking scoreboards to throwing breaking balls. The Braves, who drafted him 41st overall in 2015, not only aligned with that preference, but bet $1.6 million on it. It’s a good thing they paid him that over-slot deal. If the team’s offer fell short, there was an alternative.

Riley committed to Mississippi State, a school close to his family’s heart. Mike, who played football and baseball there, once was a teammate of then-Bulldogs baseball coach John Cohen. Now the school’s athletic director, Cohen recalls seeing Riley come to Georgia and win MVP in the LaGrange Tournament in 2015. He accepted that Riley probably never would don a Bulldogs uniform.

But in the small chance he did, “We knew we would get maybe the best baseball player in the country,” Cohen said.

Matt Hannaford, Riley’s agent and CEO of ALIGND Sports Agency, said there was a point earlier in the process when he believed Riley would attend Mississippi State, but after the player impressed at multiple pre-draft workouts, it was increasingly clear he’d go pro. Cohen, revisiting the process this week: “Austin made the right choice.”

Cohen still believes if Riley built himself up, he could pitch in the major leagues. Riley’s counter: “If I’d have stuck with pitching, I’d probably be working a day job. I don’t think my arm would’ve lasted. I don’t know how these pitchers do it.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Still causing a stir

Southaven showcases itself as the capital of Riley Country. For instance, Beans & Leaves, a coffee shop at Silo Square – just over a Brett Favre-esque heave from Snowden Grove - proudly displays a human-sized Riley cutout (on an adjacent wall are photos of Mississippi resident Morgan Freeman doing community work).

Customers often pose with the cardboard Riley, according to employees. The real Riley helped with a fundraiser for Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center in Silo Square in November, which prompted Beans & Leaves to add the fake version to its décor.

“The day he came in was insane,” said Cassandra McArdle, a manager at Beans & Leaves. “There were cars wrapped around everywhere. He took pictures with everybody who either bought a tree or donated. It was pretty amazing to see the outpouring of people from DeSoto County just coming through here.”

The shop plans to name a drink after Riley and donate some of the proceeds to his favorite charity. “We want to touch base with him on what his favorite type of drink is,” McArdle said. Riley recommends some type of iced-caramel macchiato.

Weeks after the fundraiser, Southaven celebrated Dec. 10, 2021, a date that Mayor Darren Musselwhite proclaimed, “Austin Riley Day.” Southaven hung Riley banners and held a meet and greet at Snowden Grove.

“Southaven is extremely proud of Austin and the tremendous success he’s having at the highest level,” Musselwhite said this week. “However, we are prouder of the young man he is; constantly displaying humility, showing that being a great teammate is more important than individual accolades, and proving his toughness both on the field in critical game situations as well as dealing with the business of professional baseball off the field.”

DeSoto Central wanted to retire Riley’s number after he graduated. But he wasn’t comfortable with it. “I felt like I had to earn it a little bit more,” Riley said. “That’s a big deal. I wanted to make sure I truly, truly earned it.”

In February 2021, with Riley an established big leaguer, the school retired its first number, his No. 13. He wore multiple numbers, but that also was his father’s number at Mississippi State. Riley’s name and number are on the left-field wall at the stadium behind the school. There’s a hallway exhibit displaying Riley’s uniform, worn cap and photos. There are Riley banners permanently hanging on the wall of the batting cages at Snowden Grove.

“He’s already proven he wants to give back, be here in this community and continue to be the Mississippi boy he is, not the Mississippi boy who left and changed,” Monaghan said. “He hasn’t changed one iota.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Extending his reach

Riley’s image is popular in Atlanta these days. As Braves manager Brian Snitker said, “He’s a guy you want on the buses and vans, all that stuff, representing your organization.” Riley always receives hearty applauses during introductions. He even drew “M-V-P” chants at Fenway Park.

In October, the national audience learned what those familiar with the Braves already knew. And as his play ascends this season, it’s likely Riley will finish higher than seventh in MVP voting. Much higher.

“It brings chills to you,” Mike said. “To look at it, and hear it, it’s as good as it gets. And it’s because of what he’s done leading up to it.”

Riley inked his decade-long contract Aug. 1, the day after his walk-off hit against the Diamondbacks and the day before he won National League player of the month. His life’s biggest decision wasn’t a complicated one.

“From his analysis, if he wanted to win and Atlanta is close to home and this is where he wanted to spend his career, this was the time to get something done,” Hannaford said. “He understood the risk and the potential of what he could be leaving on the table had he gone to free agency. But in some ways, having witnessed other guys who couldn’t get deals done and had to go elsewhere, that helped him understand how he wanted the experience to play out for him. It’s my job to make that happen.

“For me, I just couldn’t be happier that he and his family are happy. They deserve the absolute best. To get this deal done, in the place he wanted to spend his career, it was certainly the right outcome for him.”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Finding a second home

With the largest contract in team history, the Braves have Riley signed through age 36. He could become among the few to wear one uniform, an exclusive club that includes Chipper Jones, the Hall of Famer who covered third base in Atlanta for the first 16 years of Riley’s life.

Whatever’s next in Riley’s story, where it started won’t change. Southaven provided the support and stability that enabled Riley to maximize himself. He found the same thing with the Braves in his professional life.

“I do think about the possibility he spends his whole career with Atlanta,” Mike Riley said. “That would mean a lot to us, everything to Austin. He loves Atlanta and the people. Everyone has treated him like family.”

Couldn’t one suggest the Braves are a professional sports team equivalent to his hometown?

“I think so,” Austin said. “Everybody has been so supportive in the Braves organization. They’ve believed in me. They’ve shown me nothing but support and respect, even when I was struggling. That’s like how it was back home. The comparison, I think, is very similar.”

Southaven is forever home, but it’s happy to share Riley with Atlanta now.