This off-season was rough, I’m not gonna lie. To come all the way back last year like we did and go on that run and win 101 games to take the division, and then all of a sudden — boom. To get punched in the gut by Philly and have to go home? Just like that???
And for me personally, I was really hard on myself after what happened in the playoffs last year. I knew that I didn’t perform to the level I’m capable of, and I couldn’t help but feel like I let my teammates down. I felt like I let the fans down, let the city down, just everybody basically.
And that feeling, it didn’t just pop up and then go away. It was in the back of my mind the whole off-season.
But then at some point it’s also like … So how are you going to respond? Like — what’s next? Because what happened last year, that letdown, it’s irrelevant now. The only thing that matters now is how we work and get better and do everything in our power to go back to the World Series.
And after watching our team put in work this spring, and seeing how talented and complete and just absolutely stacked this roster is, I mean … I’m feeling good these days. Ozzie’s back. Ronald is all the way back and hitting bombs. Sean Murphy’s been a great addition, our pitching is looking super strong, Michael Harris is gonna have 162 games to put on a show. I could go on naming guys.
It’s not just the players we have, though. It’s the chemistry and how we get along. We handle our business, but we also like to keep it light. We give each other a hard time constantly — it’s part of this group’s DNA. And I think it all trickles down from Ozzie and Wash. With those two, it’s non-stop chirping. And Ozzie, he doesn’t just talk junk to Wash. He’ll come at anyone. The cool thing is that … I’ve realized a lot of it is actually about helping us get better. Like whenever I’m throwing the ball to Ozzie, if my throw doesn’t hit him right at chest level, I’m gonna hear about it. A lot. Eventually, I started doing the same to him. So now it’s a whole thing we have. And who wants Ozzie Albies yapping at them for 15 minutes about the ball they threw around the infield after a strikeout? Not me! So it’s actually helped the precision of my throws. It’s made me better.
From what I’ve seen this spring, we’re all better. It seems like every guy on this roster has leveled up. Now, of course, we’re gonna miss Dansby. He was a leader on and off the field. But I can promise you there are a bunch of us in that clubhouse who are looking to fill whatever leadership gap exists. And to be honest, I feel like things work best that way.
There’s definitely something to be said for having multiple leaders — guys who go about their business and play the game the right way and hold each other accountable. And with us, it’s a diverse group with a lot of different types of leadership. There’s quiet guys, super vocal guys, and everything in between. But we all have the same high standard, the same overall goal.
To even have an opportunity to be in that group of leaders is humbling, and not something I take lightly. This team, this franchise, this town … I just have so much respect and love for everything about it all. It’s something I cherish. This Braves thing goes deep for me.
I’m forever grateful to people like Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman, who helped teach me how to respect the game and play it the right way. And since I’ve been in the big leagues, time spent getting to know Chipper, Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton, and then getting to spend some quality time with Hank Aaron … it’s all stuff that has me pinching myself.
To this day, I still fire up YouTube sometimes and go down a rabbit hole of highlights from that 2021 championship. Just reliving those moments, you know what I mean? And my go-to clip is Duvall’s grand slam. Game 5, our place, first inning, two outs, bases loaded. Such a huge bomb, obviously.
But my favorite part about it is our crowd, Braves Country, and that pop you hear of the fans at the park celebrating. I mean, that level of noise at Truist … I can’t even fully describe it to you. I was on second base at the time, and I just remember rounding third and looking at Wash and, I kid you not, it was like he was vibrating. Like there was an earthquake or something, and the ground was shaking. That whole scene still gives me the chills. (Dansby and me used to talk about how it’s almost best that we lost that game and had to play another one in Houston — because if we’d closed it out after Game 5, The Battery might have exploded from all those people partying so hard.)
That level of noise at Truist … I can’t even fully describe it to you.- Austin Riley
Here’s the thing about our fans: While moments as big as the grand slam game are special, I feel like they’re passionate like that all season long. Braves Country always shows up, and they’re always loud — whether it’s Game 5 of the World Series or a Wednesday afternoon game in April. Our fans … they can definitely flip a game for us just with their energy.
What’s been the coolest thing about Braves fans for me is just being able to connect in a real-person sort of way. I like talking with them. They’re super informed, they know about my hobbies and interests. They know I love to hunt, or that I’m passionate about honoring the men and women who have served our country, and they’ll strike up a conversation when they see me. That’s maybe not for everyone in the league. But I really enjoy it.
Maybe it’s because I’m one of them. I’m a Southern guy from Mississippi. So it’ll be like: You love hunting turkeys? Me too! Or people coming up and wanting to talk about one of the Realtree hunting videos of mine that they saw on YouTube. Or, Yo, check out this pic on my phone of the eight-point I nabbed last week down in Millwood! Or sometimes … it’ll be something totally out of nowhere. I had a woman come up to me in a restaurant one time and invite me to her son’s bar mitzvah. It’s after your season ends, in November. You should come!!! That was awesome. Shoutout to her. Then, this one time, I met a newlywed couple named Austin and Riley … you can’t make this stuff up.
It’s also been really great getting to meet and talk to so many veterans. That’s one of the best things about being in the position I am. It’s a true honor. People ask me why I focus my community work on veterans. Being from Mississippi is part of it. Where I’m from, soldiers and veterans are the real heroes. Not pro athletes. We GET to play baseball because those men and women sacrifice so much for the rest of us. The least I can do is support them however I can. It’s the Southern way. When I hosted my fundraiser at Topgolf last year and partnered with Team Red, White & Blue, I met some of the bravest men and women you can imagine.
And not to be too cheesy or whatever, but every time one of those conversations happens, and I’m able to connect with someone and talk about their service to our country or hunting or whatever it may be, it just reminds me of how fortunate I am to be a Brave. I really do feel like being drafted by this team, and getting to spend so much time in Georgia, that I landed in the absolute perfect place. The fit literally couldn’t be better. Atlanta is only five hours from my folks’ house in Mississippi. My wife has family in Georgia, and she absolutely loves it here, too. And now that we have a little one, it’s very cool knowing that he’s going to be raised around baseball and the Braves and this town.
So, yeah, it couldn't have lined up any better. The people in Atlanta are wonderful, the hunting is great, the golf is awesome, it’s a great place to raise a family. And some years, when everything breaks right … we might just win the whole thing again.
What do you all say we make this year one of those years?