Time in Montana provides fulfillment, next venture for former Tar Heels standout
By Bob Sutton
Special to The Alamance News
Brandon Riley’s professional baseball career took an unexpected turn, but he found a rewarding route and that might have been most important for the Williams High School alum.
Now after four pro seasons as an outfielder, he’s taking a different role – one that he hopes helps him stay connected with baseball.
Riley is heading back to Montana for a third consecutive summer, this time as a coach with the Missoula PaddleHeads.
“It was a little bit easier, playing well and not having that question mark of ‘what if?’ ” Riley said. “I did all I could do, put together two good seasons. It was time to hang it up. I’m glad I did it on a high note.”
Riley batted .324 with 14 home runs last year for the Paddleheads, who had the best record in the independent Pioneer League for the second year in a row.
Riley resurrected his career with the PaddleHeads after bad timing in affiliated baseball. His time with the St. Louis Cardinals organization came to an end during the pandemic.
Yet there was unfinished business on the field for the former college standout with the North Carolina Tar Heels.
“During COVID, we were all back home,” he said. “Then my agent called me in probably January of ’21 with the opportunity to go play out there. Get some exposure.”
It turned out to be the ideal tonic. The Pioneer League, much like the Appalachian League that had a team in Burlington, was a victim of Major League Baseball’s contraction of the minor leagues.
Teams in the Pioneer League, which is a Major League Baseball partner league, aren’t affiliated with MLB organizations. But a spot on the PaddleHeads roster was a good avenue to keep playing, dreaming of the possibilities.
“I just wanted to take that opportunity,” Riley said. “Try to get picked up (by an affiliated organization), but also just have fun with it. Spent a couple of seasons having fun with the game. The best decision I ever made to go out there. We love it out there.”
The PaddleHeads were thrilled to have him. Manager Michael Schlact said Riley was the type of player the team coveted.
“He came through in the clutch on the field,” Schlact said. “Not just on the field, but off. He was a leader in the clubhouse. It’s a roster full of guys who want to make it and are good enough to make it. I knew people in that (Cardinals) organization. His situation is similar to that of a lot of guys. COVID got him and then the contraction of the minors.”
[Story continues below photos.]
Brandon Riley with the Missoula (Montana) PaddleHeads
Photos courtesy of the Missoula PaddleHeads
Two strong seasons with the PaddleHeads and no nibbles to return to affiliated minor leagues, Riley decided last summer that his playing career was winding down.
“I immediately asked him if he wanted to coach with me,” Schlact said. “I know he can grow here. He’s going to be doing a lot of everything.”
Riley will be an assistant hitting coach and spend some time as a third-base coach.
For Riley and his wife, the former Caroline Kerns, it’s an ideal situation. They live in Graham, but another summer in the Northwest has appeal. When away from the field, there’s golf, flyfishing and plenty of walking trails.
“Montana is obviously gorgeous. It’s a great place to spend the summer,” Riley said. “There really wasn’t any day that we were bored. There’s a lot to do outdoors.”
Baseball’s winding path
Riley took a nice baseball journey prior to the Montana summers. His reputation as a hitter and solid outfielder for Williams under coach Jason Knapp grew during his three college seasons.
He played in all 64 North Carolina games as a junior in 2018 when the Tar Heels reached the College World Series. That June, he was drafted in the 14th round by the St. Louis Cardinals and later began his professional career with the rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League.
[Story continues below photo of Riley while at UNC.]
About a month after a series in his hometown against the then-Burlington Royals in front of family, friends, and college coach Mike Fox (and Riley went 3-for-4 with two doubles in the finale) – he was promoted to Class A Peoria and also played with that Midwest League team in Illinois in 2019.
Riley is the son of Linda and Jay Riley.
Riley was in spring training the following year when the pandemic shut down sports. There wasn’t a minor league season in 2020.
Some organizations retained players. But by June 2020, the Cardinals made a mass release of minor leaguers. Riley was one of them.
“They were trying to trim the fat and not pay as many guys to just be at home,” Riley said.
So instead of another step in the Cardinals’ system, Riley had to figure out his next move. Then came Missoula and the unknown.
“There didn’t seem to be any pressure, even though you’re trying to get picked back up,” Riley said. “You get caught up in such a winning environment. Everyone is on the same page. You try not to think about that, but it is in the back of your head. It was still a blast. Some of the most fun that I’ve had on a baseball field.”
Schlact said the example that Riley, who could play any of the outfield positions and seemed to be on base regularly, set was invaluable.
“He was a sparkplug,” Schlact said. “He brought the energy every day. He didn’t do it in a chip-on-his-shoulder way.”
Riley found a niche, for sure. The Missoula newspaper called him a “star outfielder” in headlines.
“We can still make it happen whether we’re with an affiliate or not,” he said of mindsets of PaddleHeads players. “Everyone is trying to prove you can still play, you can still perform.”
Much like with the Tar Heels, Riley embraced the winning.
“Winning is the only thing that matters,” he said. “If you win, there’s a better chance to get picked up. It was nice to be with a group of guys that wasn’t so much trying to climb the ladder, but just winning. Trying to get picked up through winning.”
And gaining a new perspective.
“If I get picked up, I get picked up,” he said. “More so just learning as much as I can from Schlact, picking his brain, having fun playing and really just enjoying that season. I think the pressure just kind of gets lifted when everyone is on the same page and everyone is just there to win. And you’re making some solid friends for life.”
The PaddleHeads won the 2021 Pioneer League championship, then fell a game short in the 2022 postseason.
By then, Riley felt fulfilled.
“I had my two best seasons in pro ball while I was in Missoula,” he said. “I think that was a testament to Schlact and just the environment. Not having the pressure of ‘Am I getting called up?’ It feels like baseball again rather than a job.”
More to come
Riley, 26, said he intends to return to college in Chapel Hill during the fall semester to finish work on a degree in communications. There’s also the possibility of a graduate assistant position with the baseball team. He attended several practices last fall with the Tar Heels and a few 2023 games.
And he has dabbled in an instructional mode this spring. He helped The Burlington School team at practices and games, throwing batting practices, and working with batters on their approaches.
TBS coach Chad Holland said Riley provided a good foundation for his players, not to mention it was nice having a recent professional player around.
Next is the late-May beginning of the Pioneer League season. It’s a chance to create more memories, just not with the bat in his hand.
“Going to Missoula was one of the best experiences I’ve had in baseball,” Riley said. “Went back out there last year to play. Last year was more of having fun, knowing that it was probably my last season, ready to get into coaching.”