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Photo Courtesy of Steph Rodriguez

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For Brock Riley, it’s been a long but worthwhile journey in baseball

While growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, Brock Riley always had a tight knit family. Riley was raised by a single mom (Leah Flynn). He enjoyed unwavering support from his sister (Brooke Torres), cousins (Shamus and Mack Flynn), uncle (Jim Flynn) grandparents (James and Valarie Flynn) and stepfather (Jay Murphy).

“We definitely had hardships and difficulties as any other family but we always stuck together,” said Brock Riley. “I had a good childhood with my cousins’ and uncle living next to me. My uncle helped raise me and my sister along with my two cousins. It was fun living in a such a diverse community where I had so many friends.”

When it came to sports, Riley started playing baseball when he was three. He played wiffle ball with his cousins from sun up to sun down.

When little league baseball began, Riley continued to flourish. Then, by the time Riley reached middle school, he was a three-sport athlete, running cross country, wrestling and playing basketball.

 

Overcoming a Slump

While attending Lowell High School, Brock Riley added another two sports to his repertoire. He played four years of varsity football and ran indoor track. His indoor track team even won a Division I state championship Riley’s sophomore year. But it was still baseball that became his main success.

Riley’s Red Raiders reached the Massachusetts Super 8 Baseball Tournament his sophomore year, too. That year, Lowell won a conference title and Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association North Division Championship before losing in the state playoff semi-finals.

However, when Riley’s junior year rolled around he hit a bump in the road. Playing on the varsity squad for the first time, Riley struggled at the plate as well with his confidence. That is when Lowell head coach Danny Graham approached Riley and recommended he make the switch from shortstop to pitcher.

“I had a pretty good arm, so when I got on the mound for the first time and started throwing it was just electric,” Brock Riley described. “It was a natural fit. I felt pretty good and hitting 80 miles an hour.”

Soon enough, coaches started taking notice and Riley began receiving invitations to camps schools, including UCONN.

“I fell in love with pitching and definitely had a gift for it,” Riley said. “I would have never developed if my high school coach didn’t point me in that direction.”

By senior year, Riley earned numerous accolades, including a First-Team All-Conference selection and being named an ESPN Boston player to watch. The summer before college, Riley pitched for Lowell Legion Post 87 and demonstrated his durability by starting two games in one night after just throwing a complete game in his first game for the team.

 

Collegiate Journey

Upon graduation form Lowell High School, Riley fielded a few Division I offers. Out of high school he was throwing 88 miles per hour, and he committed to the University of Massachusetts initially. But ultimately, Riley decided to attend Franklin Pierce University due to receiving a scholarship. The University was also ranked the second best baseball college in all of New England and had almost 30 athletes drafted in the last 10 to 15 years. Some of these players appeared in six World Series.

“It was a fantastic experience. My freshman year we went 48-2, and then sophomore year we went 46-4 and were the best team in the country for Division II,” Brock Riley explained. “We hosted the regional tournament two years in a row and went to one World Series my sophomore year.”

Despite all the successes of the baseball team, Riley decided to transfer due to a lack of playing time. When playing in a scrimmage game against the University of Maine, Riley made a strong impression pitching three shutout innings. After meeting with officials at Maine, Riley enrolled at the school.

But then came another bump in the road… Head coach Steve Trimper left Maine in Riley’s first semester attending Maine. The head coaching position was filled by Nick Derba. Not too long after that transition, Riley was hit with some brutal honesty by Derba: his scholarship would not be honored.

Facing the prospect of transferring to another school, Riley found a saving grace in Salem State University head baseball coach Al Donovan. Donovan was willing to bring him in immediately.

“Coach Donovan was so great to me. He said ‘you were going to play right away ‘ and believed in me,” Brock Riley remarked. “It ended up being a great fit. He pushed me on and off the field.”

In his first season for the Vikings, Riley went 7-2 along with four saves, 3.66 E.R.A. and striking out 56. Even with his record under .500 the following season, Riley managed to hit 61 strikeouts.

“[Coach Donovan] said to me ‘I know I can get that potential out of you. [I’m] going to hold you accountable and get on your butt if you are slacking.’ I needed that tough love that nobody was giving me.”

Not only did Riley find comfort in his new situation, but he was pleased to only be half an hour away from Lowell. The benefit to his proximity to home was the support from his family and friends. They would come watch him play and give him that sense of belgonging and home that he was missing after years of being on the road.

The Dream to Go Pro

By the time Riley graduated from Salem State, he was Baseball America’s 11th ranked Major League Baseball prospect from Massachusetts, a Division III Top 25 MLB Draft prospect in the United States by Perfect Game, and a collegiate baseball pre-season All-American… all while balancing school work and earning a spot on the Dean’s List.

“I was so happy and couldn’t believe I made the Dean’s List for the first time and technically had the best grades of my life,” said Riley.

Fast forward and Riley found himself playing for the Wachusett Dirt Dawgs in the Futures League after his name wasn’t called for the MLB Draft. While disappointed, he caught a major break when Tom Holliday, the father of MLB player Matt Holliday, called about an opportunity to work out for the Chatham Anglers in the Cape Cod League.

Riley did not waste any time. He drove through the night to arrive in Cape Cod for an early morning workout. . It was worth the drive and dedication, as the Anglers offered Riley a full contract on the spot.

“I knew immediately that I had to be persistent and wanted to make this work,” Riley said. “Tom Holliday called me and said ‘I will give you an opportunity to make the team.’ I told him I would take that shot. It was an opportunity I waited for my whole life.”

During his time with Chatham, Riley worked on the fundamentals of pitching. With an uncanny wind-up, Riley raises his left leg up to practically his chin, can throw a variety of pitches.

“I love throwing the ball sidearm, next pitching submarine and then throwing the next pitch in the low-to-mid 90’s over the top,” Riley said. “I definitely pride myself on using that trickery and it consistently works and get the results.”

This caught the attention of coaches and teammates, and Riley’s approach stems from several pitchers: Greg Maddux, Koji Uehara, and Brad Ziegler.

“[I watch] Greg Maddux for throwing in the upper 80’s or 90’s and hitting the corner spots. Koji Uehara had a lot of movement on the ball and got a lot of ground balls. Brad Ziegler, another submarine pitcher, threw to the outside of the plate.”

New Opportunities… and New Discoveries

In 2019, Riley ended up pitching for the Lake Erie Crushers in the Frontier League. Feeling ecstatic about his first professional opportunity and starting two games for the Crushers, those good vibes came crashing down when Lake Erie released Riley after a couple of weeks.

“I remember when it was a feeling like I had never feel really felt before because you work your entire life to make it to professional baseball,” Brock Riley recalled. “I was 23 years old, playing baseball for 20 years and definitely a big step-up from college… Then, [it was] just another kick in the stomach. I felt mentally burnt out and very down in the dumps.”

Ultimately, Riley decided to take time for himself and look for a job. Instantly Riley discovered a profession he could thrive in was teaching. His sister was a special education teacher for seven years and his girlfriend, Danielle Crawford, is a teacher as well. Hired to teach at an inner-city school in Lowell, Riley faced many challenges and roles as both as a special education and substitute teacher.

“My sister is excellent at her job, the nicest and most caring person I have ever met in my life,” Brock Riley described. “She said to me ‘Why don’t you try working as a special education teacher and working with these kids?'”

Soon after starting this new teaching role, Riley would ask his sister and girlfriend for different teaching methods and techniques to help the kids. He also had a lot of support from the staff.

“It was fulfilling to help the kids and it helped me learn about myself. The experience gave me a lot of clarity and being able to give back to my community.”

After six months, Riley rediscovered his passion for baseball.

This past winter, Riley got another shot to play ball when he signed with the New York Boulders. With the team changing its name and entering the Frontier League, Riley felt very excited about the opportunity.

Then COVID-19 hit.

In June, the season was canceled due to the pandemic.

“I worked so hard all spring and summer lifting weights to prepare for a whole season.. To find out that the season is canceled is just soul crushing because you are so young, and only have a few years to really play professional baseball,” Riley said.

A fall-back plan ensued in July with the All-American Baseball Challenge. This Challenge took place at Palisades Credit Union Park between two New York teams: the Rockland Boulders and New York Brave.

“The All-American Baseball Challenge was so exciting,” Riley said. “A lot of the guys on the New York Brave were going to be actually on the New York Boulders rosters like myself and teammates of mine. It looks like they tried to split the teams up pretty evenly and have two pretty competitive teams.”

Even with a schedule that features games Thursday through Sunday, Riley has prepared for it both mentally and physically.

“I’m pretty acclimated to playing every single day going back to my days in the Cape Cod League and Futures League. When you are playing every single day sometimes you lose muscle mass and don’t have much time to work out,” said Riley. “I like having just  a few games and playing on the weekend. We get out there and play hard and then have the rest of the week to take care of ourselves and get ready for that next weekend.”

 

A New Way of Play

Baseball in a global health pandemic doesn’t come with an instructional manual, at least at first. Riley has been very impressed with the way personnel and ballclubs have adjusted to the requirements and precautionary measures in terms of seating capacity and cleanliness.

“They mark off a bunch of different sections that people are not allowed to sit in and make sure people sit in separate rows,” Brock Riley explained. “Bathrooms were constantly cleaned in between innings and they switched which bathrooms were open.”

Although fans have been cooperative, Riley misses the fan interactions.

“Management has told us we really can’t toss foul balls to kids, sign them and give it to them,” Riley explained. “That’s been kind of a bummer because I knew when I was a kid and fan I enjoyed going down to talk to the players and have them sign stuff. I definitely feel bad for those kids right now.”

While Riley can empathize with the fans, he tries to keep the big picture in mind.

“We do have to be careful with everyone doing their part to make sure we overcome this pandemic, so we actually can play baseball and be with the fans next year.”

 

Along with COVID-19, baseball is seeing shifts and changes in the game, especially when it comes to analytics.

Riley employs an old school mentality, and his main focus on the field these days are getting results, not paying attention to analytics or statistics.

“I have seen countless number of players who have gotten opportunities in professional baseball because they can throw hard but couldn’t throw a strike,” Brock Riley stated. “I’ve seen a lot guys who can so induce many ground balls and put up unbelievable numbers. I personally don’t think it’s all about the radar gun and numbers.”

Riley had consistently pitched and strategized well enough to force outs among high-level players. But it was when he was overthrowing and forcing hard pitches that his worst games occurred.

There it is again.. The message of patience appears.

 

A Long and Winding Journey: The Payoff

Throughout his life, there have been times of triumphs and tribulations, and others where it downright stinks. But it’s very telling how Brock handles this adversity:

“It’s important to always listen to people who are giving constructive criticism and people that are in your inner circle and corner. You trust your family, coaches and teammates but there are going to be naysayers and thousands of people that say you can’t do it. You can accomplish anything if you set your mind to it. I put my head down and kept working. More importantly be happy because I’m truly happy with myself and not just because I’m proving people wrong.”

Then, there’s the advice he has for everyone, the young ballplayers and the adults who may have been through it all.

“Life is short so work hard to accomplish your dreams. Although it may sound kind of cliché, don’t give up. You can’t beat the guy who never gives up.” We all see that Brock Riley hasn’t…

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Sunil Sunder Raj

Sunil is the Rockland Boulders Beat Writer for DoubleGSports.com and also covers North Jersey High School Sports
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