Royals sign El-Abour, outfielder with autism
KANSAS CITY -- When 25-year-old outfielder Tarik El-Abour got the news from his mother, Nadia, that the Royals were going to sign him to a Minor League deal, he could barely contain himself.
"Nadia told me he just started walking from wall to wall," Royals special advisor Reggie Sanders said. "He kept saying he can't believe this is happening. He kept saying, 'All I ever wanted was to play baseball.'"
See, El-Abour became what is believed to be the first player with autism to sign a Minor League contract last week. El-Abour, a right-handed-hitting outfielder, presently is playing in extended spring training with many other hopeful young Royals.
El-Abour was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. He didn't speak until he was 6. But his love of baseball at an early age persuaded Nadia to focus on his abilities, not disabilities, Sanders said.
According to the website autismspeaks.org, autism refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. It also is characterized by unique strengths.
"The repetitiveness of autism and the repetitiveness of baseball kind of go hand in hand," Sanders said. "It's great to be able to marry those two."
Sanders is well-informed on the subject. His 40-year-old brother Demetrious is autistic, and a few years back, Sanders founded RSFCares, which works to provide a comprehensive network of support for children and families living with autism.
Two years ago, a high school mentor for El-Abour brought his story to Sanders' attention.
Sanders became fascinated with El-Abour. El-Abour graduated from San Marino High School, played baseball briefly at Pasadena City College, then received a scholarship to play baseball at Concordia (Calif.) University. But he was cut before the season began.
A determined El-Abour transferred to Pacifica College, played a year there, and when the school merged with Bristol University, he played his season year there and earned a degree in Business Administration.
After graduation, El-Abour, a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder, signed with the independent Empire League and played for the Sullivan Explorers in southern New York. He hit .323 and won rookie of the year honors. Last year, he hit .240 for the Plattsburgh Red Birds.
Sanders approached the Royals about letting El-Abour take batting practice prior to a game with the Angels last season. The Royals were all in. And when Sanders saw how easily El-Abour fit in with the Major League players personally, as well as with his bat, he decided he eventually would take things to the next level.
That next level came in February when he convinced general manager Dayton Moore and his staff to consider offering El-Abour a contract. The Royals' organization has a history of inclusion, having rescued the career of Jim Eisenreich, who had Tourette's Syndrome as well as Asperger Syndrome (a form of autism).
The Royals made the offer to El-Abour. Sanders couldn't be more proud of the Royals or El-Abour.
"After his first game, Tarik called me in extended spring training," Sanders said, "and he said, 'I'm in the right place.'"
Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB.
"The Royals made the offer to El-Abour. Sanders couldn't be more proud of the Royals or El-Abour.
"After his first game, Tarik called me in extended spring training," Sanders said, "and he said, 'I'm in the right place.""