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Royals sign player believed to be first professional baseball player with autism

Minor leaguer Tarik El-Abour has overcome many odds.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Typically the signing of a minor league player out of an obscure independent league would not make headlines. But Tarik El-Abour is not quite your ordinary minor league player. An outfielder who spent last season playing in the Empire League, El-Abour recently signed a deal with the Royals. Signing a contract with a Major League team requires surmounting incredible odds for most ballplayers. But for El-Abour, it means overcoming even more. He is believed to be the first professional ballplayer diagnosed with autism.

El-Abour grew up in San Marino, California, and picked up the game of baseball as a kid. According to the San Marino Tribune, his first foray into baseball opened they eyes of his mother, Nadia Khalil.

“That is when I started to see the workings of the autistic mind,” said Khalil. “I started to see how numbers had a lot to do with how he thinks. Those of us without autism think in concepts, he thinks in numbers. The greater the number of times he did anything, the better he was at it. Just like us. However, the way the numbers worked in his mind went way further than anything I could have yet imagined. He knew he had to practice. He knew he loved it. He told me that when he grew up and played baseball, he would buy me a house wherever he plays, so that I could watch his games live. He did not know yet how different he was. He did not know yet how autism was going to speak for him before he could speak for himself.”

El-Abour went on to play at Pasadena City College, bouncing around to Concordia University, Pacifica College and Bristol University. He went undrafted, but the outfielder went on to sign with the independent Empire League, playing for the Sullivan Explorers in southern New York. He won Rookie of the Year in 2016, hitting .323 in 122 plate appearances. Last year, he won a championship with the Plattsburgh Red Birds, batting .240 with excellent speed.

2016 EPBL Rookie of the Year Tarik El-Abour making a bid for the All Star Game

A post shared by Plattsburgh RedBirds (@redbirdsbaseball) on

That year, he was asked to throw out the first pitch and take batting practice with the club before a Royals/Angels game in Kansas City for Autism Awareness Night as a special guest of Royals adviser Reggie Sanders. Sanders founded an organization dedicated to empowering and enabling individuals with autism. What began as a ceremonial first pitch may turn into a minor league career after El-Abour signed a contract with the Royals this spring.

Autism is “a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” More than 3.5 million Americans live with autism. Some of the challenges faced by those with autism may include difficulty perceiving emotional states in others, understanding areas outside a specific area of focus, perceiving unwritten rules of social interaction, and sensory integration problems.

On the other hand, autistic people can often be more focused in specific areas with a high attention to detail and knowledge, have a tendency for logical problem-solving, and independent thinking. The Royals have worked to accommodate fans with autism by creating eight Quiet Zones around the stadium and have set up special concession stands for customers with visual menus for those that are non-verbal.

Former Royals pitcher Zack Greinke suffered from social anxiety disorder, which has overlapping symptoms to autism, but is recognized as a separate diagnosis. Outfielder Jim Eisenrich was afflicted with uncontrollable tics caused by Tourette’s syndrome, causing him to walk away from the game at one point until he resurrected his career with the Royals. He was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as well, which is on the autism spectrum.

Regardless of the challenges faced by those with autism, El-Abour has thrived. Although he still faces long odds of reaching the big leagues, he is already a role model for fans with autism, and should be inspiring for anyone pursuing their dreams.

As El-Abour put it, “if you feel like you could do something with it, no matter what anyone says, and if you love it keep working there’ll be that one ‘yes,”