Royals sign OF Tarik El-Abour, who has autism, to minor league deal

The Kansas City Royals signed outfielder Tarik El-Abour, who has autism, to a minor league contract Friday.

Al-Abour was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and did not speak until he was 6. According to the team's website, the 25-year-old is believed to be the first professional baseball player with autism. He will report to extended spring training at the Royals' facility in Surprise, Arizona, and will open with one of Kansas City's three rookie league clubs, which all start their seasons in June.

"We see this as an outstanding opportunity for Tarik and our organization," Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said in a statement. "We are built well for him, we have outstanding coaches, a caring environment and an opportunity to get at-bats in extended spring. Tarik has displayed a work ethic and passion for this game, and he's been successful. We are about providing opportunity and we embrace diversity and inclusion, so this is a good fit for both Tarik and the Royals."

El-Abour's signing was shepherded by Royals adviser Reggie Sanders, a longtime big league player who founded an organization dedicated to helping individuals with autism. Last season, Sanders invited El-Abour to take batting practice before a game at Kauffman Stadium.

"He did so well, fit in so well, just being one of the guys," Sanders said. "I said, 'Lord, what do you want me to do with this?' Six months went by and I woke up one day and said, 'Oh my God, I think this would work in terms of the Kansas City Royals and Tarik."

Sanders approached general manager Dayton Moore during spring training about signing El-Abour.

"Dayton said, 'What?'" Sanders said.

After the two talked, Moore agreed.

"Once I got the OK, I called his mom and she literally just bawled," Sanders said. "She bawled because with any special-needs kid, it's a very difficult process. When I shared the message with her, she said, 'Reggie, it's so surreal for me to be able to experience this moment of gratitude for the organization."

Sanders described El-Abour as a speedy left fielder.

"He's just a raw player," Sanders said. "The coaches are all in, in terms of being patient with him, making sure they are very clear ... in terms of their language."

El-Abour played for independent league teams the past two seasons, winning the rookie of the year award in the Empire League in 2016 after hitting .323. Before that, he played for Pacifica College and Bristol University.

The signing coincides with the Royals' Autism Awareness Night, which will take place during Friday night's game against the Los Angeles Angels.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.