Former Royals player Reggie Sanders recently stood on a baseball field near his home in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and marveled.
A group of children, all aged 5 to 10, had gathered there to work with the Reggie Sanders Foundation, which he founded in 2012 to empower individuals with autism. They spent their time on the diamond that day playing and often repeating one phrase:
“I want to be like Tarik one day.”
And Sanders, who is in his second year as a special adviser for baseball operations in the Royals’ front office, could hardly come to grips with it.
Tarik El-Abour, a 25-year-old outfielder from San Marino, Calif., who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, was already making a difference in the autism community, which Sanders has spent most of his adult life helping.
The Royals announced on Friday that they had signed El-Abour to a minor-league contract. He is believed to be the first player with autism to sign with a major-league club.
“We’re doing something that provides an opportunity for people to see what it looks like for inclusion, number one, and creates that awareness — but also in sustainability,” said Sanders, who ended his 17-year major-league career in 2007 after two seasons with the Royals. “For me, that’s really what tugs my heart.”
As he spoke from the dais in an interview room at Kauffman Stadium on Friday afternoon, Sanders’ voice began to quiver.
He hadn’t meant for it to.
But as he spoke about El-Abour, he became overwhelmed. He needed to pause; he needed to think.
He had a hard time believing, even two months after the Royals put signing El-Abour into motion, that his far-fetched idea had become reality.
Sanders invited El-Abour to Kauffman Stadium last April after one of El-Abour’s mentors contacted Sanders’ foundation.
The two connected seamlessly. Sanders' younger brother, Demetrius, grew up with autism. He understood the struggles but also the potential.
Sanders learned about El-Abour’s life in baseball — despite being cut from the Concordia University program to which he’d transferred after his sophomore year at Pasadena City College, El-Abour played baseball throughout college; he concluded his career with a year each at Pacifica College and Bristol University, which had merged with Pacifica after his junior year — and asked the Royals if El-Abour could throw out the ceremonial first pitch for Autism Awareness Night.
As part of the festivities, El-Abour was invited to take batting practice and shag flyballs in the outfield with the Royals.
Sanders observed. An idea popped into his head.
“He did so well it had my wheels spinning,” Sanders said. “Man, this guy’s hitting with this team. He’s one of the guys.”
Drawn by their shared experience, Sanders kept up with El-Abour.
El-Abour returned to the independent Empire League, where he played after going undrafted out of college. He won the league's rookie of the year award in 2016, when he hit .323 in 122 plate appearances, and batted .240 for the league champions in 2017.
As the months passed and Sanders eventually made his way from South Carolina to Surprise, Ariz., for spring training in February, he finally put words to the nebulous thoughts in his mind.
“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 said.
After conversations with general manager Dayton Moore and his staff and exhaustive efforts from the front office, the Royals decided to offer El-Abour a chance. He has reported to extended spring training and from there will be assigned to a rookie-level club in June.
“We’re built for this type of opportunity for players,” said J.J. Picollo, Royals assistant general manager for player personnel. “We’ve got 105 rookie-ball spots to give players a chance to play professionally. We’ve got a great staff that’s open-minded.”
And Sanders’ far-fetched idea had fostered the inspiration — the kind that kids like the ones in South Carolina should be able to hold onto for a long time yet.
“Tarik doesn’t realize what he’s doing,” Sanders, 50, said. “But the beautiful thing is that it’s so raw for him because he’s focusing just on baseball. But he doesn’t realize he’s really helping the community, which is amazing.”