In the backyard of their northern Scottsdale home, teenager Johnny Samolinski and his younger brother Jacob donned matching Atlanta Braves jerseys and baseball caps.
Jacob was watching Johnny wind up and hurl a baseball into a pitching net.
“It’s fast – really fast,” Jacob described of Johnny’s pitching. “I think it’s almost 70 miles an hour.”
Off the bat, spectators are quick to point out Johnny’s unique windmill delivery that delivers accurate strikes almost every time.
But what many don’t realize is Johnny is a teenager with autism.
Johnny started playing baseball around age 4 and prior to that, played peewee sports.
Around 6, he joined the Scottsdale Cal Ripken Baseball League.
He’s been playing baseball ever since, but Johnny’s mom, Cathy Samolinski, never saw it coming.
Johnny was diagnosed with autism when he was 4. He couldn’t walk until he was 2.
Cathy adopted Johnny and Jacob from Guatemala when she was 50.
“I was single. I always wanted kids, never got married and always ran a business and was busy,” she said.
Cathy submitted the paperwork on March 26, 2004, and three weeks later, she received the call.
“They had matched me with a child,” she said. “It never happens like that. I wasn’t certified. I didn’t have my fingerprint clearance to adopt.”
Johnny was 6 1/2 when he came to the United States, and shortly after adoption, Cathy could tell he wasn’t typical.
“John was always floppy,” she said. “He didn’t sit up until late, and we thought he had low muscle tone.”
Following evaluations, doctors thought he had cerebral palsy, but that wasn’t it.
The final diagnosis was autism.
“If there’s a lot of background noise, he just goes into his own little world,” Cathy said.
Fast forward a few years when Johnny picked up baseball and was attending Gateway Academy, a private school in Scottsdale that specializes in students with autism spectrum disorders and other pervasive developmental disorders.
“John just fit in,” Cathy said. “All the teachers – and some of his teacher he had two years ago – come to his games just to watch him.”
According to Robin Sweet, founder and principal of Gateway Academy, playing sports isn’t the norm for children with autism.
“For most of our kids, athletics is the last thing on the face of this Earth they want to do, so [Johnny playing baseball] makes it even more interesting for them,” Sweet said.
She said the diagnosis doesn’t define who these children are. Instead, it helps people to better understand how they think.
“The gift of sport or the gift of pitching takes away the cloud of the disability always being there,” Sweet said. “He’s an outstanding player who just happens to have Asperger’s [syndrome].”
Cathy admits that before he began pitching, Johnny wasn’t the best player.
“Every season, I thought, ‘Is he going to be able to play this year?’” Cathy said. “He was almost to the end where I didn’t think he could compete in Jacob’s age group anymore.
But when a family friend brought Johnny to the State Fair one year, the teen threw a baseball into a pitching net and the radar gun clocked the throw at 60 miles an hour.
That’s when Jacob, who also plays baseball and is described as a natural athlete by his mom, began teaching Johnny how to pitch.
“I taught him how to pitch and I let him pitch for one game. He struck them all out. Now it’s fun to watch him,” Jacob said.
Johnny, the star pitcher, was realized.
“One game, three years ago, we were ahead 15 to nothing and we knew we were going to win, and they brought John in and he struck out seven out of nine and everybody started looking at him. They haven’t stopped pitching him and he gets better and better.”
Johnny perfects his pitches through repetition.
“He’s very animated, and he’s got a routine of how he pitches. The movements are very methodical and powerful. I don’t want to get hit by that,” Sweet said.
Johnny isn’t the only person living with autism to play baseball.
In April, the Kansas City Royals signed 25-year-old outfielder Tarik El-Abour to a deal, making him the first player with autism to sign a Minor League contract.
“Johnny thinks that’s the best thing ever,” Sweet said. “That’s a cool role model for him. It’s not like nobody’s ever done it; now somebody has done it.”
Johnny himself is a role model for his peers, too.
“Johnny is one of the sweetest guys I know,” Sweet said. “He is always looking out for the other guys. He’s very kind and supportive of his peers, and he’s the pitcher kid, and so that helps him stand out.”
Johnny also is the drummer for the Gateway band, has received his orange belt in karate and “he’s a phenomenal bowler,” Cathy said.
But while he has many hobbies, it’s baseball that he doesn’t plan to quit.
“I would like to continue to play for years and join some new teams and make some new friends that I haven’t seen before,” Johnny said.