Autism stories: Making the team


Johnny has big dreams and his parents know how much he loves his favorite baseball team. During the week they will let him watch a few innings on tv before he goes to bed. When Johnny goes to bed his mom will sit with him and read one of his favorite baseball stories. She usually reads a chapter to him and this helps him sleep. Tonight’s story Johnny requests she read the biography of Roberto Clemente who played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 through 1972. As she reads about Roberto’s childhood and how he grew up in a large family he learns that Roberto did all he could to play even if he didn’t have a mitt or bat. It was truly inspiring how Roberto would improvise. Roberto would make his way to the ball fields in his native Puerto Rico as a young boy just to savor the game and dream of one day becoming a ballplayer himself.

He came from a family of seven children. He was the youngest with 5 brothers and one sister. His father worked at a sugarcane plant and his mother was a big inspiration in his life. Roberto learned early in his youth about responsibility and hard work. He too had to work to make money if he wanted to afford a real baseball or bat to play with. His father worked hard and provided his family with the essentials. Roberto dreamed of the time when he could play baseball in San Juan for the National team at a stadium with crowds watching.

As she read of Roberto Clemente they both felt touched by the story of his childhood and his love of baseball. As Johnny drifted off to sleep his mom gently kissed him goodnight and placed the book on top of his dresser to continue for another night. She quietly walked past him and said sweet dreams, my love. Like her son she loves the game of baseball and they love cheering for their team and spending time together watching them play. She could sense by seeing the smile on her son’s face that he was probably dreaming of something involving baseball.

Johnny always looks forward to having a catch with his father before dinnertime during the week so he can practice throwing the baseball and spending some quality time together with his dad. It is really the only time they get to spend together as they both are so busy during the week. Johnny pretends as he throws to his dad that he is playing in a real game which has been a dream of his since he was a small boy. Both his mom and dad are very supportive of him and they encourage him all the time and they have done a tremendous job in teaching him the fundamentals.

Johnny’s only real setback in playing for a baseball team is his diagnosis of autism. He has worked really hard to learn the game and to play with confidence and his natural ability. He spends hours at the batting cage hitting the fast ball, curve ball, slider and breaking ball. With the repetition and practice he has engaged in at the batting cage and on the baseball field he has exhibited the skills necessary to compete and shine in competitive baseball. The combination of practice, having catches with his dad, watching baseball games on tv and the encouraging baseball stories his mom reads to him Johnny is feeling much more confident and inspired and promises that when he feels the time is right he will try out for the baseball team.

It is truly wonderful to see an autistic child learn and develop skills and abilities to participate and be accepted and that is all Johnny asks for as he works on getting to try out for his school’s team and play a position and get to showcase his skills and talents to the delight of his family and friends and to prove to himself that he surely can play and compete and have fun.

As Johnny went to bed for the night he asked his mom to continue reading the story of Roberto Clemente as he feels such a deep connection to him in his love of the game and his dedication. He learned that Roberto Clemente was not only a great baseball player but he also was a tremendous humanitarian and sadly he died in a plane crash enroute to help victims of a major earthquake in Nicaragua as he was trying to fly in food and supplies to help the many suffering people on New Year’s eve 1972. Johnny cried as his mother related this sad reality and he said “Mom, You see baseball is just a game and Roberto played with all his heart but he gave all his heart to help out his fellow man and that is his legacy.” Baseball inducted Roberto Clemente into the hall of fame in 1973 waiving the 5 year waiting period which was in honor of his great play and his acts of humanitarianism.

Johnny then realized at that moment after his mom read to him that it was the right time to put all he knew about baseball on the line and try out for the team not only for himself but for all kids who have a disability like he has. He doesn’t look at himself with a disability though. He prefers to see autism as a challenge and a gift and he wishes to show others that he can play baseball too.

As Johnny got up to bat with his parents proudly standing in attendance he strolled up to the plate and patiently waited for the pitcher to get the signal and he dug in and anticipated the pitch. As the pitcher uncorked it he timed his swing as he saw the pitch drawing closer and swung with the same motion he did at the batting range where he spent hours and boy did it pay off as he unleashed it into the deep part of the outfield where it sailed all the way out to centerfield dropping in for a base hit. Johnny was so excited as was his parents as he approached second base with a double. He hit the ball with a mighty swing on his first attempt and he proved in that moment that he deserves to play on the team and the coach came up to him and shook his hand and said “Welcome to our team!”

Johnny and his parents embraced and were so overjoyed of his major accomplishment and the realization of his boyhood dream that his mom teared up and Johnny said “Mom, you and dad are my support system and I am so proud to have you both in my life as you gave me the courage and the support to believe in myself and I learned that with dedication, desire and passion you can do almost anything you dream to do. Thank you both for all your love and support!” As they celebrated a personal victory that day they all walked off the field as a family enjoying their son’s success and joy with great big smiles. What a great day for Johnny and his parents and for autistic children.

Dedicated for my son, Matty

Edward D. Iannielli III

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