SCOTTSDALE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Johnny Samolinski is like most young teenagers. He goes to school, hangs out with his older brother, and plays baseball. It’s that last part however that sets Samolinski apart.
“He throws bullets,” said Jeff Lockridge who coaches Samolinski in north Scottsdale’s Cal Ripken League. “He’s one of those kids who’s unique to his age group because he really knows how to use his lower body to push off. He’s a heck of a pitcher and our best arm – and when it comes to championship time, that’s who’s on the mound for us.”
To watch Samolinski pitch is a study in full body perpetual motion. Flying body parts, herky-jerky arm movements, all producing a laser accurate, nearly unhittable fastball, time and time again. When Samolinski is throwing smoke – heaven help the opposition.
“When he’s pitching everybody in the stands is cheering for him,” said Samolinski's mom Cathy. “His teammates are cheering for him. He gets the praise there that he does not get in the rest of his life in most things.”
And that’s where this story takes a more emotional and inspirational turn.
Johnny is autistic. Diagnosed at the age of 4, he, nearly a decade later, remains in physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. He attends Gateway Academy in Phoenix, a school dedicated to educating autistic children.
Johnny, the child who couldn’t walk until he was 2 and never even crawled, is a star baseball pitcher.
“It’s so exciting,” said Cathy. “I see him out there now and I can’t believe it. The only reason they first let him pitch is because he wanted to try. One game they were up like 15-0 so they let him pitch. He struck out the first six or seven batters. Now here we are and people say he’s like a machine out there.
Samolinski’s aforementioned unorthodox delivery is a byproduct of his daily struggles with his condition.
“It’s hard for him to take all four parts of his body and make them all work at the same time,” said Cathy. “So when he pitches, he doesn’t look like a pitcher – but he throws strikes, he throws fast and he throws hard.”
Cathy is convinced Johnny’s autism helps him on the mound.
“That’s one thing about autistic kids, once they learn how to do something – they do it the same time, every time. And he just tries so hard. He’s always smiling and has the best attitude.”
One fan who recently saw Samolinski pitch for the first time called his performance, “awe-inspiring” – comparing the experience to watching Anthony Robles wrestle. Robles, as most know, is the former ASU wrestler who won a national championship despite being born with one leg.
“I like pitching,” said Johnny. “I like pitching a lot and I like striking everyone out. I think I’m a great baseball and some of my teammates are as well. And that’s the way it is.”
“We don’t look at Johnny any differently at all,” said Lockridge. “He’s just one of the guys out there. He’s our best pitcher and the kids see him as one of their own.”
Samolinski feels the love and hears the cheers.
“I like how everyone cheers,” said Johnny. “I feel really happy about that and I feel I can make the team great by [pitching well].”
“I see a lot of myself in John,” said Lockridge who was born without a left hand. “People want to know how you can play sports but you don’t know any different. That’s who you are and that’s how God made you. John is the exact same way. He’s taken the gifts that God’s given him and he excels with them.”
Youth baseball doesn’t have to be the ceiling to Samolinski’s baseball career either. Providing inspiration to Johnny is a ballplayer named Tarik El-Abour. Signed by the Kansas City Royals last spring, El-Abour is believed to be the first autistic player ever signed by a major league baseball team.
“I would think he would be really good even though he has autism,” said Johnny. “I think a player with autism might have a good career.”
“There’s no reason why he can’t dream big,” said Lockridge. “There’s no reason he can’t reach for those stars – and he’s going to grab some.”
Major league dreams are, for now, just dreams. Winning games in the Cal Ripken League – that’s Johnny's everyday reality.
“It’s pretty tough pitching with some of those tough hitters out there,” said Johnny. “I just do my thing. I don’t worry about anything and I just do my job out there.”