It is a hot, dusty summer afternoon at Bernie Arbor Stadium, and the president of the Hamilton Cardinals baseball team stands behind home plate, joking and laughing with his players.
J.P. Molinaro, clad in a red Cards t-shirt and armed with a clipboard containing a spring’s worth of pitching and hitting statistics, is just 22 years old.
"We have to get to them early because they have the best closer in the league," J.P. informs a cluster of players taking batting practice prior to a recent home game.
The team president has never played baseball. Or any other team sport, for that matter. J.P. doesn't make much eye contact either. He struggles with crowds, changes to routine and fine motor skills. The job of running a semi-professional baseball team is the first he has ever held.
He was installed as team president by his father, Gary Molinaro, who purchased the struggling Hamilton Cardinals franchise of the Intercounty Baseball League over the winter. Making J.P. president was the first order of business.
J.P. has Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurobiological disorder within the autism spectrum, and the elder Molinaro had J.P.’s social development and future job skills in mind when he became team owner.
J.P.’s Asperger’s means that he has difficulty developing social and communication skills, but that doesn’t stop him from helping run the club. He's the youngest president in the league and far more than a figurehead.
J.P. thrives in the world of information — and baseball is a world that gives him an opportunity to shine.
Described as a "stats machine" by one player, J.P. makes note of every single pitch thrown, hit, and play made during the course of Cardinals games.
"Pitcher chart, counting how many pitches they throw, called strikes, swinging strikes, balls, fly balls, ground balls. I even do it for the other team," said J.P. while lounging in the Hamilton dugout before a game against the Brantford Red Sox.
J.P. uses his ability to collect copious amounts of information to his club’s advantage.
"I have a file at my house. I fill it out there, email it to [the manager] so that in case we were ever to play the same team again, we could say, ‘okay, this guy throws a specific way compared to some one else.’"
"I just really enjoy doing stats," continued J.P. "I’ve been doing this for three years now, so it’s something I’ve become very good at."
It has only been a few years since the Cards’ team president graduated from Hamilton’s Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School. Since then, he has been pursuing a General Arts and Science diploma from Mohawk College, though he no longer takes his classes on campus.
"Going up there everyday became too much for him. There was just too much stimulus, too much happening…he wasn’t comfortable. We felt his safety was in jeopardy. He just wasn’t comfortable with all those people," said J.P.’s dad, Gary, the owner of Stoney Creek-based Solaris Dental Associations.
After he switched to online courses, however, J.P. thrived. Today, he is just one credit short of his diploma.
Reflecting on J.P.’s potential for meaningful employment in the future, Molinaro told the CBC that "100% a kid like J.P. can do it."
"The only thing is he’d need someone to drive him to work everyday and someone to pick him up everyday, but once he’s at work and he’s doing a job he can function. Something in sports doing stats would be right up his alley…"
His current gig seems to be pretty good job training.
And though the Hamilton Cardinals should not be confused with the St. Louis Cardinals, being the president of a team in the Intercounty Baseball League is nothing to sneeze at either.
'A kid with autism who was socially awkward, now engages with the players and talks to them, so it’s a big deal for me and for J.P.' —Gary Molinaro
Intercounty baseball has been around southern-Ontario since 1919. Over the years, a number of prominent Canadian baseball talents including Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, and former Toronto Blue Jays Paul Spoljaric and Rob Ducey, have suited up for one team or another. Today, rosters in the 8-team league feature a collection of college ballplayers, former minor league players, veteran journeymen from the US and Latin America, and a few ex-Major Leaguers.
He has been at the helm of the club for only a short time, but the presidency has helped J.P. blossom into a significant contributor to the Cardinals’ baseball operations.
"The big thing for me, as a parent, is that he’s come out of his shell," said the proud father. "A kid with autism who was socially awkward, now engages with the players and talks to them, so it’s a big deal for me and for J.P."
It is not just his dad that sees the value in J.P.’s association with the team, however.
Matt Fortuna, the Cards’ manager, relies heavily on J.P.’s exhaustive statistical information.
"I have J.P. keep stats for me. He loves looking at that aspect of the game. I have him track the pitchers, specifically. He’ll look at the number of swinging strikes, the ground ball to fly ball ratio, the pitch count. He’ll compile that data and email it to me and I can use it to formulate some of my game plans," said Fortuna.
An important role
Fortuna said that J.P. plays an "extremely important" role in the way he approaches a game.
"Based on some of the data he gives me, I can look at what pitchers have certain tendencies. If it’s a late game situation with a runner on first base and I have a guy that gets a ton of ground balls, based on what J.P.’s given me I can say ‘Okay I can use this reliever’…"
Ryan Van Spronsen, a right-handed pitcher that played NCAA Division I baseball at Wagner College in New York, said that JP’s contributions give Cards pitchers an edge in the way they prepare for a start.
"It’s definitely useful for guys like me…I look for the stats before every game. It’s very useful for approaching hitters differently. Really the more information [you have]
the more effective you can be."
Minutes before the first pitch against Brantford is thrown, J.P. perches himself high atop the bleachers, just below the press box. As the starting pitcher, Van Spronsen, finishes his warm-up pitches, J.P.’s pen hovers inches above his games sheet as he waits for the leadoff batter to step up to the plate.
The first pitch of the game is a curveball, and it is a swinging strike. The second pitch is a fastball on the outer half of the plate, another strike. Van Spronsen blows a fastball by the Brantford hitter for strike three, and the crowd erupts in cheers. Everyone except for J.P., that is.
He is busy keeping track of the pitch count.