RJ Peete hasn’t let autism stop him from being part of Dodgers

RJ Peete begins his day by driving to Dodger Stadium with Dodgers intern and former Little League World Series sensation Mo’ne Davis, who for the summer is staying at the home of Peete’s parents, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and actress Holly Robinson-Peete.

A clubhouse attendant since 2016, RJ arrives a good eight hours before the 7:10 p.m. first pitch, punctuating his work day by conversing with co-workers and enveloping players in hugs. He drives home at midnight, fields questions from his mom about the game, says he loves her, then jumps on a trampoline in the backyard until he’s tired enough for sleep.

Driving. Employment. Conversation. Hugging. Verbally expressing love.

A doctor told RJ’s parents upon his diagnosis with autism at age 3 that he’d do none of that his entire life because the neurological and developmental disorder can present severe social, behavioral and communication challenges. His development into a functional, joyful and — yes — employable adult is largely the result of a doting family with the resources to access the best treatment and the contacts to provide rare opportunities.

The Dodgers are his benefactors and the beneficiaries of his growth.

“Like I tell Rodney and Holly, as much as they feel we’ve done for RJ, it’s been exponentially better for us,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I couldn’t have imagined that initially. He’s great at his job, his heart is gold and he’s enhanced our clubhouse.”

RJ, 25, sat in the dugout before a recent game and articulated how appreciative he is of the Dodgers, from the front office to the players to his fellow clubbies, as clubhouse attendants are called.

“Everybody here has my back and they are always here for me no matter what,” he said. “These are the best friends I’ve ever had. I love these guys and I love being around these guys. I look up to them.”

RJ Peete has flourished with support from his family and the Dodgers in his role as a clubhouse attendant.

RJ Peete has flourished with support from his family and the Dodgers in his role as a clubhouse attendant.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

RJ was hired after Dodgers executive Lon Rosen watched an episode of the family’s reality television series, “For Peete’s Sake,” about his parents helping him land him his first job when he turned 18.

Rosen, who has known the Peetes for several decades, invited RJ to the stadium for an interview. Holly and Rodney each held one of RJ’s hands as they walked him into the clubhouse.

“I remember that day and I felt great,” RJ said. “My mom had known Lon for years, even before she met my dad. He’s been a great person to us and he’s the one who got me the job.”

Holly and Rodney were conditioned to be protective of their son, unsure how others would respond to his autism. Roberts immediately put them at ease.

“Mom and dad, you can go home now,” Roberts said as he touched RJ lightly on his arm. “We’ve got this.”

Outfielder Joc Pederson, whose brother Champ has Down’s syndrome, showed RJ around the clubhouse and introduced him to his new boss, clubhouse director Alex Torres, who has worked for the Dodgers since 1996 and supervises a team of eight clubbies and bat boys.

“I have a good friend whose child has autism, so I had a little bit of an understanding, but every individual is different,” Torres said. “This was new to all of us. At first it was like, do we have to babysit this kid? Do we need to keep him next to us the whole time? To our surprise, he picked up on stuff really fast.”

Players quickly bonded with RJ, who stands 6-foot-3 and grins while giving monster hugs and bone-crushing handshakes. He became especially close to Pederson, who left to sign with the Chicago Cubs after the Dodgers won the World Series in 2020. Peete took it hard.

“RJ went to his room and wouldn’t come out,” Holly said. “He was despondent. He never showed it at work but he’d come home and wouldn’t talk to anybody.”

Over time, though, he’s recognized that the roster evolves. It’s part of the game.

Clubhouse favorite Justin Turner signed with the Boston Red Sox last offseason after not getting a satisfactory offer from the Dodgers. Holly was worried that RJ would fall into another funk because Turner spent time with him every day.

“I was like, ‘RJ, I’m so sorry,’” she said. “I went to hug him, and he was like, ‘Yeah, it’s OK mom, baseball is a tough business. It’s time to give our young guys a chance.’”

RJ was parroting Roberts, who’d emphasized that players come and go but the team is always the Dodgers.

“He’s savage now,” Roberts said, smiling. “He’s the commissioner.”

Rodney Peete, Roman Peete, Holly Robinson-Peete and RJ Peete stand on the field at Dodger Stadium.

Rodney Peete, far left, stands next to his son, Roman Peete, wife Holly Robinson-Peete and son RJ Peete on the field at Dodger Stadium before a game on April 14.

(Jon SooHoo / Los Angeles Dodgers)

RJ was assigned to the clubhouse when the Dodgers reported for spring training at Camelback Ranch in 2019. When he retired to his bedroom at night he worked on a project.

A few days later Roberts assembled the entire spring roster of 65 players and called RJ to the front of the room.

“When’s my birthday?,” Roberts asked him.

“May 31, 1972,” RJ replied.

Roberts pointed to Clayton Kershaw. “When’s Kersh’s birthday?”

No hesitation from RJ: “March 19, 1988.”

“How about Kenley [Jansen]?” Roberts said.

“Sept. 30, 1987,” said RJ, who needed no more prompting to rattle off the names and birthdays of every player and coach in camp.

When he finished, the team reacted as if he’d hit a walk-off grand slam, whooping and hollering, exchanging high fives and fist bumps. And, of course, he doled out his signature hugs, which unsurprisingly are scientifically linked to reducing stress and boosting the immune system.

RJ Peete greets Dodgers manager Dave Roberts at Dodger Stadium.

RJ Peete greets Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, right, as Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, left, looks on before a game against the Philadelphia Phillies in August 2016.

(Jon SooHoo / Los Angeles Dodgers)

“He has this infectious personality. Every time he shows up to work, he has a smile on his face and is eager to start the day.”

— Alex Torres, Dodgers clubhouse manager, on RJ Peete

RJ has repeated this extraordinary exercise in memory every year since. He’s even able to tell players what day of the week their birthday will land on in a future year.

“It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I nailed it,” RJ said.

While remarkable, RJ’s total recall doesn’t put him in the category of an autistic savant, the best-known of whom is a Hollywood creation. Raymond Babbitt, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie “Rain Main,” was inspired in part by Kim Peek, a man who memorized thousands of books and had encyclopedic knowledge of geography, music, history and sports.

“RJ can do many things like that but if you ask him to add six plus eight and divide it by two he’ll give you an empty look,” Holly said. “He has traces of being a savant but is not in that category.”

Experts say people with autism spectrum disorder value comfort and routine. They require three simple conditions to thrive: safety, acceptance, and a sense of competence. The Dodgers provide all of the above to RJ.

A favorite moment of his workday is when a game ends in a Dodgers victory. RJ stands in the well just outside the dugout so that when the last out is recorded he can step into the dugout and high five everybody as they head for the clubhouse.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bulldozed myself to the railing outside the dugout to video him high-fiving those guys and hugging them out,” Holly said. “It’s such a gratifying moment.”

RJ Peete, a Dodgers clubhouse attendant, prepares the bullpen before every game at Dodger Stadium.

RJ Peete, a Dodgers clubhouse attendant, prepares the bullpen before every game at Dodger Stadium.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Then, win or lose, RJ cleans the dugout. Before games he is responsible for preparing the bullpen: assembling chairs, setting out massage guns and filling the fridge with water and energy drinks. And once the dugout is spotless at game’s end, he heads back to the clubhouse and helps with laundry.

“He’s like clockwork, he knows what to do, you don’t have to tell him,” Torres said. “He has this infectious personality. Every time he shows up to work, he has a smile on his face and is eager to start the day.”

A few years ago RJ tried his hand at being a bat boy. It didn’t go so well. At one point, he ran onto the field to give new baseballs to the umpire when the pitcher had already started his windup. Everybody stopped, and RJ turned and dashed back to the dugout.

“People think it’s easy being a bat boy, but it’s a lot more than picking up bats,” Torres said. “You really have to pay attention to the game. You have to know when to go and when to pause. It’s a lot to take in.”

Holly was seated behind the first-base dugout and in a panic called her friend, Arsenio Hall, who was seated next to the Dodgers dugout. “It’s all right, Doc is talking to him,” Hall said, referring to Roberts by his nickname.

After the game RJ stood at his car with his head hanging low when his mom walked up. “Well, you tried it, RJ,” she said. “What did Doc say?”

“He said, “You f— up, son,” RJ replied.

“Well, that’s good criticism,” Holly said.

His fellow clubbies razzed him good-naturedly the next day, and RJ’s response was another step in his growth. He laughed it off and enjoyed the camaraderie.

“The locker room mentality has taught him to be self-deprecating and not to be so hurt when people make fun of him,” Holly said. “That was a hard thing for him to understand, that locker room thick-skin thing. They’ll talk about your ass and you have to be ready for it.”

Peers made fun of RJ in middle school and he didn’t respond well. After attending a mainstream elementary school on the UCLA campus through the sixth grade, he was placed in the special education program at a public middle school and classmates bullied him, taking his lunch money and calling him names.

“I felt like I got bullied a little bit, but it’s normal,” he said. “I felt some type of way about it, but now I’m older and I’ve grown out of it.”

Holly’s response was to retaliate, and she regretted doing so.

“I went to his school every day and just waited for one of these boys to pick on my kid,” she said. “I was so gangster about it and my son felt emasculated and embarrassed. He desperately wanted to have friends and it turned out awful.”

RJ Peete works in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium.

RJ Peete works in the bullpen at Dodger Stadium.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I was going to do like my dad did and say, ‘Let’s go in the backyard and play catch and I’ll coach it out of you, RJ.’ And that was absolutely and clearly the wrong path.”

— Rodney Peete, on how he thought he could help his son, RJ, overcome autism

Holly directed her anger and motherly instincts into a different direction. She co-authored a children’s book with RJ’s twin sister, Ryan, titled “My Brother Charlie.” RJ and Ryan’s names are changed to Charlie and Callie, but otherwise the book tells the story of the family learning about and living with the autism of the oldest of four children.

Six years later Holly, Ryan and RJ collaborated on “Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express,” a book for adolescents written in the form of diary entries that explore the frustrations, joys and lessons of growing up in a complicated family.

Last year, Holly and RJ co-authored “Charlie Makes a Splash,” a children’s book that focuses on RJ’s lifelong love of water. He learned to swim at age 3, and in water, the book says, “he finds solace, confidence, comfort, joy, and sensorial bliss.”

RJ took up scuba diving, and although his parents had to make sure the wandering that often accompanies autism didn’t present a danger under water, the experience was another win.

“I did scuba and it was cool,” RJ said. “We’ve got a pool at home and I swim back and forth. I love it.”

RJ’s given name is Rodney Peete Jr., named after his father who was a star quarterback and third baseman at USC. He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school and the Oakland Athletics out of college, but opted for the NFL and played 16 seasons.

He was with the Philadelphia Eagles when RJ was born in 1997 and had just signed with the Oakland Raiders three years later when his son was diagnosed with autism and the doctor expressed only pessimism about his future. Rodney responded with disbelief.

“I went into a tizzy of denial of all the things associated with having a kid on the spectrum and diagnosed the way RJ was diagnosed,” Rodney said. “It was lip service from me for a year and a half after the diagnosis. I didn’t read on autism. I didn’t talk to people about it. I didn’t study it like Holly did.”

RJ Peete stands on the field at Dodger Stadium before a game against the Miami Marlins on Aug. 18.

RJ Peete stands on the field at Dodger Stadium before a game against the Miami Marlins on Aug. 18.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Rodney’s father, Willie, was a lifelong football coach whose resume includes 15 years as an NFL assistant. Willie, 86, and RJ have a close relationship, but Rodney’s first instinct was to rid RJ of autism through sports.

“That was my method,” he said. “I was going to do like my dad did and say, ‘Let’s go in the backyard and play catch and I’ll coach it out of you, RJ.’ And that was absolutely and clearly the wrong path.”

It took an ultimatum from Holly for Rodney to accept his son’s diagnosis and join the rest of the family in learning about autism and charting a path for RJ. They had launched the nonprofit HollyRod Foundation in 1997 in response to Holly’s father, actor Matthew T. Robinson, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at age 45. The foundation expanded its scope to include autism a few years later and to this day continues to raise awareness and provide resources to families coping with either diagnosis.

Rodney played his last full NFL season in 2002 at age 36 with the Carolina Panthers and put up the best numbers of his career. RJ was 5 by then, the family was in lockstep on finding the best treatment possible for him, and the father-son relationship grew strong.

“I really got to know RJ and RJ really got to know me as to what I did for a living,” Rodney said. “That was the beginning of him realizing that I played football and that was something pretty cool. He would still struggle with sensory things and being in a large crowd, but my relationship with him was a lot better.

“I’ve learned so much about how he sees the world and how he ticks. Then we try to make his world fit that. Not the other way around — we don’t try to make him fit into the world.”

RJ Peete smiles while sitting in the Dodgers dugout.

RJ Peete smiles while sitting in the Dodgers dugout.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Driving to work might be RJ’s most impressive accomplishment. He failed the driving test several times, demoralizing, yes, but it didn’t dent his determination. Once on the way home from the DMV, he told Holly, “That doctor said I would never drive, so I have to make her wrong, Mom. She was wrong about everything else.”

And, at age 19, RJ got it right, passing the test. Today he says, “driving to work gives me my independence and being a grown man.”

A joyous step certainly, but also one that conjured nightmares for Holly and Rodney. RJ, like many autistic people, engages in self-stimulation that can include facial and extremity tics, flapping and sudden movements.

What would happen if RJ is pulled over by the police? Holly raised questions she can’t fully answer in an article she authored for Huffington Post.

“It petrifies me when I imagine him one-on-one with a cop,” Holly wrote. “Will he be nervous? Will he process the officer’s cues properly? If not, will the officer not see my sweet, special son, but instead perceive him as a threat?”

“Has the officer ever been around someone with autism? Will he mistake RJ’s difficulty making eye-contact for non-compliance?”

Holly took RJ to the police station closest to their home and felt better after introducing him to officers.

She told them, “You may see him walking up and down the street. He likes to wear his hoodies and listen to his headphones. He loves to walk to local restaurants and eat by himself. Sometimes he talks to himself. If you see him, say ‘Hi, RJ!’”

Rates of autism have risen dramatically. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March announced another increase in its prevalence among children, finding that one in 36 four and eight year-olds has autism, a significant increase from the 2021 estimate of 1 in 44 and a huge jump from 1 in 110 in 2006.

Researchers point to the growing awareness and advocacy of autism as one reason for the increase. More people are correctly diagnosed. Certainly in L.A., the Peetes have been at the forefront of advocacy for more than 20 years.

And for the last eight years, by bringing RJ into the fold, so have the Dodgers.

When Freddie Freeman reported to spring training after signing with the team before the 2022 season, RJ walked up to him and recited his birth date, September 12, 1989.

Freeman smiled and they exchanged bear hugs.

“He’s a joy to be around,” Freeman said. “We start the day with hugs and he squeezes me as hard as he can. Then we get to work. Sometimes you wouldn’t even know he’s on the autistic side. Sometimes people just need a chance in life.

Holly Robinson-Peete gives her son, RJ Peete, a high-five before a game at Dodger Stadium.

Holly Robinson-Peete gives her son, RJ Peete, a high-five before a game against the Chicago Cubs on April 14 at Dodger Stadium.

(Jon SooHoo / Los Angeles Dodgers)

“When you have a family like RJ does — they are such wonderful people — and also a job environment that has a family atmosphere where we spend 10-12 hours today together for nine months, that makes a difference. . . . He’s thriving and we all love him.”

The Dodgers clubhouse attendants and bat boys rarely depart for other jobs. Several have college degrees and have started families. RJ is the only new hire in more than a decade, a tribute to the inclusive culture created by leaders Alex Torres and Mitch Poole, and the respect given them by the players, coaches and the executives.

RJ Peete knows he’s in a good place.

“We all have that great relationship with each other,” he said. “We are a family, that’s what we are. I’ll work here as long as I can. I love this job.”