By May S. Ruiz
Baseball has long been hailed as America’s favorite pastime. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s website, its history dates back to the 1840s. Years later Civil War soldiers on both sides played it as a diversion from the grimness of their circumstances. And, depending on whom you ask, it’s either the perfect sport or the most boring.
While baseball is as American as apple pie, though, attendance at Major League Baseball games has seen a decline in recent years. Its fan base is greying and young people aren’t as keen on the sport as their parents were. That said, baseball still attracts kids ages 6 to 12; it’s the second most popular sport behind basketball. However, it isn’t the natural sport of choice for children with autism. Until now.
Taylor Duncan, who comes from Dallas, Ga., founded the Alternative Baseball Organization in 2016 to provide an authentic baseball experience for teens and adults (ages 15+) with autism and other disabilities. Its mission is to provide physical and social skills enrichment in life on and off the baseball diamond.
“Baseball, like life itself, is so unpredictable on a per game basis,” explains Duncan. “We can learn how to grow and adapt in life just like we learn to do so in sports. One day you win, another day you lose, some days you hit a home run, other days you have those slippery butter fingers and miss every single ball hit to you in the field! We go through hot streaks and cold streaks in sports just like in everyday life. It’s a great way to continue building those social skills for life after high school. It’s a shame because once the Macho Man Randy Savage music ends (upon graduating high school), so do their services as many providers only cater to those 18 or others still in public school. This means that in a lot of areas across the country, there are no services catered to their individual needs. There needs to be more offered across America to help those like me have the services and encouragement to continue our successful paths toward independence.”
Continues Duncan, “During the pandemic, when no professional sports were going on, I had the chance to appear on news media stations in the search for new coach/managers, volunteers, and players to start new teams across the country. The goal is to provide this authentic experience in as many communities as possible. Every person deserves the chance to be accepted for who they are, encouraged to be the best they can possibly be, and instilled the confidence needed to fulfill dreams in life on and off the baseball diamond. They deserve an opportunity to connect with others just like themselves, whether they’ve played baseball before or not. If they haven’t played before, we’ll teach them the skills. Just bring a glove and your willingness to try. We love it when everyone gives 110% effort!”
It was in 2000, when he was four years old, that Duncan was diagnosed with autism. He experienced sensory anxiety and had speech issues. Relates Duncan, “While my mother helped me through my developmental delays, I still faced a lot of social stigma and negative perceptions growing up and was denied many of the same social opportunities as others my age. To be honest, though, my autism diagnosis and social awkwardness were not a big concern for me. Curiosity and creativity were always encouraged growing up so it didn’t occur to me that I was different. It didn’t really hit me until around the fourth grade after my parents divorced and my step-brother (at age 24, from my mom’s side) had committed suicide and I started to face a lot of bullying from other students and even the teacher I had that year who falsified my IEP records. When the bullying from other students in middle school continued in sixth grade, my mother homeschooled me all the way through the end of high school.”
“My mother helped me through those developmental delays” Duncan adds. “She’d work long hours with me every night on how to react to different social situations and skills needed for successful independent living for when I got older. Despite my being different, everyone encouraged me to be the best I possibly could. One of the most important things my mother had ever done, though, was instead of telling me ‘NO!’ like so many others had or having those same perceived low standards, she gave me the opportunity to try. She had the courage, time and time again, to say ‘if you think you can.’ She’s always been the best supporter possible for me and still is to this day.”
“While I got my high school diploma from Ashworth High School with honors in 2014, the stigma and perception about what people with autism can and can’t accomplish stayed with me. I’d always felt as if I had something to prove,” discloses Duncan.
Because of development delays and negative perceptions, coaches denied Duncan the opportunity to compete in traditional sports. Despite that, he played one successful year of youth baseball.
Duncan says, “The coach took me under his wing and made it such a fun experience. I learned way more than wins, losses, and statistics. I learned how to work as a team with people of varying personalities; and how to communicate and work together with my teammates to make needed plays in order to move forward throughout the game. To say it was a massive confidence booster is a colossal understatement. Unfortunately, at the start of the next year, a new coach took over and deemed me too much of an injury risk to participate on his team. I was bummed out. Yeah, I believed his win-at-all-costs attitude was completely bogus and only showed he was in it for himself to look good.
“However, I was never one to give up. I’d keep trying for new opportunities through the years. I still had that large passion in me, I didn’t want to give it up and accept ‘no’ for an answer. I attempted to play in a local church league slowpitch team. The head coach used to be a special education teacher himself, yet still held the same low standards and perceptions. Eventually, I realized that if I was going to have the same chance as everyone to enjoy this pastime, I was going to have to get out there myself and build that slowpitch team. And I did. I found several other guys from Craigslist and Facebook groups and we nearly took home the league’s trophy that season. It wasn’t a great season, but I learned a lot about leadership and what it’s truly like to coach an actual team. It was a pretty rad experience, if I say so myself.”
Much like those who follow baseball as a professional sport, Duncan developed an interest in it as a young boy. He recalls, “I was a big fan of baseball growing up. Luckily here in Atlanta in a time before cable, we had access to watch many of the Atlanta Braves’ home games on Ted Turner’s TBS Superstation (Channel 17). The Braves were very fun to watch during that time, but I tell you what was really fun to watch was Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks. My interest in the sport was renewed when he pitched a perfect game right here in Atlanta at Turner Field on the opposing team. Those other kids at school the next day were not very happy about that; I seemed to be the only one in the building who was overjoyed over it. Randy Johnson, Hideo Nomo, and Ichiro Suzuki are my favorite all-time players. My favorite player today in MLB though is Shohei Ohtani – by a longshot. I’ve been following his career since he pitched in the Koshien High School tournament in Japan that jump started his professional baseball career. When it comes to following him, I’ve pretty much been a fan of his since almost the very beginning.”
While baseball is a passion, it isn’t Duncan’s exclusive interest. In fact, his interests run the gamut. During the years when he couldn’t play competitively, he pursued other hobbies which he enjoys to this day (and some that didn’t quite work out, he confesses with a laugh).
Duncan divulges, “On my dad’s side of the family, I listened to a lot of Joy Division, Ramones, Agent Orange, a lot of punk, metal, classic rock, and obscure stuff that’d play on college radio. I was big into skateboarding at one point too, finally visiting KONA at the age of 16 for skate lessons. Well, let’s just say I’m no Tony Alva or Rodney Mullen – I don’t have THAT kind of balance. Hahahaha. Most of the time growing up though, I had an intense interest in trivia and quiz shows. Sick days from school were fun for me… wanna know why? It wasn’t just soup and medication that made me feel better. Every sick day made a perfect day to watch Bob Barker and ‘The Price is Right.’ Just about every evening back then, I’d watch Supermarket Sweep, Shop ’til You Drop, Jeopardy! (Hang in there! We love you, Trebek!), and ‘Wheel of Fortune’ with my grandmother then sometimes ‘Press Your Luck’ and Game Show Network on the weekends (Watch out for that whammy!).
As hectic as his schedule is, Duncan is taking online classes offered by Toccoa Falls College in Georgia to earn a bachelor’s degree in nonprofit business administration with a minor in sports management.
“I chose to wait until this year to attend college because I wanted to take time to see what I was good at and what I would enjoy doing,” says Duncan. “I enjoy helping others and I enjoy the game of baseball. Yet, I didn’t see any type of baseball league that followed the same rules as seen on television. I felt called to start Alternative Baseball. As we continued expanding, we’ve started having interest from those in Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Deutschland, and Australia who want to start Alternative Baseball in their communities. I wanted to make sure I learn as much as possible in order to one day provide the experience for those globally as well.”
One of Duncan’s goals is to raise international awareness for autism. I point out that we already mark April as World Autism Awareness month that starts with April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day, and he asserts, “Yes, we have an Autism Awareness Day and month but autism doesn’t stop after April of each year. It isn’t just awareness either. It’s about highly emphasizing the importance of acceptance and inclusion in not only athletics but also employment, personal relationships, and our romantic lives. This is a constant effort which takes every day of the year to promote and we have no plans to stop anytime soon! Remember the saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ It will always be a constant effort. The more help we can bring in to promote the overall mission, the merrier! That’s why I reached out to everyone who might have connections – I networked, networked, networked. And I prayed others would believe in the overall mission. As Babe Ruth quipped, ‘Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.’”
When promoting Alternative Baseball, Duncan emphasizes that is isn’t like baseball as we know it. He clarifies, “It’s different (and quite opposite) from similar programs in which we play using the same rule-set as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels. We don’t have any buddies assisting our players in the field, we play by the traditional rule structure with wood bats. The only adaptation is the type of ball which is slightly larger and much softer than a regulation size baseball. We continue to educate: Yes, we can play traditional rules like everyone else. We may have a disability, yes, but we want the same opportunities as everyone else.”
Duncan’s efforts are slowly getting attention and recognition. Alternative Baseball was recently commemorated as a Community Hero at an Atlanta Braves game and has been featured on ESPN’s ‘Baseball Tonight’ and NBC’s Weekday ‘Today Show.’ He also did a TedXAtlanta talk on providing more opportunities in and outside of sports for those with autism and other special needs.
And Alternative Baseball is coming to Pasadena! Duncan appeared on KTLA in early August to announce his launch and has subsequently found a manager for this area. Now, the search for players is on. He’s looking for players of any experience level, aged 15 and over, and anyone with a disability besides autism.
Duncan says further, “We encourage those even with no experience with disabilities to get involved because it’s a learning and enriching experience for everyone to see what we can do when we’re given the opportunity to get out there, to try, and give it our best. Those interested in volunteering, playing, or umpiring can visit www.alternativebaseball.org to sign up today!
“We’re also looking to roll out the Alternative Baseball All-Star Game in all the metro areas we serve. It’s our reward for our players’ participation and our hard work throughout the year! Our players who attend 70% or more of practices and games would have the opportunity to play alongside/against former professional baseball players in a real nine-inning game, no restrictions added. It’s a straight up experiment of putting the skills we’ve learned through the year to the test against those regarded as some of the very best in the game! We’ve run that game since 2016 for those in Greater Atlanta; 2019 for those across the Chattahoochee Valley.”
Alternative Baseball and the organization’s mission gained traction during the pandemic when there weren’t sports events on television. Between June and September, when Duncan couldn’t imagine it possible to do, he appeared on TV 1,000 times building teams around the country.
Let’s rejuvenate national enthusiasm and pride in the sport while we give our youth with autism and other developmental disabilities this opportunity to shine in baseball and beyond!