FORT PAYNE — Taylor Duncan’s love for baseball was cultivated by watching Atlanta Braves baseball games on TBS with his grandmother.
The Braves and the Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball became Duncan’s favorite teams. Baseball hall of famer Randy Johnson became his favorite pitcher and future hall of famer Ichiro Suzuki was his favorite hitter.
Duncan, a 24-year-old from Dallas, Ga., always wanted the opportunity to play on a traditional baseball team, but his autism diagnosis left coaches apprehensive.
“Coaches didn’t quite know what it was and they had their own perceptions of our limitations and what we can accomplish,” Duncan said during a phone interview with The Times-Journal on Monday.
When opportunities to play traditional baseball evaporated, Duncan decided to create his own baseball league, a league welcoming to those on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities.
After having success starting its Huntsville program, Duncan’s Alternative Baseball Organization is looking to establish a program in Fort Payne. The ABO is calling for volunteers to help bring a club to DeKalb County. Volunteers needed include a baseball manager and assistant coaches, umpires, donors who can help provide equipment and, of course, players.
Those interested in playing, coaching, officiating or volunteering in any capacity should visit the ABO website: www.alternativebaseball.org. The website includes registration links for players and volunteers.
The site also includes a brief history of the organization and a map of competing programs around the country, stretching as far west as Hawaii and as far east as New York. There is also a list of rules and regulations, as well as a compilation of frequently asked questions with answers.
Players must be at least 15 years old to participate and there is no maximum age limit, but every player must play the field independently. ABO is open to all skill levels and is co-ed and uses wood bats and MLB rules, however, the baseball used is slightly larger and softer than a regulation MLB ball.
Duncan said the top priority for getting Fort Payne’s program started in the spring of 2021 is finding a manager.
He said the Huntsville program was scheduled to start its first season this spring before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a cancellation.
“We had done the work and had gotten them the field, the media coverage and filled their team’s roster to get ready for the spring season,” Duncan said. “We were going to get it going but COVID came. Our little buddy COVID decided to wreck our plans a little bit, but we’re learning to adapt as we go. We want to make sure (Huntsville) has more teams to play against by the time we’re able to come back.
“We had a lot of success in Huntsville and we want to make sure we’re giving them the opportunity to play against other local teams. We want to get one in the Fort Payne area because everyone deserves to play traditional baseball without fear of judgement; they deserve to be accepted for who they are and encouraged to be the best they can possibly be.”
Other established ABO programs in the tri-state area include Chattanooga, Tenn., Cleveland, Tenn., and Dalton, Ga.
Since ABO’s start in 2016, Duncan said he’s been pleased with its growth. The organization was commemorated as a “community hero” at a Braves game and has been featured on ESPN's “Baseball Tonight” and NBC's “Today.”
“People are wanting to volunteer now more than ever. We’ve almost doubled our number of programs since the pandemic started that will be coming back with us in spring 2021,” Duncan said.
“The growth of our players is just spectacular because you see whether they’ve played before or never had the opportunity to try traditional baseball, we’re all in similar shoes together.
“Those bonds formed through teams winning and losing together, how to bounce back from failure, those friendships that are formed are so strong. Those friendships are going to last players for the rest of their lives.”
Duncan said a segment of those on the autism spectrum are not eligible for the same resources as others with cognitive disabilities.
He said, “In a lot of communities where we’ve expanded, the biggest thing has been, unfortunately, after they graduate high school, after the ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage music stops, guess what else stops? Their eligibility for services.”