Growing up in rural Georgia, Taylor Duncan loved baseball. But he didn’t love the lingering stigma from select teammates and coaches who doubted what he, as a player with autism, could do on the …
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Growing up in rural Georgia, Taylor Duncan loved baseball. But he didn’t love the lingering stigma from select teammates and coaches who doubted what he, as a player with autism, could do on the field.
So Duncan took it upon himself to create the Alternative Baseball Organization, a nonprofit designed to provide an authentic athletic experience for teenagers and adults with physical and mental disabilities. No judgment. No frills. Just high-quality baseball, played with wooden bats and MLB rules.
Four years later, Duncan’s now zeroed in on Chatham County as a potential expansion site.
“I believe everyone, regardless of geography, ought to have the same opportunity to be able to participate in an environment where everyone is accepted for who they are and encouraged to be the best they can be …” Duncan said. “And people shouldn’t have to travel to the bigger places to find services that fit their needs. They should be able to have something in their own backyard.”
The ABO started small in 2016: just six players, Duncan included, practicing baseball at a field in Georgia’s Cobb County. Soon, though, they had enough players to hold full scrimmages.
“With the national coverage, it wasn’t just a local awareness campaign anymore,” said Duncan, who was diagnosed with autism at age 4. “Instead, it basically became like a solution.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic upended the league’s spring 2020 season, the ABO had some serious momentum with 20 or so well established teams across the country. Once the league suspended games indefinitely, Duncan, its commissioner/director, decided to turn his extra free time into a net positive.
He reached out en masse to newspapers, TV news stations and other media outlets across the U.S., especially in metropolitan areas. He pitched himself and the ABO as a potential story idea during a months-long period where most professional, college and high school sports were on pause.
With word of the ABO traveling quickly through news stories and broadcasts, Duncan fielded countless calls and emails. He ended up confirming another 50 or so teams for the league’s 2021 season, which — COVID-19 vaccine distribution pending — is tentatively scheduled for the late spring or early summer.
“It takes some time to find the players,” Duncan said, “so why not get started now?”
For the Alternative Baseball Organization to take root in Chatham County — or, for that matter, any of the other dozens of locations it’s advertising itself to — Duncan must find a coach/manager.
Baseball experience is preferred, but Duncan said the most effective coaches/managers are simply people who think positively, care about their community and empower athletes to be the best versions of themselves both on the baseball diamond and in society at large. From there, things get rolling.
“We’ve encouraged every individual area to have their own unique branding and identity so that they can become a local community staple for a long time to come,” Duncan said.
Gastonia’s Carolina Fireflies are a shining example of what those community staples can look like, Duncan said. Just ask Heather Stevens of Bessemer City, who stumbled across the team in 2019.
Stevens’ younger son, Skyler, is 20 years old and has autism, epilepsy and verbal apraxia. He’s played sports since he was 4, Heather said, and always loved baseball, where his favorite position is pitcher.
So when Heather’s brother passed along a Gaston Gazette newspaper article he’d read, previewing a brand new baseball club for local teenagers and adults with disabilities, it was a no-brainer for her to reach out to Allen Boyd, the Fireflies’ new coach. He replied almost instantly, and the Stevenses were in.
“Skyler was very ‘Let’s go,’” Heather said, laughing. “He was very ready. He’d been participating with Special Olympics softball, so he was very ready to do baseball and to have a team.”
The ABO environment was “perfect” for her son, Heather said, because it gave him consistent opportunities to both play the sport he loved and socialize with other teenagers (two things that aren’t easy to find on their own). The Stevenses even traveled to East Cobb, Georgia, two falls ago, where Skyler played alongside Duncan in the ABO’s inaugural Ole Time Classic all star game.
“Sometimes, as a parent of kids or adults with special needs, you feel kind of fearful or scared to get them out there,” Heather said. “But this is a great way.”
It’s anecdotes like those that motivate Duncan, who spends his days on the phone securing donations, recruiting players and coaches and spreading the word about the ABO to Chatham County and beyond.
From personal experience, he knows what it means to be valued as a baseball player without judgment. And that keeps him going.
“When we’re encouraged to be the best we could possibly be — when that negative perception is set aside — we can accomplish a lot more as a society together,” Duncan said.
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