For love of the game: a young man’s dream for special needs baseball

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Sports have often been referred to as the great equalizer, possessing the power to transcend borders and unite a community. Just look at what's happening in Chicago following the Cubs' first World Series win in over a century.

But Chicago isn’t the only community that showcases how sports can bring people together. Dallas, Ga., native Taylor Duncan, 20, says the autistic and special needs communities need a baseball league of their own.

After all, he lives by the motto that “Not every disability is a disability. It’s a disadvantage.” He would know since he is also on the autistic spectrum.

This motivated him to start the Alternative Baseball Organization (ABO) , a developmental organization geared toward teens and adults with autism, Asperger's syndrome, Down syndrome and other forms of special needs.

To cap off the conclusion of its second season, the fall 2016 season, Duncan decided to host an All-Star Game, which will take place Nov. 12. It’ll showcase how much the players have improved, provide the experience of a championship game and will also include some major league talent.

And all of this is possible because of Duncan and his knack for networking, despite the social and communication challenges associated with his autism.

Creating his own opportunity

Duncan said he has always loved baseball since he was young, but he had issues getting on the field because he was deemed a medical or injury risk because of his autism diagnosis.

“They didn’t know how to process (my disability),” Duncan said. “They thought it was a bomb waiting to blow up from what they’d seen from mainstream media.”

His solution was if no coach or team would give him a chance, he would create his own organization to give others a chance.

Duncan quickly went to Craigslist, Facebook groups and athletic sites recruiting people, and he was able to get eight participants for the first season in spring 2016.

Duncan created rules flexible enough where each player could play up to his ability. If a player needed a tee to hit a ball, that’s fine. All that mattered was the players were given the chance to succeed.

“At the same time, having this stuff in groups with teamwork, they’re learning to work with other people,” Duncan said. “That’s another common deficiency with having autism and special needs are the social skills.”

As Duncan was growing up, he went to Nebo Elementary in Dallas.

“I was always in regular ed classrooms for general academics,” he said. “Occasionally, I’d go to the autism classroom for social skills and other occasional events. Something like that.”

For the ABO, McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church in Powder Springs allowed him to use its fields and facilities. The next step was getting referees.

Adding legitimacy

Duncan reached out to Ken Vanderpoel, umpire-in-chief for Atlanta International Umpires, to ask about the costs of having them referee his games. Vanderpoel immediately fell in love with the cause and Duncan's drive.

“To see him come out and love being a part of it instead of just sitting in front of a TV watching someone else play, it makes all the difference in the world,” Vanderpoel said.

So, Vanderpoel gave Duncan an answer he didn’t expect. He would provide umpires for free. Typically, he would charge about $50 per umpire.

Vanderpoel, who umpired baseball for the 1996 Olympics, stressed that the people refereeing these games are veterans.

“This is really good for our umpires, to see another side of baseball (where) people are playing simply because they love the game,” Vanderpoel said.

Both Taylor and Vanderpoel said the importance of having professional umpires at the games was to further make the players feel they’re part of a legitimate baseball game.

Surpassing preconceived limitations

The parents and fans in the stands also love the game, and the players’ mothers talked about what this organization means to their families.

“This is heaven sent,” said Michele Washington, whose son Malcolm has autism. “It really helps Malcolm with his social skills. All the boys just enjoy each other’s company.”

However, no parent has been more affected by the ABO than Cindy Duncan, Taylor’s mother.

In fact, she began crying while trying to describe how much Taylor’s actions and initiative mean to her.

“He’s had many struggles both with his communication skills and social skills,” Cindy Duncan said. “He’s met many folks who have preconceived ideas of what he could accomplish.”

She and her husband separated around the time Taylor was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. It didn’t get any easier when Cindy suffered a heart attack in February 2016. Taylor had to become his mother’s caretaker, but she said Taylor stepped up to the task and not only took care of her but also pursued his dream of starting the ABO.

“I’m just so thankful for the young man he has become and so thankful God has given me the opportunity to be here to see it all happen,” she said.

Growing one step at a time

Taylor Duncan said the end goal for the ABO is to become a national and international organization so that people with special needs from all over the globe can enjoy the game of baseball. He also said he’s been contacted by people from across the states and five or so different countries about the ABO.

“Regardless of their cultural differences, autism and special needs still affects families all over the world, and there’s really a lack of programs available for folks to feel accepted,” Duncan said regarding the lack of a national or international baseball league for those with special needs.

That’s where the All-Star Game serves another purpose. While entry to the game is free, all donations received will go toward ABO’s pursuit of a nonprofit status.

The game will include major and independent league players as well as Timothy Miller, the tenor singer who sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" for the Braves and the Falcons.

Taylor Phillips, a retired baseball pitcher who played from 1956-1963, will throw the first pitch, and Brian Barton, who played for the Braves in 2009, will also be there to volunteer for the cause.

“I thought it was a great thing he’s doing, not only for children with autism, but children in general,” Barton said.


Alternative Baseball All-Star Game

2-5 p.m. Nov. 12. Free, with donation of any amount. Mount Paran North Church of God 's baseball park, 1700 Allgood Road, Marietta. 770-313-1762,