Playing Ball

Playing in the Ole Time Classic I recently were, from left, Alejandro Lopez and Tyler Arnold of the Cobb County Blue Devils in Powder Springs, Ga., and Samuel Barrett of the Columbus Cobras in Columbus, Ga.

Taylor Duncan, diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 4, is forever grateful to the youth baseball coach who took him under his wing and taught him the basics of the game.

But when Mr. Duncan aged up the following year, the new coach told his mother he couldn’t be on the team because he was too much of an injury risk.

“I knew that wasn’t true,” said Mr. Duncan, now 23.

He knew his story wasn’t unique. The resident of Dallas, Ga., (northwest of Atlanta) also knew that once children reach high school, special needs services begin to tail off. So three years ago he founded the Alternative Baseball Organization, a developmental program for autistic and other special needs teens and adults, ages 15 and up.

He started with six or seven participants in Cobb County, Ga., and now the non-profit organization has about 30 teams in seven states. Ormond Beach’s Clyde Ball hopes to make that eight states this spring.

Mr. Ball, 62, and his wife, Amy, raised a child with Hunter Syndrome and was touched last year when he watched a Today Show feature on the organization.

“I was amazed by what they were doing,” he said.

Mr. Ball, whose son died six years ago, contacted Mr. Duncan and signed up to start a team in Volusia County. Mr. Ball said he has plenty of sponsors and three prospective venues, but finding participants has been another matter.

Only one teen has signed up so far. Like the mantra from the movie, “Field of Dreams” and the example set by Mr. Duncan, Mr. Ball hopes that once he builds it, they will come.

“If we can find three or four players, we can start to practice, and then we can get more,” he said.

The key, he said, is getting the word out.

“Players can be tough to recruit,” said Mr. Duncan, noting that most of them were never given the opportunity he received during that one year he played youth baseball.

Since that first team took the field, the skill levels of the players have taken off, Mr. Duncan said, but Alternative Baseball does more than give them the chance to thrive in a sport. Primarily it helps them gain confidence to succeed in life.

“We strive to break barriers and power through the perceptions,” he said. “We teach the physical skills, but we’re really focused on teaching the social skills that they will take with them to other areas of their life.”

Mr. Duncan knows firsthand about perceptions. In a recent TED Talk, he relays his struggles as a child with speech, sensory and anxiety issues and how because of people’s perceptions he was excluded from many activities.

As he grew older, he pursued his interest in baseball but began to wonder, “Why isn’t there more for us on the spectrum to help us develop to be who we want to be?”

According to AutismSpeaks.org, one in 59 children, including one in 37 boys, are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and “teens with autism receive healthcare transition services half as often as those with other special healthcare needs.”

Said Mr. Ball, “Some of them don’t have a place to go. They’re not accepted by a lot of outlets, and when they are, they’re looked at in another way.”

In the past three years, the participants in Alternative Baseball have powered through the perceptions. While some newcomers start by hitting off a tee, in the games they play by major league rules, using wooden bats. Only the ball is different – slightly larger and softer than a baseball.

The top players have refined their skills and every November the organization holds an all-star game in which the ABO all-stars play alongside and against current and former professional baseball players.

Mr. Ball, a former nationally ranked triathlete who still competes, would love to see the program blossom locally.

“It will be good for them, and good for me too,” he said. “They’ll be coming, I hope.”

To volunteer or join the local team, contact Mr. Ball at aball1985@msn.com or call (813) 610-8339.

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