- When Taylor Duncan wasn't given the opportunities he wanted to play baseball while growing up with autism, he created one himself. Through Alternative Baseball, special needs players around the country have a league to call their own.
Taylor Duncan was tired of hearing it.
Diagnosed with moderate autism when he was just four years old, the Dallas, Ga. native had grown accustomed to being told he couldn’t do things. First it was in elementary school, when he tried to sign up for a local children's baseball team. Then it was in middle school, when he was denied an opportunity despite being eligible for a nearby youth program.
For as long as he could remember, all Duncan ever wanted to do was play baseball. And every year he tried, after every attempt he made, the answer was the same.
“All I ever wanted was to just be given a chance,” Duncan said. “But no one would give me one.”
Duncan came to realize that his coaches had already decided what he was capable of achieving. Rather than provide an avenue to prove himself, coaches used the speech, sensory, anxiety and social issues that came with Duncan’s autism as an excuse to bench him.
“People with autism like me are capable of doing so much more than they get credit for, but people have these preconceived ideas from those who don’t know what autism is, or they rely on the mainstream media to give them a definition of autism and how to treat people with autism,” Duncan said. “So my coaches just wanted me to sit on the bench, watch and cheer.”
Duncan had different plans.
Determined to create his own path in 2016, Duncan founded the Alternative Baseball Organization, a 501(c)(3) non-profit developmental program that has been providing teens and adults with autism and other special needs the opportunity to play real baseball under MLB rules and with real competition.
Three years later, Duncan, now 23, is looking to take the organization to new heights. To continue to create an opportunity for others where there wasn’t one. To show the nation that individuals with autism are more than just glorified spectators. To teach society that they are young adults capable of functioning without any limitations.
His coaches and teachers once told him he couldn’t.
Taylor Duncan is proving he can.
The first three years of her son’s life started like any other’s.
Cindy Duncan remembers them vividly. She can see Taylor urging her to take him out to play with others. She can hear him proudly pronouncing the new words he just added into his vocabulary.
“He was an extremely bright kid even at just three years old,” she said in reflection. “All he wanted to do was run around and play and share what he had learned.”
Until one day it wasn’t. Suddenly, Duncan couldn’t handle leaving his home. It was too loud, he’d complain. Too bright.
As the year progressed, Duncan retreated more into himself, barely uttering a single word.
“I knew something was going on, but I didn’t know what it was,” Cindy said.
In 1999, Duncan received his diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“I was crushed,” Cindy said. “Sometimes as parents, you go through a grief process when your kids are diagnosed. You have all of these hopes and dreams for your kids, and then when someone tells you there’s an issue, it’s like the end of the world.”
For the first two years after Duncan’s diagnosis, Cindy felt like it was. She and her husband separated shortly afterward. There were tears––lots of them––and days when Cindy felt that she was ready to lose faith.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Cindy had a clearer vision for her son’s future. She was attending a conference when she met a presenter who had lost both of his parents that year, and after learning that he, like her son, had autism, Cindy asked him what he wished his parents had taught him growing up.
“‘Independence,’” she remembers him answering. “It was at that point that I realized my hopes and dreams for Taylor may not happen how I want them to, but he’s going to have his own hopes and dreams, and we’re going to have to figure out what those are and teach him how to follow them for himself.”
For Cindy, doing so meant putting Duncan in classrooms with non-disabled peers. It meant researching and incorporating new methods to get Duncan socially involved, encouraging him to do anything and everything he thought he could.
By the time he was in elementary school, Duncan was already making sense of the world through the sport he loved most––baseball. Every homework assignment became another way Duncan could express his desire to play.
But his desire went unfulfilled. Bullied by his teammates and discouraged by his coaches, Duncan was denied a chance to join a baseball team until he was 12 years old. Even then, he only played one season at first and second base before a new coach stepped in and said autism made him “an injury risk,” cutting him from the team. All Duncan wanted was a chance to play, but that chance didn’t seem to exist.
The next five years of Duncan’s life would be his hardest.
“Baseball was my life, and I was being told over and over again that I couldn’t do it,” Duncan said. “I started to question what it was I had left.”
Christina Jones describes it as “falling off of a cliff.”
As the director of William and Mary Law School’s PELE Special Education Advocacy Clinic and an advocate for students with disabilities like autism, Jones has heard thoughts like Duncan’s several times.
It’s not unusual for her clients to have similar outlooks on life. While graduating from high school is often an achievement worth celebrating, students with autism may also approach it with fear, not knowing what the future ahead holds––or if it holds anything at all.
“When students with autism turn 22 or finish school, the options are suddenly very limited in terms of what they do next,” Jones said. “In the school world, there’s a lot of federal law that requires a number services and opportunities, but when you get to adulthood, there’s not always somebody that says you need to be doing XYZ to the same degree.”
As a result, Jones believes many individuals with autism are often neglected, pushed to the edge of society and denied the opportunity to integrate with their peers. She has heard some assume the trend stems from the idea that those with autism “don’t need to socialize.” Jones stresses the opposite.
“Even though their social interactions might look different than our own social interactions, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to connect,” Jones said. “Everyone wants to connect and feel like they are a part of something.”
Instead, she said, individuals with autism are often isolated because of a number of social stigmas and stereotypes. The biggest of those misconceived perceptions?
That those with autism don’t have any capabilities.
“Unless you’ve experienced (autism) yourself with family members or friends, you create these perceptions of what they can or can’t do based on stereotypes,” Jones said. “I think it’s really important that individuals get the opportunity to prove themselves and be seen as the individuals they are, not just that label.”
After years of being told he couldn’t play baseball, Duncan finally decided he’d follow his passion a different way. He’d manage a church league softball team, he told Cindy in 2012. He’d recruit his own players, coach his own club and provide an opportunity for those like him who had been denied in the past.
Deep down, Cindy had her doubts. But her son had already heard enough “no’s,” she thought. He wasn’t going to hear one from her.
“One day, he just came up the stairs and said, ‘They’ve all paid,’” Cindy said. “I was like, ‘Who paid?’ He told me he went on Craigslist and recruited a team and they all paid. I just laughed and thought to myself, ‘Wow, he really just started his own team.’”
Duncan, then 17, coached players in their 30s and 40s all the way to the championship game, falling just one game short of winning it all that season.
“He became his own advocate,” Cindy said. “If I had said no like everyone else had said no, he wouldn’t have had the chance to prove what he could do.”
Cindy didn’t know it then, but Duncan was only getting started.
The idea came to Duncan as he and Cindy were driving on the interstate back from Florida in the spring of 2014.
He was coming off of what he called “a life-changing experience,” time spent at a spring training softball camp hosted by Neil Teague in Kissimmee, Fla.
No one told him there he couldn’t pitch, couldn’t catch, couldn't hit or run. Duncan was instead taught how to refine his mechanics and skills, receiving one-on-one training from various USSSA and NSA Canada players that helped him grow into a power hitter.
Reflecting on the encounter as he sat in the car, Duncan realized he couldn’t go back to playing church league softball. It was baseball Duncan loved, and baseball––real baseball, with major league rules––that he wanted to provide for others like him.
“How come there hasn’t been a similar type of experience like this for others on the autism spectrum or with disabilities?” Duncan said he asked Cindy on his way home. “How come there hasn’t been a place for us to learn the physical skills and social skills? Everybody deserves a chance to play ball, and I wanted to see that happen.”
Duncan had found his calling. It was up to him to give those with autism and other disabilities the opportunity to not only improve their baseball skills, but to grow their social skills outside of the sport, too.
“I never saw autism as something that could take me down, and I don’t have a single bone in my body that says ‘no’ to anything,” Duncan said.
For his league to be legitimate, Duncan needed coed players who were at least 15 years old and volunteers willing to make competitive games happen for those without other teams close by.
He needed a field for practices and games, one where the basepaths were 90 feet and the pitcher’s mound 60 feet and six inches from home plate. He needed equipment for his players, batting helmets and wooden bats. The ball, Duncan decided, would be the only adjustment his organization would adapt. It had to be larger and softer to prevent injuries, since this would be a fully player-pitch league.
And he needed trained umpires who would help ensure his group followed the rules and promoted competition.
That’s when Ken Vanderpoel, umpire-in-chief for Atlanta International Umpires, first heard of Duncan’s story.
Duncan had already recruited seven players for his team and secured a field from the McEachern Memorial United Methodist Church in Powder Springs, Ga., when he gave Vanderpoel a call in 2016.
He told Vanderpoel about his budding baseball venture and asked about the cost of hiring umpires for their games.
“I told him that I really loved the idea of what he was doing,” Vanderpoel said. “This is something that’s so needed.
“I knew there were other programs that did this, but I had never heard of one that did it for people with autism and down syndrome and other similar disabilities, and especially not with major league rules.”
So Vanderpoel gave Duncan an answer he didn’t expect. Rather than charge him the usual $50 per umpire, Vanderpoel would provide them for free.
By spring of that year, all of the pieces were in place. Duncan’s inaugural season allowed every player with a disability a chance to learn how to properly swing, throw and catch using a glove and how to skillfully run the bases. As the numbers grew, Duncan began teaching players how to steal bases, turn double plays and catch in the outfield.
Players with autism and other special needs started taking part in a true baseball experience. They were instilled with confidence and grew in their social skills, embraced by a supportive community and given the opportunity to be the best they could be.
Slowly, Duncan started to realize his dream had become reality.
Alternative Baseball was born, and what followed was something Duncan himself couldn’t have imagined.
Faster than he could believe, Duncan began hearing from others who believed in his cause.
Duncan was being contacted by eager parents and participants across the states and from five different countries by the fall of 2016. Wanting to serve as many people as he could, Duncan took on yet another challenge: Hosting the first annual Alternative Baseball All-Star Game to collect donations for expansion.
On Nov. 12, 2016, Duncan made it happen. Alternative Baseball players who attended at least 70% of their practices gathered alongside current and former MLB and minor league players at Mt. Paran North Church of God for a nine-inning game governed by major league rules. Duncan couldn’t hide his excitement as he watched Alternative Baseball pitcher Stephen Thrash strike out former Anaheim Angels prospect Stantrel Smith during that inaugural game, realizing that another one of his dreams was unfolding before his eyes.
In the fall of 2017, Duncan made it happen again, this time with Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker in attendance.
“Taylor had emailed me a couple of times, and I told him my schedule was tight, and that I sadly wasn’t going to be able to make it,” Snitker recalled.
But Duncan wouldn’t rest. Not willing to let another rejection stand in his way, Duncan reached out to Snitker again.
“He’s a persistent, dedicated guy,” Snitker said. “After he emailed me again, I looked at my calendar and said, ‘Why not?’”
Snitker didn’t initially expect what he saw that day in Marietta, Ga. Duncan had requested the help of color guards and announces, Vanderpoel’s umpires and more professional players, including former Braves catcher Johnny Estrada, former relief Blue Jays relief pitcher Evan Crawford, former Yankees relief pitcher Colter Bean, 14-year Major League pitcher Brian Moehler, and former Cardinals and Braves outfielder Brian Barton.
“I was just amazed by what this kid did,” Snitker said. “…There’s a negative perception of autism in our society right now, but they got out there and showed people what they could do.”
As he watched 2018’s competitive All-Star contest go into extra innings, Duncan reflected on his journey. He knew three years ago that this was his goal––to provide those like him with an opportunity to participate in an authentic baseball experience.
Duncan didn’t know he’d be doing it like this, with Snitker at his games. With former professionals sharing in the experience with his players.
With no “no’s” and zero setbacks.
“It feels so great to know that anything is possible when you put your mind to something, that it’s possible to find a place in this world that doesn’t limit you,” Duncan said.
Alternative Baseball isn’t done growing.
So far in 2019, the organization has 26 teams across 13 states. Two more are on the horizon, with Estrada and Crawford looking to build their own local bases after being inspired by the All-Star Game.
He may have already achieved his initial purpose, but Duncan has his eyes set on doing more. He wants to host national Alternative Baseball tournaments by 2020. He aims to put on the league’s first-ever World Series shortly afterward.
“That guy shoots for the stars, and I think whatever he sets his mind to will happen,” Estrada said of Duncan. “…You don’t realize how many kids and adults out there have these aspirations to play. There are a lot of Taylor Duncan’s out there, and we keep digging them out.”
Duncan will need to make a few stops on the way to finding more like him, though, as sports communities across Georgia have already begun to recognize him for his efforts. On Feb. 23, Duncan received the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame humanitarian award.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe this is real,” Cindy Duncan said. “I look at Taylor sometimes and I think, ‘How did this start with you?’ Baseball has been around for hundreds of years, it’s incredible to me that it took this long for a 20-year-old boy to say, ‘Kids with autism deserve to play like everybody else.’ I could have never imagined this, but I could not be prouder.”
And on April 16, Duncan will be honored by the Atlanta Braves as one of the team’s community heros.
“We recognize people that do things for others, and Taylor is a perfect example of that,” Snitker said.
Duncan hopes to continue to spread his message. How far he’ll be able to grow, how many he’ll be able to touch, how strong his impact will be––Duncan may never be able to imagine. And it doesn’t matter what may end up standing in his way.
Taylor Duncan won’t take no for an answer.