DALTON, Ga. — The Alternative Baseball Organization (ABO), which provides baseball experiences for individuals with autism, is looking to add a team in Dalton.
Several potential players have already expressed interest, but the program needs coaches/managers and other volunteers, said Taylor Duncan, commissioner/director of the ABO. Additional players will be welcome, too.
The ABO launched in 2016 with a team in Powder Springs and has since grown significantly, with clubs sprouting in several states, including Tennessee, Maryland, Florida, South Carolina, Arizona, Alabama, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Duncan said. The closest team to Dalton currently is the Chattanooga program, which plays out of the Hixson Youth Athletic Association.
Following the formation of the Powder Springs team, another squad incorporated in Dallas, Georgia, "closer to where I live, the next year," and then ESPN came calling to do a segment, which can be found at www.espn.com/video/clip?id=23353934, on the burgeoning league, Duncan said. "People really got interested after that."
Duncan, 23, is on the autism spectrum, diagnosed as a child, so he personally understands that opportunities, particularly athletic endeavors, diminish as individuals with autism age, especially in rural areas, he said. His own opportunities to play sports were basically nonexistent, due in large measure to limits placed on him by others who had limited imaginations regarding the capabilities of those with autism or other developmental delays, which gave him the idea for this baseball league, he said.
Duncan has been "blessed" that so many influential figures, including his mother, have helped him grow into the person he's become, and baseball can provide many of those same skills to those with autism and other developmental disabilities, he said. "Baseball has taught me social skills that help me in my daily life."
Those social skills translate to other arenas, such as landing jobs and making friends, he said. Through baseball, "you learn how to communicate, and communication can be a hurdle for people on the (autism) spectrum."
No prior baseball experience is required to play, as "we'll teach you the skills," he said. "We really strive for skill building."
Autism Spectrum Disorder is reported to occur in all racial and ethnic groups, but it's four times more common in boys than in girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, as people with it may communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways that are different from most other people.
And rates of the disorder continue to rise, according to the CDC. Nationally, one in 59 children had a diagnosis by age 8 in 2014, a 15 percent increase over 2012's rate of one in 68, but estimated rates varied, with a high of one in 34 in New Jersey, where researchers had better access to education records.
Duncan detailed the necessity of providing outlets for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities in a TED Talk, which can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0RGXug-WV4, and he received the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame's J.B. Hawkins Humanitarian Award. Duncan grew up an Atlanta Braves fan before broadening his focus to not only other Major League Baseball teams, but also other leagues around the globe, and he's especially a fan of Japanese baseball, with its "fast pace."
The Alternative Baseball Organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, follows traditional baseball rules, including using wood bats and allowing for stolen bases, he said. They play with a larger, softer ball than regular baseball, and most games are seven innings.
In addition to the regular games, Duncan also devised an all-star game, the Ole Time Classic, in which ABO players can compete alongside and against former/current professional baseball players from leagues across the globe. Brian Snitker, current Atlanta Braves manager, is among those who have participated in the all-star game.
Most ABO teams play a spring and a fall schedule, with games typically once per week, and individuals must be 15 or older to participate, Duncan said. Individuals can sign up to play, coach and volunteer online at alternativebaseball.org.
"It's been great to watch" more and more teams form, he said. Players "grow not only as athletes, but as people, too."
Players in this area can join a program already operating, or wait for the Dalton team to start, he said. Equipment for the Dalton program will be covered by a grant, so the team can start as soon as it has enough managers and volunteers.
"Any help we get is fantastic and appreciated," Duncan said. The baseball league gives "people like me the opportunity to be accepted, and to be encouraged to be the best we can be."
"We don't want to stop," he added. "We want to continue growing, because everyone deserves the opportunity to play traditional sports without judgment."