Like anyone growing up with autism, there were a million reasons why Taylor Duncan was discouraged from playing team sports. It would affect the other players and be a distraction, there'd be too little playing time or he was already too far behind.
The 25-year-old Duncan heard the message of exclusion but never took it to heart. Now the Dallas, Georgia, native is pushing for a national Alternative Baseball Organization, a nonprofit group which hopes to field 70 franchises this summer, including one in Fort Wayne.
The major goal isn't so much competition, at not least not right away, but participation.
“We want to make it as inclusive as possible, with all kinds of disabilities included,” said Duncan, the group's commissioner, CEO and executive director. “Anyone is welcome to come and try it.”
Volunteers and players wishing to participate, including males and females, can check out the group's website at www.alternativebaseball.org. The cost will be minimal, Duncan said, with most of the first season concentrating on skill and social development. Duncan estimates it will take at least six months to gather enough players who must be age 15 and older so there are no firm playing dates.
The league started in 2015 from an idea Duncan had with six players, increasing to nine by the end of the season. By the end of the second season the following summer, they were up to two teams, and in 2019 they started with 15 followed by 20 last year. Now there might be teams in Indianapolis, Evansville, South Bend, Jeffersonville and South Bend in Indiana, Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky, and Flat Rock, Michigan.
There's even talk about branching into Canada and possibly Japan.
Despite being featured on ESPN, the Today Show and in some other national news outlets, word of mouth and a strong internet presence have helped keep things progressing. Duncan said he sometimes conducts as many as 14 media interviews in a day.
The league will license managers and help provide equipment and recruit players. The program uses Major League rules, including wooden bats and stolen bases, though the pitching will be adjusted to the skill level of the batter, including slow overhand or hitting off a tee.
“We'll keep this train running as long as Fort Wayne will let us,” Duncan said.
The local squad already has a manager through some odd circumstances. Ashe Simpson, 27, had agreed to help run the Quad Cities franchise, but his Warsaw-native wife is transferring to Fort Wayne this summer for work so he's switching franchises.
“I think it's a really great organization these guys have,” Simpson said. “I just hope to be able to help out in any way possible, just providing the space and the ability for these guys to be able to come and just enjoy the sport just like anybody else would be able to.”
Like everyone else, Simpson said he plans on learning along the way.
“I've always loved baseball and wanted to help people as well so this seems like a great opportunity,” Simpson said. “I've done some volunteer work in the past with kids, and I don't have any family members who are autistic, but I know some people who have been touched by it in a big way. It just shows you that they need the opportunities as much as anyone else. The more players we have, the more fun we'll have.”
And that's the true goal, introducing athletes who may have been limited in the past from enjoying sports.
“We put a lot more emphasis on skill-building and being able to work together as a team,” Duncan said. “We want them to be as successful in real life as well as in the work sector using some of the skills they can learn from this. It's an opportunity for players to form those friendships, an experience where everyone is accepted for who they are and encouraged to be the best they can be.”