It wasn’t enough for Taylor Duncan to push aside his own challenges, find his own way and enjoy the success it would bring.
There were others who needed help, who could benefit from what Duncan had learned living with autism spectrum disorder. But how to reach them? What common denominator would connect with the most individuals?
Duncan, a baseball fan of the ultimate degree, had the answer all along, as close as a horsehide in the hand. He took a nod from Terence Mann, portrayed by James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams,” who said:
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”
Baseball it is.
Duncan, 25, and his organization, Alternative Baseball, based in Dallas, Georgia, is providing an authentic baseball experience in more than 30 states across the county for teenagers and adults on the spectrum. There are teams in Phoenix and Avondale and one in the works in Tucson.
AB’s next stop, Duncan hopes: Cochise County.
In his youth, Duncan often was denied chances to play ball like others his age. Diagnosed with autism at age 4, he experienced speech and sensory issues. And then there was the social stigma that caused others to place restrictions on what it was believed he could or could not do.
The American Psychiatric Association describes autism spectrum disorder as “persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviors.” Those diagnosed range from people who are developmentally disabled to high-functioning individuals who may or may not exhibit odd social approaches.
Duncan was part of the not-so-perfect storm. He was able to play youth baseball when he was 12, but was denied the opportunity the following season when a new coach, concerned about injury risk, cut him from the team.
But for Duncan, there was always baseball. Alternative Baseball, appropriately enough, had its genesis in a pickup game.
“I had a group of guys and we were going to go play softball,” Duncan said. “But then they wanted to basically be able to throw overhand to throw those faster pitches. And you know what, who am I to restrict the direction they want to go? I’ve always had a hidden passion for baseball and wanted to get back into the game myself, so that’s what we did, we took that route and ran with it.”
The organization was formed in 2016 and has experienced steady growth. Duncan said it began with practicing and playing, distributing fliers and word of mouth. Eventually there were two teams and some national media outlets began to take notice, further spreading the word, especially when COVID-19 put sports on the shelf. He estimates about 90% of TV markets across the country wanted to run segments in 2020.
“They didn’t have much else in terms of sports,” Duncan said. “It was either more COVID or Donald Trump. After you hear about all that for a while, I think everybody’s just about ready for a feel-good story.”
AB has remained true to the game.
Traditional major league rules are used, but a flight-restricted ball is in play. There is no placing a runner on second base to begin extra innings and Duncan claims AB is the last league in the world to still use the intentional four-pitch walk.
And another thing: The bats are wooden.
“We want to use what we used growing up,” Duncan said. “We like the nostalgia part of it because for us, nostalgia is a big thing. If that’s what you typically saw on television, that’s what you always wanted to participate it.
“Then that’s what it should be.”
There’s the nostalgic aspect, but also other perks.
“It’s all beneficial for friendship and development,” Duncan said. “Just like in real life, in sports you learn how to deal with disappointment. Things are not always going to go your way. Life and sports … I mean even those making $300 million over a period of time in contracts experience that in the big leagues.
“It’s all about those mental skills as well as the physical skills that you can take with you to other ventures and to other aspects of life such as employment because a lot of times you have to work together with other people. Baseball teaches you how to deal with those specific situations and also how to be a good loser and a good winner.
“You can’t win at everything, and that’s something that should be taught. It’s all about teaching how to work properly as a team so you can work together to have the reward. That’s the way this country was built.”
Quite aware of that is Tom Tronsdal, who is looking to establish teams in Tucson. His journey could serve as a primer for anyone interested in establishing a team in Cochise County. It all begins with a coach and a dream.
The owner of Canyon Fence Co., Tronsdal is approaching the project from a business aspect. He has created a 501©(3), opened a bank account and is getting liability insurance. This will allow him to legally solicit donations.
He also has been in contact with Tucson school districts and will be holding informational meetings to recruit players.
He’s impressed with Duncan.
“He’s a terrific young man,” Tronsdal said. “I think he’s great. What interested me is I don’t want to do something everybody else is doing. After you follow the basic rules, he lets you create your own team and your own league. If you follow the rules, everything else is up to you, which I kind of like.”
Tronsdal is hoping to have two teams in the Tucson area, perhaps one on the east side of town or in the Vail area and another in the northwest section around Marana and Oro Valley.
“My goal is really different than a lot of AB teams, and that’s to focus on game play,” Tronsdal said. “Not being restricted to AB teams or Special Olympics, I want to expand it and play other real teams, other real organizations. The teams (including high school teams) I’ve reached out to are very viable, they’re willing to do it.”
Tronsdal wants to get all equipment purchased and then begin practice, he hopes by November. Although he’s heard nothing about a team starting up in Cochise County, he would welcome it. He has done work in the county and is familiar with it.
“It’s a great community,” he said. “It would be fun to either have it incorporated into the Vail team or finding somebody from Benson or Willcox or wherever to play.”
Duncan would be just fine with that, as it will only help spread the word on autism spectrum disorder, especially in the media.
“Here’s what I think could be done better,” he said. “Promote it as a spectrum instead of fitting it into one singular box. The casual viewer has the perception of those with the disability, they think of possibly the worst cases of it because oftentimes that’s what makes television. But it is important to realize that it is diagnosed along a spectrum and every individual will be different in his unique qualities and differences as well as their needs overall that need to be met.”
Duncan believes disability resources should be available in every community. What happens if a person loses housing because of medical bills? The situation is not going away, as Duncan says diagnostics for autism are going “sky high,” especially in children.
Depite the challenge, those on the spectrum have been successful in many areas of life and career. As you would suspect, Duncan hopes a person on the spectrum will emerge as a great baseball player.
“Unfortunately, it seems like my time is gone, but that’s OK, I’m almost 26,” he jokes. “But you know, if I can assist others, that would be fantastic. I think that would be even more gratifying than making it in the majors myself.”
He may not acknowledge it, but playing in the big leagues can’t compare to what he’s already accomplished. After all, Duncan has his own fields of dreams scattered across the country.
Obviously, the one constant, indeed, is baseball.