TRAVERSE CITY — Chad Downing’s son loves baseball.
Downing’s son also lives with autism, a developmental condition involving difficulties in communication and interaction.
But more importantly, he wanted to play baseball.
He tried Special Olympics ... softball. He tried Miracle League Baseball, a league for those living with mental and physical disabilities.
To him, however, neither of those really felt like the baseball he saw on TV. The game wasn’t nine innings and there were no such things as three strikes and three outs.
That’s when Downing and his wife Khristina volunteered to manage a league sanctioned by the Alternative Baseball Organization in Philadelphia — the closest thing to playing by Major League Baseball rules, while being specifically tailored to autistic young adults.
Since then, the family moved to Wayne County, and Downing hopes to expand the ABO’s footprint along with it. He’s the only ABO manager signed on to volunteer in the State of Michigan — for now.
The ABO is targeting the Traverse City area as one of 60 expansion cities, hoping to play as early as Michigan’s COVID-19 restrictions allow the game to be played.
About a half-dozen players and volunteers agreed to be a part of the team — that is, when it can find both a person to manage the league and a place to play.
Taylor Duncan founded the ABO in 2016 for young adults that live with autism and other developmental disorders. The 25-year-old played baseball for two years on recreation teams while in middle school, but eventually was cut by his coaches because of the negative perception of what one with autism can and cannot accomplish.
“I was often denied the opportunity to play the traditional game of baseball,” Duncan said, “and I was often denied opportunities to participate in what few resources were out there for those with autism and other disabilities.”
So he created a league of his own.
The only adaptations in the game are a slightly larger baseball and offering the player an option to be pitched to differently, or perhaps hit off a tee.
“If they swing and miss three times in a row, of course, they’re still out,” Duncan said.
Four years later, the ABO has expanded its footprint into 36 U.S. cities.
Duncan’s home ABO league in Atlanta caught the attention and support of the Atlanta Braves, and the Philadelphia ABO league had a pitcher from the Villanova Wildcats volunteer to coach. Downing made contact with the Philadelphia Phillies, but never forged an official partnership.
Duncan said the opportunities in sports for autistic adults are still nowhere near enough to satisfy the needs of the entire autism spectrum. But the small tweaks — having a player decide how they want to bat and removing an age limit — make a difference.
“Everyone has different needs and some individuals, with the services that are out there, unintentionally get left out, unfortunately,” Duncan said. “I hate to bring it up like that, but that’s the reality.”
Outcomes of the ABO don’t just come in the form of wins and losses.
Downing said a big part for his son were the friendships he made with people just like himself. And he’s not alone. Duncan said the ABO provides a team atmosphere players tell him they haven’t experienced before.
“Autistic children, and special needs children in particular, a lot of times have trouble in what we would think of as ‘easy’ events for a person and go to,” Downing said. “In other words, when they get into crowds, they have difficulty being around those crowds, and it creates some agitation, some misgivings on their part.”
That’s what makes the ABO different.
Downing said players feel like they have an outlet where they can be themselves and create community. Then when it comes time for the offseason, it’s far more than just a game.
“Because they’ve had this successful experience, they’re wanting to go out and try to find employment, they want to get behind the wheel of a vehicle for the first time,” Duncan said. “They want to do all these things that beforehand they were told they could never do ... and they’re doing it just like everybody else.”
Those interested in being involved with the Traverse City league in any capacity — playing, volunteering, coaching or managing — can fill out a form at www.alternativebaseball.org.