A national amateur baseball league for players with autism and other mental or emotional disabilities is expanding into Columbus — and the coach is a Little League world champion and a three-time high school state champion.
Kyle Carter, 24, who starred for the Northern Little League team from Columbus that won the 2006 Little League World Series then won three state titles with Columbus High School, will coach the Columbus Cobras, the local team in the Alternative Baseball Organization.
Taylor Duncan, 22, founded the ABO in 2016. The first team was in Powder Springs, Ga. This past spring, the ABO added another team in the metro Atlanta area, in Dallas, Ga., where Duncan resides. Now, the league has expanded for a total of 10 teams in eight states.
The ABO plays according to nearly all Major League Baseball rules, including wooden bats, but there are two exceptions. The ball is a deBeer Clincher Gymball, similar to a softball but cushier; and batters can be pitched to underhanded if their ability makes that method more appropriate than overhand.
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Duncan was 4 years old when he was diagnosed with autism.
“I had speech issues, sensory issues, anxiety issues, as well as the social stigma growing up from those, the preconceived ideas of what someone with autism really can and cannot do,” he said.
Then he added with a laugh, “But I’m not one who takes no for an answer, as you can probably see.”
Thanks to support from his mother, teachers, coaches and other mentors who have believed in him, Duncan said, “as well as God himself, I have been able to get to where I am today.”
Seeing his dream become reality, Duncan said, is a joy.
“I enjoy every game,” he said. “I enjoy watching them improve every practice. And, man, now that we’re getting all these new teams up and going, it just thrills my heart to see them succeeding. It’s just — wow. It’s fantastic to watch.”
The ABO is free to participate this fall, but the league plans to charge $25 per player each year, starting in the spring, said Duncan, the nonprofit league’s CEO and commissioner. The only equipment players need to bring is their glove.
Even adults play. The oldest player is “almost 60,” Duncan said.
Carter, whose three-year pro career in independent leagues ended last year, is now a sales agent for Columbus-based supplemental insurer Aflac. He also gives private baseball lessons and, a month ago, he started a travel ball team, the Columbus Blue Jays.
So he already had a busy life. But when Duncan was looking for someone to establish an ABO team in Columbus, Carter felt compelled to at least consider the invitation Duncan sent him via Facebook last year. Duncan asked Carter to participate in the ABO All-Star Game in Marietta, Ga., where former pros joined the special-needs players.
“These kids are good,” Carter said. “It’s an awesome thing to see, and I knew that as soon as I saw the smiles up there, it was something I had to bring to Columbus. It was just kind of God’s calling, and you can’t really tell Him no.”
While he attended Columbus High School, Carter helped special-education students in gym class.
“Just seeing some of them develop over the four years was just, I mean, God’s calling to me,” he said.
Approximately 10 special-needs players already have committed to join the Columbus Cobras and four more are possibilities, Carter said.
“This is really coming together so quickly,” he said. “… We could very well have two teams.”
Slade Miller is one of those players. He was born with a rare form of bacterial meningitis. That caused an abscess on his brain’s right frontal lobe, which delayed his development and gave him many of the characteristics of autism.
He played T-ball, his mother, Kristi Cole, said, “but he was the kid who would rather spin in circles on the field. It was just not for him at all.”
Now that he is 16 years old, the ABO is definitely for him, Cole decided, especially after they learned that Carter, a family friend, is the Columbus coach.
“Slade never really found his place on the field,” she said. “So, oh my gosh, this is the perfect opportunity to be that athletic child. … He’s so excited. And to find out that Kyle would be his coach, that’s even better.”
In addition to learning from Carter, said Slade, a sophomore in special education at Northside High School, he is most looking forward to the ABO allowing him to “make new friends and get some good exercise.”
Cole figures Carter’s fame as a player and his reputation for helping special-needs youth will attract participants.
“I think it will be a factor,” she said. “… He has a passion for these kids. That says a lot about his character.”
“They’re the most lovable people,” Carter said. “They’re no different than any of us. God looks at all of us the same. Nobody is better than anybody. I’m fortunate to be able to do what I’ve done, and now I’d like to spread the knowledge.”
Carter expects the Columbus Cobras to start practicing in November and to start playing games in February. The number of games is undetermined, especially because the ABO might establish teams in Phenix City and Auburn/Opelika.
In addition to players, Carter welcomes volunteers to help with tasks such as keeping score, operating the concession stand or even donating money to help pay for the $350-per-session to rent the field where they will practice and play.
And, thanks to the Parks and Recreation Department of the Columbus Consolidated Government, the team plans to use Golden Park, where minor league professional teams played for decades.
“For them to come out here and be able to play in this atmosphere would be huge for them — I mean, just even more smiles,” Carter said. “That’s why I’m out here.”
To participate as a player or a volunteer, or to donate, visit AlternativeBaseball.org.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.