Rock County residents with disabilities soon can experience the thrill of a home run and the spirit of teamwork on a real baseball team.
The nonprofit Alternative Baseball Organization plans to form a team or teams in Beloit. The opportunity, open to those age 15 and older, is coming to the stateline area thanks partly to a new coach: former Town of Beloit Fire Chief Gene Wright.
Wright, who has coached all levels of baseball for more than two decades, said he is excited to head up the program for people throughout the county and surrounding areas.
“It’s going to be very fun and rewarding,” he said.
Wright’s 19-year-old nephew with autism will be joining the team, although Wright said he is keeping it a surprise for him until all the details are worked out.
“We had him in baseball when he was younger. It’s good therapy and exercise,” Wright said.
Wright said he saw a TV story on the organization and reached out to help. He said it can be difficult to find services and activities for people with disabilities once they complete high school. A sport such as baseball helps develop self-esteem, social skills and fitness.
Wright is an experienced coach, but he said helping people who have played before as well as those who haven’t will be new for him.
Eligible players can be from Rock County or from south of the border in the Rockford, Illinois, area. Wright already has two to three interested volunteers and might bring more on board depending on how many people eventually sign up. There is the potential to have multiple teams, and practices could start this spring.
Players use a regular wooden bat but a larger, softer ball. The rules are similar to traditional Major League Baseball rules.
The Alternative Baseball Organization provides an authentic baseball experience for those who have autism or other disabilities, helping them gain social and physical skills for success both on and off the diamond, said Taylor Duncan, commissioner/director of ABO.
Duncan said more information on how to sign up will be available soon.
Eligible players could have autism, Down syndrome, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, mild cerebral palsy or other disabilities.
“It’s always diverse,” Duncan said.
He said the number of teams has grown since the pandemic began as local media told the organization’s story.
“Now we are up to almost 80 teams in 30 states,” he said.
Other teams are located in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. Duncan said the closest teams to Beloit are in the Chicago area and near Rochester, Minnesota.
Duncan, 25, is from Dallas, Georgia, and has autism. He has loved baseball since he was a child and was a big fan of the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Despite my fandom in the game, I was denied the opportunity to play traditional baseball along with peers because of perceptions of what I couldn’t accomplish,” he said.
Duncan said he didn’t qualify for some programs because he scored too high intellectually, and he was not welcome in other activities for those without disabilities.
When he graduated from high school, he found even fewer opportunities to stay active. Duncan said he started his organization to give others the opportunity to be accepted for who they are and to be encouraged to be the best they can be.
“It’s way beyond wins and losses,” he said. “It’s about building character and self-esteem. It’s learning to work together as a team and learning how to motivate others.”