Not long after Anthony Herrera moved with his fiancee to Las Vegas from California in July, he was watching TV when a commercial caught his eye.
The advertisement introduced him to a baseball league for those with autism and special needs that was looking to start a program in Las Vegas.
Herrera, also a Raiders super fan known as Raider Jester, called Alternative Baseball Organization commissioner Taylor Duncan to let him know he wanted to help.
“When we moved here, I didn’t really know too many people except for Raiders fans,” Herrera said. “I’m big on giving back. I do fundraisers for charities and donate to the American Diabetes Association, so when I came across that commercial, I’m like, ‘perfect.’”
The ABO is a nonprofit that provides an authentic baseball experience for teens 15 and older and adults with autism and other disabilities.
Duncan, a 25-year-old who was diagnosed with autism when he was 4, started the ABO with six players in a small suburb of Cobb County, Georgia, and word spread to the point that it soon fielded two teams. He said despite having to shut down because of COVID-19, the ABO plans to have teams in 33 states this year and expects play to begin in Las Vegas in the late spring or early summer.
The ABO has been featured on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” and NBC’s “Today” show. It was also commemorated as a Community Hero at an Atlanta Braves game in 2019.
Games are played by MLB rules with wood bats, but Duncan said accommodations are made for players of all skill levels. Some might start hitting off a tee and work up to being pitched to.
More than a game
More important than the game itself are the social interactions, the sense of belonging and confidence that being part of a team provides.
“It all goes back to when I was diagnosed,” Duncan said. “I didn’t have the same opportunities to play traditional sports because of the negative perceptions and stigmas of what one with autism can and can’t accomplish.”
Herrera said he’s starting from scratch in Las Vegas, from getting uniforms and equipment to finding sponsors and volunteers, all the way to securing a field on which to play.
“It’s a big challenge, but I know it’s for a good cause,” Herrera said. “I know there will be some heartaches at times. From what (Duncan) told me, we have 12 players already that he’s found. We have to get involved with the schools and spread the word around. I feel like we’re at a standstill because of COVID, but we plan to get the ball rolling as soon as we can.”
Duncan said he created the ABO for those in their late teens and adults because services plateau for many with autism after they graduate from high school.
He’s seen some of the players who were the most anxious and passive when they started become some of the ABO’s biggest advocates.
“They love it,” Duncan said. “For some, because they’re being encouraged for the first time, they’re going out and wanting to become employed. They’re wanting to get behind the wheel of a vehicle for the first time, all because somebody was there telling them they’re as capable as everyone else and it’s possible for them to succeed.”
Raider Jester could show up
Herrera said he intends to have fun with his team. He might even bring out the Raider Jester costume.
“If they might enjoy something like that, I might bring out multiple Raider super fans,” Herrera said. “I do have a good connection with Raider Nation here. I know if I reached out to them, a lot of them would be there without a doubt. It’ll be a way to let them know their coach isn’t boring. I love having fun, and I would love to bring him out.”
Duncan and Herrera pointed out there is plenty of negative in the world that divides people, and they are using baseball to bring people together.
“We look forward to serving the Las Vegas community and surrounding areas, hopefully for generations to come,” Duncan said.
To volunteer or learn more about the ABO, go to alternativebaseball.org.
To volunteer or learn more about the Alternative Baseball Organization, go to alternativebaseball.org.