Everyone can play: Teen brings Alternative Baseball for those with autism to suburbs

Emmett Fox ripped the first pitch he saw through the hole past shortstop and took off for first.

Sharp and athletic in his red jersey and gray, ankle-length baseball pants, the 20-year-old New Trier graduate rounded the base and kept on going.

"I just like playing baseball with these guys. I think it's a lot of fun," he said after practice.

That is the name of the game for Alternative Baseball, a Georgia-based organization with a Northbrook affiliate led by Jackson Berner of Glenview, a two-sport athlete and incoming senior at North Shore Country Day School.

  Emmett Fox, 20, a New Trier High School graduate from Winnetka, pulls in at second base at Williamsburg Square Park in Northbrook. Dave Oberhelman/

Founded by Taylor Duncan of Dallas, Georgia, in 2016, the nonprofit Alternative Baseball Organization brings baseball free to players with autism and other special needs 15 years and older, male and female.

It's "a community integration of those with disabilities through our pastime," said Duncan, 27, who never forgot being benched first in baseball and then in slowpitch softball as a perceived injury risk or simply because he was autistic.

"All of it is to practice social skills, practice baseball skills, leadership skills, life skills, character building and independent living," Duncan said. "Instilling those character values so all of our athletes are successful in life on and off the baseball diamond."

So far, there are 23 teams nationally, ranging from outside Spokane, Washington, to Bangor, Maine, though most naturally are gathered in Duncan's neck of the woods, America's southeast.

He said 345 players are involved, around 15 per team. That was about the number who showed up for the Northbrook squad's weekly 5 p.m. practice Monday on the dirt diamond at Williamsburg Square Park, southeast of Northbrook Court.

Not all players attend all the time. Berner's mother, Beth Engelman, a special-education teacher at Glenview's Hoffman School who signed on as co-manager because her son is not yet 18, said around 20 players have shown interest this summer.

When she and Jackson first got the ball rolling last August they were able to recruit one player. This year, through word-of-mouth and what Berner called "media blitzes" that included segments on WGN, WBEZ and Fox, the numbers have increased.

"Now everyone likes it so much that everyone's telling their friends," Engelman said. "So our hope is if we can get enough interest and even more volunteers that we could have a second team, and even a league."

The 2023 campaign, due to a lack of area teams - the closest is in Fort Wayne, Indiana - consists of weekly practices and intersquad scrimmages. It is scheduled to run through Aug. 21, though there is a plan for fall play after Labor Day, contingent on Berner's high school soccer schedule.

Berner also is hopeful some players can attend Duncan's annual ABO and Pros contest Oct. 21 at Paulding County High School in Dallas, Georgia. Prefaced by a celebrity exhibition, advanced ABO players will play a group of former Major League ballplayers.

  Newcomers to the nationwide Alternative Baseball Organization play with a soft DeBeer "Gymball," which has Clincher-style seams and is larger and softer than a regulation baseball. Advanced teams may transition to a harder Kenko baseball. Dave Oberhelman/

Emmett Fox, a George Mason University student who is powerfully built and looked comfortable playing third at Williamsburg Square, might fit that bill.

Creating all-stars, though, is not the goal of Northbrook Alternative Baseball. Skill levels and baseball knowledge fluctuated at Monday's practice.

Some, like Fox, had promise. Many, as volunteer Rob Wayne of Lake Forest said, were simply out to have a good time.

As players used a soft, Clincher-seam ball to play catch, take batting practice and run the bases, Berner, Engelman and Wayne encouraged but did not push.

"It's just great for him to go out and play real baseball and to have a chance to get his legs, to make plays, to make mistakes, to do it all," said Emmett's father, Kevin Fox.

"We're blessed around here to have NSSRA (Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association) and some activities like that, but it tends to be more and more limiting in terms of those opportunities once you get out of high school, once you get out of that transition age," Kevin Fox said. "Having something like this is great. There's no reason he can't keep playing five years from now, 10 years from now, whatever works for him."

Berner, who plays travel baseball with The Athletic Barn, has a goal of growing Alternative Baseball throughout the metropolitan area.

"Everyone deserves a chance to play ball," he said. "The players, they're such characters and they're so awesome to be around. And it just puts a smile on my face every day that I know that I'm looking forward to this.

"The energy and the enthusiasm, it really shows you what baseball is about - it's about having fun with people that you like."

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