Matt Driscoll

A baseball league for the autistic eyes Tacoma, but a coach needs help making it happen

Jon DePerro doesn’t mince words. A recently retired Army vet with four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt, he cuts to the chase.

“It didn’t go well,” DePerro, 42, explains of his 10-year-old son Vincent’s most recent exposure to organized sports. “And it didn’t go well more so because of the adults than the kids.”

DePerro’s son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2014. Like many kids with autism, Vincent struggles with things like sensory overload, anxiety and verbally expressing his emotions, his father says.

During previous experiences playing organized team sports, DePerro says, Vincent got the kind of support he needed. He had a coach, “willing to put in the effort … to learn about Vince and how he communicates,” he explains, and the growth he saw from his son was measurable.

Last year, that wasn’t the case. It was a bad experience that made a father — who also happens to be a lifelong baseball fan — want to do something about it.

Now, that’s exactly what DePerro is trying to do. Earlier this year he reached out to the Alternative Baseball Organization, a Georgia-based nonprofit that’s working to offer baseball to teens and adults with autism and other special needs across the country.

DePerro says he’s hoping Tacoma will rally in support. He needs players. He needs volunteers. He needs equipment. And he needs help with the logistics of pulling it all together.

By late summer or early fall, DePerro hopes to have a full team in place. Eventually, he has a goal of seeing a league for teens and adults with autism and other special needs spreading, with teams across the region offering no-cost participation.

DePerro says he’s already recruited a few players and received a handful of equipment donations, describing the effort as “in its infancy.” He’s hopeful.

More importantly, he’s driven.

“The lessons you get from team sports — and baseball — would be great for people who have social and emotional challenges,” DePerro explains. “Baseball parallels life in so many ways and can be used to teach so many life lessons … It teaches you it’s OK to not have something for yourself if it benefits the team.”

“In baseball, you can fail 7 out of 10 times and they’ll put you in the Hall of Fame,” he continues, “because what’s rewarded is getting back out there and continuing to try.”

They’re sentiments — and attributes — shared by 24-year-old Taylor Duncan.

When Duncan was 4, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Much like DePerro’s son, the experiences he had playing organized team sports left much to be desired.

Often, Duncan says, he wasn’t allowed to play baseball because of “coaches’ perceptions” and “preconceived ideas” about what individuals with autism are capable of.

So, in 2016, Duncan founded the Alternative Baseball Organization in his home state of Georgia — with a goal of changing some of those perceptions. It started humbly, with one team scrimmaging itself.

Today, the Alternative Baseball Organization has teams across the South and East Coast, with more in the works. The league has been featured on ESPN and other national media outlets, and Duncan recently delivered a TED talk.

After hearing from DePerro earlier this year and getting to know him, Duncan believes Tacoma is ready. The thought clearly excites him. Though the ABO has already expanded to more than a dozen cities in the United States, this area holds a special place in Duncan’s heart, he says, because Ichiro is his “favorite hitter of all time.”

“His unorthodox playing style … just goes to show we all work in our own ways,” Duncan fittingly explains.

“Really, (the ABO) is helping (players) become successful. That’s the main goal, and we can’t wait to bring it to Tacoma,” Duncan says of the planned expansion.

Duncan notes that ABO teams are open to anyone with autism or other special needs 15 years or older, at any skill level, and the league uses Major League Baseball rules, for the most authentic experience possible. The league helps build confidence, Duncan says, as well as camaraderie and other important life skills.

DePerro and Duncan encourage those interested in playing or volunteering to help a Tacoma ABO team to visit the league’s website for more information.

“(Baseball) teaches us how to win and lose, because in life there’s going to be really good days, and other times when it’s the other way around,” Duncan says. “The most important thing is we learn how to deal with those lessons, so we can become better people in the process.”

For DePerro, that’s the goal, too — and it’s apparent in his selfless dedication to making it happen.

Sure, he hopes that when his son turns 15, there will be a baseball team for him to play on, but this is about more than that, he says.

“In the Army, there’s a cliche. We say, ‘Improve your foxhole,’” DePerro explains. “Whatever you do, you make it a little bit better. You make it a little bit better, knowing the next guy is going to make it a little bit better.”

“This is a way to make it a little bit better for some young men and women who are great people in a world that’s not always wired to understand them,” DePerro adds. “I’m going to keep working on it until it’s done.”

I certainly wouldn’t bet against him.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.