In 14 years, Brian Dunning had played just about every position on the baseball field, running free with other special needs children. More important to his mother, he had found a comfort zone, a place where it seemed everybody welcomed him with a high-five or fist-bump.
As he approached the age where he would no longer be eligible to play, Shady Hills Little League officials wanted to grant him a wish. They had a pretty good idea what it might be, especially since Brian talked about it all the time.
Hitting, running and scoring brought him cheers, much like he achieved year after year in the Special Olympics. But this would be groundbreaking, a chance to do something that had never been offered to a participant in the "Challenger'' division.
On Tuesday evening, as the Hudson Hooks and Shady Hills Braves prepared to battle in the division for kids 7 to 9 years old, Brian assumed his position behind third base. He had proven himself responsible and capable. He had earned his chance to be umpire.
For the most part, things were pretty routine. The Braves ran up a big lead, so it didn't seem likely an ump's controversial call would decide the game. Hooks manager Todd Vanvliet, knowing Brian's sense of humor, gave him some mock grief about a call. Brian yanked his thumb skyward and said, "You're outta here!'' They had a good laugh about it.
Nearby, Kerri Dunning watched from behind the fence. Her boy started here as an introverted spectator, awkward and slow to warm up to strangers. Now he towers above the children. Now he assumes more the role of their protector.
Brian is labeled "highly functional autistic,'' said his mom, who works for a private investigation firm. He has neural developmental challenges, but he also has some unique gifts. One is a remarkable ability to recall details that he cares about. At the ballfields, most of the people who come to games are regulars, players and family members. If somebody new shows up, Brian notices right away. "He finds out who they are and why they're here,'' his mom said. "He keeps an eye on things.''
She was divorced when Brian came along 21 days early at the Pocono Medical Center in Strasburg, Pa., in July 1992. They moved to New Port Richey to be closer to Kerri's parents. As a 4-year-old, he had trouble forming complete sentences, but he rode a bus to prekindergarten classes and was the first on and the last off. He quickly learned the route and could give directions to the driver.
In the second grade he knew all the states and when they joined the union. He knew all the capitals. "You could ask him to state them in order or just pick one,'' Kerri said. "He knew, for instance, which state came in 33rd.
"I think a lot of autistic kids are smarter than we are, we're just too stupid to know it.''
He reads on a fourth-grade level but taught himself Spanish watching TV. He knows what products are on every aisle at Publix and how they differ at four west Pasco stores, including one where he stocked shelves and mopped floors.
After he graduated from Mitchell High School in 2010, Brian entered a voluntary program at Marchman Technical Education Center. Ann Rapp teaches her students skills necessary to land a job and was delighted when Brian qualified for the center's commercial foods and culinary arts program.
"He earned the chance,'' she said. "We want our students to be successful. He didn't get this chance just because he's a good guy. He shadowed the program and learned there is much more to running a restaurant than preparing food. He's washed his share of dishes.''
Under direction of chef Peter Kern, in his 23rd year at the center, Brian, 20, is learning every aspect of the business, including handling money. One of the perks of teaching at Marchman is the yummy lunches Kern's students prepare and deliver — for just $4. Last week they served, among other dishes, a fresh swordfish stir fry.
During the noon hour, Brian walks over to Calusa Elementary School and helps in the cafeteria. "The ladies there love him,'' said Anna Marion, a jobs coach.
They listen to oldies on the radio, and Brian knows most of the titles and words.
His conversations are limited to short answers. He likes the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays if they're not playing the Yankees. "They used to be Devil Rays,'' he adds.
He plays Power Ball every week because he hopes to win enough money to buy the Trinity Beef O'Brady's. "I like to be the boss,'' he said.
"We could call it Beef O'Brian's,'' Kern joked.
"Yep, that's right,'' Brian said. "I like that.''
His best dish is a pasta salad, but he just learned to make a Santa Fe burger. When he's not at school or the ball park, he likes to bowl. His best score: 159. His ball is decorated with the Tampa Bay Bucs flag.
"I like the Bucs.''
With that, he headed back to the kitchen.
"I've got work to do.''