It started with Wiffle-ball home run derby competitions in the backyard.
All Alex Hassan and his friends wanted to do was hit one over the clothesline.
“The kids just loved hitting balls over the sheet,” said Hassan’s father David.
This was back when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had the imagination of baseball purists in the palms of their hands as they shredded through the record books.
But Hassan always gravitated toward the grinders — Jose Offerman, Troy O’Leary, Mike Greenwell.
“Just guys that were good baseball players,” Hassan said. “A lot of people gravitate to the superstars but those are the guys that are just good baseball players and when I come to the games I like watching them just take BP. Those are the guys I enjoyed watching.”
Hassan’s mother Kathleen watched the boys take big swing after big swing until a lightbulb flashed.
If they were going to hit all those homers, they should at least have a real fence, a fence like the one 12 miles away from their home in Milton.
“I said to my husband, why don’t we get some . . . slats and paint them green,” Kathleen said.
Then she just so happened to come across a Citgo sign at a service station that had gone out of business.
“Once she got the sign,” David said, “then I had to build a real wall.”
The family all pitched in to build a backyard version of the Green Monster.
“Everybody helped,” David said. “All the kids painted it. It was wonderful.”
They went out of their way to make it true-to-life.
“My husband went the complete extra mile and made it look like the scoreboard,” Kathleen said. “It was amazing.”
“We actually eventually got Coke bottles back when they had Coke bottles,” David said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Alex Hassan would go on a winding journey over the next few years — from starring at BC High to college ball at Duke to playing in the Cape Cod League to weathering the highs and lows in the Red Sox farm system — to get to a point where he would move from the makeshift Fenway Park in his backyard to the real one.
When his phone rang Friday telling him he’d be called up to the majors for the first time, the first thing Alex did was call his parents.
The family was already in its own whirlwind, learning that a family member had passed that day.
“We literally got the phone call as the wake was ending,” David said. “And we were able to brighten some spirits because everybody in the family follows him. I’m not one to cry a lot, but there were tears today.”
Kathleen, a 58-year old inspirational speaker and life coach, had just left the funeral and was on her way to New York for a conference.
“We were at the terminal about to get out of the car and Alex called me,” she said.
She dropped everything. She immediately put her suitcase back in the car and canceled the flight.
“It’s so worth it,” she said. “You cannot miss your son’s major league debut.”
Sitting in Grandstand 21 surrounded by family members, Kathleen and David couldn’t help but think about everything it took for their son to get to this point.
They remembered the treks to minor league ballparks from New England to Virginia.
“We’ve been everywhere,” Kathleen said.
They remembered the phone calls after tough games that seemed to sap all of Alex’s self-esteem.
“It’s those lowest moments,” said David, 58. “He had a game down on the Cape when he struck out five times. I remember that phone call and talking to him right after that game and saying, ‘This is not what’s going to derail your ability to play professional baseball.’ You’ve just got to get over those points and move on.’’
Whenever it seemed like his career stalled — whether it was spending parts of the past three seasons stuck in neutral in Triple A Pawtucket or starting off last season with a stress fracture in his left foot — they remembered Hassan always found a way to push through.
“It’s a roller-coaster ride,” Kathleen said. “But I never dreamed that baseball would be our greatest faith walk. It brought us closer to God and just really learned how to trust God’s perfect and divine time. I never dreamed that ‘Let go and Let God’ you’d have to learn it through baseball. You know, you’re powerless.’’
Even when his stats suggested otherwise, Hassan had a gift for recognizing pitches that made it impossible to stay off the base paths for very long. After hitting .321 last year in Pawtucket, Hassan was hitting .217 in 45 games for the PawSox this season, but he drew 22 walks and put up a .318 on-base percentage.
There was value in his awareness at the plate, but also in his versatility, playing the corner outfield spots as well as first base.
With the Sox in a pinch after putting first baseman Ryan Lavarnway on the disabled list with a broken hamate bone in his left wrist, they turned to Hassan, who didn’t play in the Sox’ 3-2 win Friday.
“With the injury to Ryan Lavarnway, we needed another righthanded bat,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “The versatility is similar to Ryan’s. In addition to playing first base, he can go to the outfield. He’s moved around to two corner outfield spots as well as seven or eight games at first base. So it’s an opportunity for him to make his major league debut.”
That trip from the backyard to the big leagues was a lifetime in the making, but it was worth it.
“This is a dream come true, certainly,” Alex said. “It’s something that I wanted to do my whole life. I guess that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of is that at my lowest points, I was able to find a way to keep going and just when I couldn’t see how it was going to work out, just trusting in God that something would work out and keep going. I think being able to get through those valleys to get here is pretty rewarding.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.