Alex Mascarenas' life takes a funny hop: UCLA football to JC baseball

Concussions ended Alex Mascarenas' UCLA football career in 2012; now he plays baseball at Santa Ana College

Alex Mascarenas had to laugh when his baseball teammate, Derek Batuyong, greeted him as they passed each other on the outfield grass.

"Hey dad," Batuyong deadpanned.

"Hear that?" Mascarenas said to a visitor. "I get that a lot."

Mascarenas is 24, but he is the senior citizen on a Santa Ana College baseball team stocked mostly with 18- and 19-year olds.

He's also a college graduate.

Mascarenas was a defensive back for UCLA's football team for three seasons — and started at safety in two of the Bruins' first four games in 2011 — until multiple concussions ended his career. He stayed in Westwood to earn a degree in history, then turned his attention back to baseball, which he hadn't played since high school.

He has sophomore eligibility in junior college, but won't be able to transfer to continue playing baseball for an NCAA university at any level. However, he can play for a school that competes in the NAIA.

Starting at second base and batting third in Santa Ana's order, Mascarenas was batting .400 with three home runs and seven runs batted in through eight games.

"I thought at my age, if I wanted to give it one last chance, this was it," Mascarenas said. "I had enough people telling me that I still had a chance."

Mascarenas' contributions to the team go beyond hitting and defense.

"He gets other guys to work harder because he works harder," Santa Ana Coach Bryan Harris said. "He goes to the batting cage after practice and other guys follow him. They're out there hitting sometimes until dark."

Mascarenas sees a future in baseball, even if he doesn't play professionally. If he can hook on with an NAIA school, he will have two more seasons of baseball eligibility that he can use while pursuing a master's degree. "I have an interest in sports psychology," he said. "I feel like with everything that has happened to me, I can help other athletes."

Mascarenas was twice chosen all-league in baseball at Mission Viejo High, but he did not play as a senior because his focus had changed.

He had been part of Mission Viejo's powerhouse football program for three seasons and had picked UCLA over several West Coast schools that wanted him in the secondary.

"At the time, football was more exciting to me," Mascarenas said. "And football was going to pay for college."

Mascarenas redshirted his first season at UCLA, but had worked his way into the lineup by his third year.

He sustained his first concussion in a collision with teammate Cory Harkey, a 260-pound tight end, during a training camp practice in the summer of 2011.

He was forced to retire from football the following summer.

"It's hard to explain unless you've gone through it," Mascarenas said of his head injuries. "I started noticing how I was acting, and I knew that wasn't who I am."

Coach Jim Mora, who replaced Rick Neuheisel before the 2012 season, offered to let Mascarenas stay with the team as something of a student-coach. Mascarenas appreciated the gesture but declined. "It was too soon," he said. "I wanted to play football, not coach it."

Mascarenas kept up with school, earning his degree in 2013, but dealing with the end of his football career was difficult.

"There was the full gamut of emotions," his mother, Sally, said. "The hardest thing for a kid, even one who didn't go through what Alex went through, is if the dream doesn't come true. 'What am I going to do?' It took months for him to figure out what path to take."

The answer was baseball, which "was always my first sport," Mascarenas said.

He approached John Savage, UCLA's baseball coach, and was offered a tryout. But he would have been required to give up his football scholarship if he played baseball. He was two quarters short of graduation and, he said, "playing at UCLA was going to be a longshot."

Chris Ashbach, Mascarenas' high school baseball coach, suggested Santa Ana as the place to mount a comeback. He allowed his former player to work out with the high school team and use the batting cages to hit.

"Hitting was always the strongest part of my game," Mascarenas said. "I picked that up quickly. Fielding is what took me the longest."

Mascarenas enrolled in a baseball class at Santa Ana in the summer of 2013. "It's a chance for guys to come play some baseball," Harris said. "It's also a chance for us to see if there is anybody who could help out the team."

Mascarenas doubled in his first at-bat during class. "He was a little raw, but he was an athlete," Harris said. "He was a true leader. You put that maturity with some talent and there is a good chance you have a ballplayer. He has developed a ton since."

Mascarenas battled nagging injuries last season, but still hit .404 in 94 at-bats.

This season, he announced his presence by hitting two home runs — one inside the park — in Santa Ana's opener.

Where his comeback trail leads remains to be seen, but Mascarenas has a vision beyond the ball field.

He wants to help athletes who are facing adversity.

"Sometimes you have a plan and things happen that are unexpected," Mascarenas said. "You've got to keep pushing. Life is not going to stop. You have to figure it out."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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