In a room without a roof, Orlando Guerra is happy.
In his outdoor room with chain-link walls, he teaches baseball skills and life lessons to the youth of Santa Barbara.
Set free from the confines of their classrooms, when these up-and-coming athletes enter the open-air cage, they experience freedom — of movement, of expression, of being exactly who they are, where they are.
They learn the boundaries of their bodies as they strive to reach their full potential in time and space.
In doing so they find their balance.
“I’ve been teaching kids for almost 20 years,” Guerra said. “And I truly believe that every kid has a talent, that something inside that will benefit them to go as far as they can, with their parents’ support.”
It’s Guerra’s job to boost that talent, and in increments of 30 and 60 minutes of focused attention, to impart knowledge, wisdom and a lifetime of experience in the world of baseball and far beyond.
A Santa Barbara native, Guerra grew up modestly.
“My father came from dirt floors in Mexico,” he said, describing how the family embraced the All-American sport with a passion. “My dad would ask us kids, ‘Do you want to go to a Dodger game or to Disneyland?’ It was always a Dodger game.
"There’s a history in families, every family has their sport. Ours was, is baseball. Baseball is just part of who I am.”
With two older brothers, Guerra learned early to keep up and play hard. His dad, Sal Guerra, was one of the co-founders of Dos Pueblos Little League, where he coached Orlando and his young teammates at the fields of Goleta Valley Junior High.
Orlando was a standout pitcher at Dos Pueblos High School (class of 1982), where he hit .500, and was named most valuable player in the Channel League, and made All-CIF.
“I loved it,” he recalled. “It was a business, though. I learned a lot.”
“Teaching kids helps me parent,” noteed Guerra, who reserves his Sundays for family time.
Today, Guerra is the father of three.
Daughter Natalie, 23, attended Santa Barbara High and was a key member of the 2008 team that won CIF. She attended the University of Tennessee on a volleyball scholarship, and now works in the fashion industry.
Son Tanner, 19, was pitcher for the Santa Barbara High School varsity baseball team (class of 2013) who hit it out of the park academically: He is a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is majoring in materials engineering. Youngest daughter Sofia, 8, attends Foothill Elementary School, where she loves to sing and perform.
He laughs at how each child has such different interests.
“All kids are given their gifts, and they seem like they’re each from different planets sometimes,” he said.
The key, he notes, is recognizing and supporting the uniqueness in each child — without overloading them with expectations.
“I tell parents: ‘Your kids are not you, they just live with you!’”
Guerra continues, “I support parents’ values, and I provide boundaries for the kids. They need boundaries, and don’t know what to do without them. Once they see I’m there for them — it has to do with their own life lessons — they take ownership and see success.”
Over the years, he’s coached countless kids of all ages and stages — from working with the college-age Santa Barbara Foresters to elementary school city Parks & Recreation summer instructional leagues.
“I work to establish a level of communication and trust, and I adjust to the kid’s individual learning style,” he said.
He described his philosophy of coaching: “It’s not ‘my way or the highway.’ I have learned that that just doesn’t work. I don’t guess. I say what I think and expect the kids to work hard, leave their egos at the door, and remember that baseball is a team sport. They see success and learn that when you work hard, you get these little gifts.”
On the field, that may mean an extra-base hit, making a great catch, stealing a base — the rewards for putting in the time and effort, becoming a “coachable kid” who gives the best they can as an individual member of the team.
“We work on becoming well-rounded: hitting, pitching, footwork, mechanics," Guerra said. "They make progress, then sometimes go two steps back, but they learn patience and to trust that it will happen.
“And it happens at every level, all of a sudden the light goes on, and something clicks.”
But these days, coaching kids to the next level is more difficult than before.
“For the past five or six years, I’ve seen such an increase in stress in kids,” Guerra said, attributing some of the stress to the effects of the poor economy on family life, as well as the ubiquity of technological devices, and a startling increase in competitiveness in everything from the classroom to club sports. “I’ve seen it all — family issues, divorce, death. Everyone has something to deal with.”
Now, more than ever, Guerra sees kids with ADD, ADHD and high levels of anxiety. He has a few techniques to help them focus and deal with the stress of the day.
“I try to get them to slow it down, to see where they’re at,” he said. “I have them rate their anxiety level from 1 to 10. And I try to get them thinking about how to recognize little triggers, to take a breath. I ask, ‘Do you see it coming?’”
He shares other methods that keep his students engaged rather than overwhelmed.
“I try to keep it simple, and teach kids to do the best they can do without looking too far down the road, which compounds their anxiety ten times,” he said. “Kids are so reactive in so much of their lives, but in the cage, we’re proactive.”
Unlike so many adults who rely on words — teachers who lecture, parents who preach, others who order kids around — Guerra has learned to communicate without flooding kids with more talk, talk, talk.
With equal parts sign language and body language, he shows rather than tells. This style that’s more visual than verbal is instantly understood by kids who automatically understand and respond to his low-key approach: a hand lifted here, a shoulder raised, a knee bent, a quizzical look — the signs translate to simple adjustments made by his students of the game.
Underlying it all, Guerra remembers that baseball is a game, and he believes in having fun.
“When we work we work," he said, “but I like to switch the subject and help them relax, too.”
During the breaks when they pick up the balls, Guerra and his charges keep it light and easy, exchanging jokes, comparing notes about pro sports teams, speculating about the surf or talking about the best way to barbecue a tri-tip. It’s all a part of the game, during instruction, before and afterward.
“I love the camaraderie here at the cages," he said. "We have fun. We eat seeds. We’re not stressing about scoring runs.”
While Guerra’s former students often return for a visit, and to take a few cuts, the whole world eventually seems to find its way to the cages, on Milpas Street. Little League and Pony teams, couples on dates, stressed-out businessmen, even tourists from other countries are drawn in by the lure of baseball.
Attendees at an international conference held in Santa Barbara recently participated in a corporate event held at the cages. As part of the activity, Guerra taught them to how hit.
“There were people from Russia, Japan, India, who couldn’t speak English. I had to show them, teach them visually," he said. "We ended up having a hitting contest and a really fun day.”
Guerra takes seriously the notion of giving back to the community. He often participates in free skills clinics to help introduce disadvantaged youth to the game of baseball.
He serves on the board of the Milpas Community Association, and has proposed to help the city’s Parks & Recreation Department by improving the underused and neglected Cabrillo Ball Fields, by transforming them — with private funding — into a beach fitness zone complete with adult and youth fitness equipment.
“Tourists can workout in a hotel gym,” he said, “but it’s just like any gym anywhere in the world. Can you imagine working out right there next to the beach, in that beautiful location? That’s Santa Barbara, and it would be unforgettable.”
As the ideas and proposals wend their way through the painfully slow political process, Guerra has other big plans of his own: “Young Balance,” an indoor training facility, complete with a study hall, that will bring together the mind-body connection, physical fitness, nutrition education, sports instruction of all kinds, and a healthy atmosphere for kids to achieve a balance in their increasingly hectic lives.
Guerra is not one to name-drop, but he has worked with the best and the brightest — and they come back to see him all the time.
“I am happy for these kids when they move on,” Guerra said. “And I am as proud of a guy playing at a small school as much as a D1.”
This is the first school year Guerra hasn’t been involved watching his son play baseball, which has been a happy revelation for him.
“I have a bunch of sons,” he says. “I have kids all over. Even when I’m teaching kids, my son is there.”
— Cheri Rae, a local freelancer, wrote this story for Mission & State.