It was an early Saturday morning at the Laguna Beach Batting Cages on Laguna Canyon Road. A beehive of maroon-and-white clad 8- and 9-year-old boys with shiny, helmeted heads was hovering around the boxed-in batting cages. They were swinging their bats and waiting to take their stance before the unpredictable catapults of the pitching machine.
The buzz came from the Laguna Beach All-Stars, a team of eager baseball players from Top of the World and El Morro elementary schools warming up for their first championship game later that morning in Newport Beach.
Their coach, Orin Neufeld, was nervously making sure every boy was getting a chance at the bat.
“He’s strict,” said Shea Blanchard, 9, from El Morro. “He makes sure we work really hard. He’s a really good coach and he wants you to win. He always tries his hardest.”
Neufeld is also the new and unabashedly proud owner of the batting cages, which he recently purchased from Jim Selevan, a Laguna Beach parent who installed the cages 16 years ago. The land is leased from the Laguna Beach Unified School District.
Born in the New York suburb of Westchester County, Neufeld said he was basically raised in Yankee Stadium, attending games two and three times a week. One of his proudest moments, he said, was seeing slugger Reggie Jackson hit three homeruns in a World Series game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977. “I was there,” he said.
Neufeld started playing baseball when he was 3 and now wants to make his passion for the sport his home-base as a full-time career. He introduced himself as the new owner of the facility to school board members at a recent meeting. “I just want to teach these kids how to play baseball,” he said.
“Laguna is limited to what we offer our kids,” said district board president Jan Vickers, adding that Laguna children leave town for most indoor recreational activities. “There’s no roller rink or bowling alley. Having the batting cages has definitely been a big help to our kids.”
Neufeld’s vision is to make the cages a wholesome hang-out; he plans to redesign storage space into a recreation room with games and a big screen TV. He’s also working with nearby Little Leagues and baseball coaches at the high school to encourage their players to use the cages even during the off-season. The record of success for his Little Leaguers, he said, is enough to make older players want to improve their skills there as well.
“Orin’s so passionate about teaching kids baseball,” said Rob Smith, father of two former Little Leaguers, Dylan and Nolan, and a fellow coach with Neufeld for five years. With Neufeld at the helm at the batting cages, Smith thinks local Little Leaguers will get the instruction they to need to keep improving batting.
Neufeld bought the five-cage batting facility three months ago from Selevan, a physician who converted a junk yard of old tires, collapsing fencing and weeds into batting cages in 1998 at the behest of his wife, Kathleen. She tired of devoting three hours to driving their oldest son, Michael, to Mission Viejo for batting practice.
All three of the Seleven’s sons, Adam, Daniel and Michael, practiced at the cages. “It was a great experience for my kids and a lot of kids in Laguna. It didn’t make any money but it was a fun run,” said Selevan. “Now it’s time to move on.”
The school district garages its school buses on the front half of the property and leases the back portion, where the batting cages now stand, for $1,600 a month, with no payments in July and August, said Dean West, the district’s financial director.
The deal for the batting cages presented itself at a Little League game at Riddle Field in North Laguna. Selevan asked Neufeld when the next meeting of the Little League board would take place. “I look at him and say, ‘Excuse me, I’m in the middle of coaching here,’’’ Neufeld recalled.
Selevan persisted, saying he was looking for a buyer for the batting cages. Neufeld said he nearly fell off the bench. “It was unbelievable,” he said. He had been looking for an available batting facility to buy for months. “I said, ‘Let’s do this thing.’ The opportunity showed up and I took it.”
Neufeld’s interest in helping kids started in college. Earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in human development and abnormal psychology, he ran a school for autistic children for 12 years in New York, he said.
One of the first things he will do at the cages is spruce up the place. He plans to paint, repair holes in the nets, hang a new banner with a fresh logo and, most importantly, install new motors on the pitching machines. He’ll undertake the rec-room project later in the year.