Before taking up baseball as a high school sophomore, Ricardo Gutierrez spent lots of time loitering on the streets of West Long Beach, an area that has long been the tough side of town.
The Harbor College second baseman had shoulder-length hair and associated with what he calls "the wrong crowd." Baseball, he says, has kept him out of trouble.
"I used to hang out with lots of gangsters," Gutierrez said. "Baseball has helped me so much. It's done a lot for me."
In turn he has helped the Seahawks with solid fielding, consistent hitting and numerous clutch performances. Last week the 21-year-old was named the most valuable player in the Southern California Athletic Conference. He has led Harbor in batting all season and led the SCAC in runs (48), hits (62), runs batted in (34) and doubles (17).
"He can hit anything," said Harbor teammate Oscar Rojas, who played at Long Beach Poly High and pitched against Gutierrez. "When the game's on the line, everybody wants him at the plate."
The defending state champion Seahawks (33-7) will rely on Gutierrez's strong bat and solid fielding through the playoffs. Top-seeded Harbor won its sixth consecutive league title and last week defeated 16th-seeded College of the Canyons (27-18-1) in the first round of the Southern California Regionals.
Gutierrez, the team's leadoff batter, doesn't mind the pressure. His late-inning heroics have played a role in at least 10 Harbor victories this season. Recently, for example, he hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth against L.A. Mission.
He didn't celebrate by clenching fists, raising his arms jubilantly or rubbing it in to the Mission players, who were in disbelief after leading the entire game. Gutierrez simply jogged around the bases smiling.
His coaches and teammates say he's confident, but modest.
"He's a real quiet and reserved kid, which is not a typical Harbor guy," Harbor Coach Tony Bloomfield said. "Ricky does all his talking with his bat and glove."
Bloomfield says the most impressive thing about Gutierrez is that, unlike most of his teammates, he's relatively new to the game. Most top-notch collegiate baseball players got started at an early age, a lot of them through Little League.
"He's a unique kid because he's only played four years of organized baseball," Bloomfield said. "It's amazing because he can play all infield spots and he's every bit as good as any guy who's ever played here. He's come a long way in a short time."
Last season Gutierrez was a second team All-SCAC utility player. He alternated as the Seahawks' first, second and fifth batter and finished with a .333 average. He says his teammates are a big source of inspiration.
"Just seeing that they have faith in me makes me do good," Gutierrez said. "I love pressure situations and the fact that they know I can do it. That feels great."
Gutierrez never planned to be an athlete. As a youth the only exercise he got was while cruising the streets with fellow hoodlums. But in the 10th grade he took a baseball class at Lakewood that required him to play. He did well enough to become a shortstop on Lakewood's junior varsity team. The only problem was his hair.
"Hey, he was serious about his long hair," said Rojas, a childhood friend of Gutierrez. "He didn't care about anything. He just messed around all the time. Baseball made him change. He thought about cutting his hair for a long time before he finally did it.
"Now we go to the mall and when he sees one of his old friends and says 'Hey man, how ya doing?' they don't even recognize him. They remember the old Ricky. He's so different."
Now he has short, black hair and a muscular physique--the result of many hours in the gym. He's also a talented, all-around baseball player, which wasn't the case when he first started playing.
As a sophomore and junior at Lakewood, Gutierrez was such a weak batter that a designated hitter took his place in the lineup. He spent the summer of his junior year hitting ground balls at a nearby park and lifting weights to become the powerful 6-foot, 165-pound athlete he is today.
The work paid off in 1989. As a senior third baseman at Lakewood, Gutierrez hit .435 and was named CIF 5-A Division player of the year and Moore League player of the year. He had 53 hits and 38 RBIs as the Lancers' leadoff batter. Lakewood lost in the semifinals of the city playoffs that season.
"Ricardo didn't make one error all year," Lakewood Coach Spud O'Neil said. "He was a base stealer, an RBI guy. . . . He did everything."
O'Neil says Gutierrez has come a long way since enrolling in his physical education class as a 10th-grader.
"When he came to my class he was a skinny kid with hair down to his rear end," O'Neil said. "But even then he was good at defensive stuff. I could tell he had something. He had lots of raw talent.
"When I asked the kids to lift weights he really got serious. He was always out to play hard. He was one of our leaders, and it wasn't always easy for him. He had a hard life at home. There were lots of family problems. Ricardo was the first in his family to graduate from high school."
O'Neil says Gutierrez was recruited by Cal State Long Beach and Loyola Marymount, but he was academically ineligible for failing to score 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. That's the minimum required by the NCAA for incoming freshmen to be eligible. So Gutierrez went to Cerritos College, a baseball powerhouse that has won eight state community college championships since 1970.
"I didn't like Cerritos," said Gutierrez, who only spent one semester at the school. "They didn't make me feel welcomed or at home. I just didn't feel comfortable."
A former Lakewood teammate, Matt Nuez, suggested to Gutierrez that he transfer to Harbor. Nuez was an outfielder for the Seahawks and last year's league MVP. Gutierrez says it's the best advice he's received.
Bloomfield says USC, Pepperdine University and Arizona State are among the schools that have shown interest in the player. Gutierrez, an administration of justice major, wants to be the first in his family to obtain a college degree.
Playing professional baseball hasn't even crossed his mind. He would like to become a police officer or an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"I never even thought I'd still be playing baseball," Gutierrez said smiling. "I thought after high school, that's it. But I guess good things come for those who wait, huh?"