John Altobelli hits a switch in his new ballpark office and the view of the Orange Coast College baseball diamond reveals itself behind a retractable metal window.
It's a new experience for the man who began his 20th season as the school's baseball coach on Friday.
A new view, a new team and a new season. But, despite undergoing open-
"If the outfield needs to be watered, he grabs the hose," said longtime assistant coach and former Newport Harbor High classmate Jeff Piaskowski. "You can't hold him down."
OCC sophomore outfielder Chris Carlson was among those unsurprised that the Pirates' hard-nosed head man, 48, was back for the opening of practice on Jan. 3. That was only 19 days after a procedure to repair a weakened valve that caused periodic shortness of breath.
"He doesn't like to show any weakness," Carlson said at a recent preseason practice. "He has always been the first one out here and the last one to leave, so we all expected [his Jan. 3 return]."
Altobelli's wife Keri, with whom he will celebrate their 10th anniversary Thursday, said her husband was "so nonchalant about [the surgery], it was annoying."
Annoying might be the word Altobelli uses to describe all the fuss about the surgery, which required doctors to stop his heart and insert tubes that helped a machine manage his breathing.
"It's pretty routine," said Altobelli, who has grudgingly made some concessions since his return. He plans to forego coaching third base this season and, he acknowledged, he will concede to occasionally sitting down when fatigue grips him during his coaching duties.
"I'm on [blood-thinning medication] and I can't have a beer for three months," Altobelli, a Newport Beach resident, said. "And with the blood-thinner, I've got to be careful not to get hit by a baseball and I have to use an electric razor to shave. Other than that, it's great."
But when Altobelli retells the details of his ordeal, it becomes clear that there was nothing routine about it.
The problem, he said, was first detected a couple years ago when he had knee surgery.
"They could hear a swishing sound in my heart," he said. "They ran some tests and they have been keeping an eye on it. Finally, it went from medium server to severe. Once I knew I had to have surgery, I wanted to do it on my time. I wanted to do it in December [the first day of the semester break], because I didn't want to miss any practice or school. They wanted to do it now, because the doctor said he didn't know if I could make it another year without having it done."
Altobelli said the robotic surgical procedure used is relatively new.
"They went through my ribs, which is more painful [than cracking open his rib cage], but has a quicker recovery. You are on a heart and
But things did not go without a hitch.
"The scary thing for me was, when I woke up it was 9 p.m.," Altobelli said. "I said, 'Uh-oh, what happened?'"
The delay was caused by Altobelli's initial response to the breathing tube.
"When I first started coming out of it, I was a little agitated and I apparently tried to rip [the tube] out," he said. "So, they tied my arms down and put me back under."
Altobelli, a scrappy collegiate outfielder at Houston who played professional baseball briefly, before beginning a coaching career that included a stint as an assistant at UC Irvine, said he wasn't about be held down.
"They had scheduled me to be in the hospital for five or six days," he said. "But I was out in three days. I had two [under-arm] drainage tubes and they didn't exactly ease them out. It was more like starting a lawn mower. They just went whoop, pinched it and then stitched me up. That probably hurt more than anything, but the pain I could deal with. They give you pills for that."
Altobelli said his medication initially involved 22 pills a day. He is now down to one pill he takes nightly.
"He kicked the hospital's butt," Keri Altobelli said. "He was supposed to stay in ICU for three days, but he was out of the hospital in three days."
The recovery was not totally smooth. Back spasms prompted two trips to the emergency room and there was a bout with infection.
Altobelli credits his wife for helping immensely with his recovery.
"She's Nurse Ratched to the fullest," John Altobelli said, comparing his wife to the fictional character from "
"She has been riding me like nobody's business to sit down and relax. 'Don't lift this. Don't do that.' But I thank god that I have her, because I love her to death. She has been awesome."
His wife is not the only one reminding him to take it easy.
"Not long after being back, I got frustrated because [the school maintenance staff] wouldn't mow the outfield grass," Altobelli said. "So, I went out there with a hand mower. My players kept looking at me, saying 'What are you doing? You just had heart surgery three weeks ago.' I was doing stuff probably a little too quickly [after surgery], but that's just kind of my nature. [The players] are yelling at me all the time to stop doing things and sit down, which is nice to hear. But I just tell them to shut up, mind their own business and I keep doing what I'm doing."
What Altobelli enjoys doing most is coaching baseball. He guided OCC to the state title in 2009 and his 456 career victories are tops in school history. He has been named Orange Empire Conference Coach of the Year four times and was state and Southern California Coach of the Year in 2009.
OCC is 3-0 and was ranked No. 4 nationally in one preseason poll.
But Altobelli shrugs at the suggestion that he is savoring his days in the dugout more than ever.
"It's probably because I didn't have a