Baseball community mourns the death of Orange Coast College coach John Altobelli
Sunlight gleamed over Wendell Pickens Field at Orange Coast College on Monday afternoon.
Had tragedy not struck the day before, one might have considered it to be perfect baseball weather.
Throughout the day, people went to the Costa Mesa school’s baseball stadium, dropping in to pay their respects to a man that touched many lives.
John Altobelli, 56, who won four California community college state championships in heading the Pirates baseball program for 27 years, died Sunday morning in the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people in Calabasas.
Among those aboard the helicopter were Lakers great Kobe Bryant, 41, and his daughter, Gianna, 13, as well as Altobelli’s wife, Keri, 46, and his daughter Alyssa, 14. They were headed to a youth basketball game at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. Alyssa played with Bryant’s daughter on the Mamba club basketball team, which was coached by Bryant.
“Coach Altobelli was a giant on our campus — a beloved teacher, coach, colleague and friend. This is a tremendous loss for our campus community,” OCC President Angelica Suarez said in a statement.
In the wake of the crash, players met at the field Sunday. Several showed up hours in advance of the team’s practice Monday too, as the team gets set to host its season opener Tuesday against Chula Vista Southwestern at 2 p.m.
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Altobelli, who won more than 700 games in his time at OCC, had fostered a family environment in his program, and his players were looking to one another as the grieving process began.
A memorial had begun around home plate, decorated with flower bouquets and various tokens of appreciation.
Before practice started, the team walked out to the left-field foul pole, where signage bearing Altobelli’s No. 14 was posted on the fence along with the words “Forever a Pirate.”
At the end of the practice, the team came together around home plate. Only one word was used to break the huddle: “Family.”
A family man first was the way Huntington Beach High School baseball coach Benji Medure remembered Altobelli. With four young daughters himself, Medure could not think of a better person to emulate.
“It was like I was talking to my own father a lot of the time, how his eyes lit up when he talked about [his son] J.J., [a scout for the Boston Red Sox], or his girls,” Medure said. “You could just tell that he was a family man first and he was a baseball man second.
“Not that he took his baseball side less seriously, but he knew what he was all about. He was all about his kids and his wife and his family, and that is what I will always remember. I am going to try to [live] my life like that.”
Altobelli’s father, Jim, broke into tears when asked to speak about his son as a father figure to his players, saying, “We all miss him.”
As far as his son’s legacy is concerned, he added, “Well-liked, and look what he has done. This is the house that John built. This is his. He had a lot of help from a lot of his ex-ballplayers, and almost every single one of them has been out here today or yesterday.”
More family members showed up to the field Monday, including Altobelli’s sister, Dee. His younger brother, Tony, is the sports information director for OCC and a former sports reporter with the Daily Pilot.
Jake Lopez, a redshirt sophomore pitcher who came to OCC after requiring Tommy John surgery for a UCL tear in his first year at Long Beach State, appreciated Altobelli for his honesty, as well as the second chance that he got to play the game.
“He didn’t cut me any slack just because I was some [Division] 1 bounce-back,” Lopez said. “He expected greatness from me every single day, and he expected me to be a leader. That’s something that I’m going to keep on doing for him.
“If there’s one thing that I could say to him at the end of the day, I just want to say, ‘Thank you.’ He gave me a shot, and I’m going to take that to my full advantage.”
A jersey hung behind home plate with the letters “NEGU” stitched in where the name should be. The acronym meant “Never ever give up.” Altobelli’s players have taken that to heart and believe that their play on the field can contribute to the legacy of their late coach.
“We play to win,” sophomore shortstop David Morgan said. “We come out here, we play 100% effort every single day. We never come short of that because of him.
“Now we have something to live up to even more. We played every day not to let him down, and now we have to live that out, go through every single day playing 100%, the way he would want us to because we know he is watching us.”
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Former Corona del Mar baseball coach John Emme fondly recalled being with Altobelli the night he met Keri, who was his second wife.
“We were all out one night, we finally got John out, and we went to one of the old places in the Irvine Spectrum,” Emme said. “There was a beautiful girl across the other side of the bar who was staring at us for like 20 minutes, and finally, [former Newport Harbor coach] Joel [Desguin] goes over there and says, ‘So which one of us are you looking at?’
“She points right at John, and they got married two weeks later. It was Keri. It was a match made in heaven. People thought they were crazy to get married in two weeks, and I’ve never seen a happier couple for all the years that they were together.”
The Altobellis were going to celebrate their 18th anniversary Feb. 9.
Altobelli, a Newport Harbor High School alumnus who went on to play baseball at Golden West College and the University of Houston, made many friends in his life, including former Daily Pilot sports reporter Barry Faulkner. His first thoughts were geared toward what the Pirates collectively referred to as his “vanilla” brand of baseball, or taking care of the fundamentals.
“I always enjoyed watching John’s teams play the game because they always did things the right way,” said Faulkner, who worked at the Daily Pilot for 28 years. “Another benefit of covering OCC baseball was [talking] after games with John. Win or lose, he was helpful and always had a humorous way to inject perspective.
“We laughed a lot in those interactions, which were always more than just interviews.”
After winning his fourth state championship last season, Altobelli was named National Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Assn. OCC associate baseball coach Nate Johnson, 30, and Jeff Belger, an outfield coach for the Pirates, said the recognition was long overdue. They were in attendance when Altobelli received the award in Nashville, Tenn.
“He’s won so many championships here, and he’s won four state titles,” said Johnson, who will be taking over the program. “That was his first-ever National Coach of the Year [honor], and that shouldn’t have been his first. He should have had multiple ones now.
“If you would have asked him, he would have said, ‘This award is for me and all these coaches, and the players are the ones who won.’”
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