This was already going to be an emotional day for Mike Ryhlick, the Orange Coast College pitcher who started Tuesday’s season opener against Chula Vista Southwestern.
Coach John Altobelli and Kent Watanabe, a volunteer coach who runs the snack bar for home games, informed Ryhlick this month that he would be the first Pirates player in 10 years to wear No. 22, which former OCC catcher Jourdan Watanabe, Kent’s son, wore before he died in 2009.
After the 10th anniversary of Watanabe’s death, Altobelli decided to take No. 22 out of retirement and award it to a player who embodies Jourdan’s spirit, work ethic, leadership and love for the game.
Ryhlick, a sophomore left-hander from Mission Viejo, was selected, and he took the mound Tuesday wearing the number that has adorned a banner near the left-field foul pole for a decade.
“It was big when they asked me to wear No. 22; I was already going out there with a lot of emotion and pride,” Ryhlick said. “Then, the unexplainable happened, and it was even bigger.”
The “unexplainable,” of course, was Sunday’s helicopter crash that killed Altobelli, 56, his wife, Keri, 46, and their daughter, Alyssa, 13, along with former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and four others.
Two days after the tragedy, the Pirates took the field for the first time in 28 years without Altobelli, who guided OCC to four state championships and 705 victories, sent hundreds of players to four-year colleges and helped countless teenagers mature into young men since 1993.
The crowd of about 2,000 that squeezed into Wendell Pickens Field on the school’s Costa Mesa campus included J.J. Altobelli, 29, a scout for the Boston Red Sox, and high school junior Alexis Altobelli, 16, the only surviving members of the Altobelli family.
Several hundred former players, most wearing white or orange No. 14 jerseys to honor Altobelli, mingled near the home dugout throughout the afternoon, reminiscing about their coach.
Gerrit Cole, who recently signed a $324-million contract with the New York Yankees, stopped by, as did former big league pitcher Dan Haren.
Tony Altobelli, John’s younger brother and the school’s sports information director, associate head coach Nate Johnson and athletic director Jason Kehler spoke during a pregame tribute to the coach and his family. OCC players wore commemorative patches on their uniforms and inscribed “J.A. 14” on their caps.
“It’s breathtaking,” Kevin Snapp, 40, an OCC assistant coach from 2009 to 2015 and 2017, said of the turnout. “If Alto wanted to throw a party, this is exactly what it would look like.”
The result of the game, which was suspended because of darkness with Southwestern leading 7-6 in the top of the ninth inning, seemed secondary to the outpouring of love for the Altobelli family.
After Johnson addressed the team in a postgame meeting, and as the field was enveloped in darkness, each OCC player and coach walked toward the right-field line and exchanged hugs with J.J. and Alexis, known as Lexi, Altobelli.
“That was pretty difficult,” sophomore pitcher Brenden Argomaniz said. “When you look into their eyes and you see a piece of Alto there in the flesh, it hits you a little bit. It’s tough. But they’re family, and we’re going to do everything we can to support them.”
Johnson’s voice cracked with emotion as he described what is was like to see hundreds of former players and fans wearing Altobelli’s No. 14 and to manage his first game after seven years as Altobelli’s lead assistant.
“It was crazy, it was surreal, it still doesn’t feel real to me,” Johnson, 30, said. “Today, I kept his seat open, and … you’re sitting there making all these in-game decisions that the man you looked up to and who mentored you was making for the last seven years. It won’t hit me for a while.”
Johnson didn’t spend much time on the bench between innings, using most breaks to jog down the right-field line to embrace the youngest Altobelli.
“I went down and hugged Lexi about 20 times today,” Johnson said. “I tried to hug her every single inning, because she needs it.”
Johnson’s between-innings gestures, as well as the postgame gesture by the team, warmed the heart of Tony Altobelli.
“It’s called the Pirate Family for a reason,” Altobelli said. “My niece and nephew are hurting a lot. I know they’re going through an incredibly terrible ordeal right now. … I’m glad today’s over. It’s a little bit more healing. We keep moving on. We keep taking one breath at a time, one step at a time, one day at a time.”
While John Altobelli was the focus for most of the day, Johnson and Tony Altobelli made sure to tell several stories about Keri, John’s wife, and Alyssa, whom Tony Altobelli described as “a firecracker” with a great sense of humor and love for sports.
Alyssa, who occasionally served as a batgirl for OCC games, was a teammate of Gianna Bryant on Kobe’s club basketball team. She aspired to play college basketball at Oregon and was such a fierce competitor that Johnson said she began wearing knee pads because she was diving for so many loose balls on the court.
“Alyssa … if you heard her laugh, it would make you laugh,” Johnson said. “She had an infectious personality and lit up any room she went into. And the relationship she had with Lexi and J.J. … I couldn’t do it justice if I tried to talk about it. It was a special relationship.”
So was the relationship John Altobelli had with his players, which was clearly evident in the voices of Pirates past and present.
“He cared about us so much, he was a real father figure,” Argomaniz said. “His body may not be here anymore, but his heart, his soul, everything he taught us, it’s all still with us, and we’re going to continue to carry that with us.”