The Orange Coast College baseball team had dubbed March 14 as “Alto Day,” in honor of longtime coach John Altobelli, who died with his wife, Keri, and their 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, in the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and four others.
Players from OCC and visiting Irvine Valley College were to wear Altobelli’s No. 14 jersey and the black commemorative hats — with “OCC” on one side and “14” on the other — the Angels wore for a spring training game.
Altobelli’s hand-written signature, captured by an on-campus graphic artist from a document the coach signed last winter, and his No. 14 were inscribed along each baseline in the artificial turf at Wendell Pickens Field. An area near the home dugout where the coaches’ wives sit was to be named the Keri Altobelli section.
“We were all fired up, we were all excited to play,” sophomore pitcher Michael Ryhlick said. “Then the game got canceled. I mean, it’s really unfortunate.”
The sports world has ground to a halt because of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but the sudden end to a season that was 20 games old seemed like an extra cruel blow for OCC, already reeling from the death of its beloved coach just two days before the 2020 season opener.
The games, the five-hour practices, the camaraderie among teammates and coaches, the daily rhythms of a baseball season — all were therapeutic for a grieving team in need of normalcy.
But with the California Community College Athletic Assn. announcing Thursday that the remainder of the spring sports season will be canceled and Gov. Gavin Newsom ordering all Californians to stay at home, OCC baseball players were robbed not only of their season but of each other.
“It’s tough because we aren’t even allowed to see the players now,” OCC coach Nate Johnson said. “Every day at practice, you’re able to walk around and say, ‘How you doing? You OK?’ You see how they’re carrying themselves, if they’re secluding themselves. Now everyone is secluded.
“The two things we had were baseball and each other. We were able to see each other and play baseball every day. Now, we can’t physically meet as a group. … You can’t really prepare for a season with losing Alto, and now this happens. You just have to take it in stride and try to push on as best you can.”
The Pirates lost six of their first eight games as they struggled to cope with the tragedy, but a fog seemed to lift after a celebration of life service for the Altobelli family in Angel Stadium on Feb. 10. OCC lost to Long Beach the following day before winning seven in a row and 10 of 12 before the season was halted.
“It was a rough start to the season emotionally, but after the service … we started playing good baseball, the kind of baseball Alto would want us to play,” said Ryhlick, a pitcher from Mission Viejo High School. “We were definitely on the right track, and suddenly, it’s cut off.”
Johnson and OCC assistants are keeping in touch with players through phone calls and group text chats. Players returned home to search for something to fill the physical and emotional voids left by the loss of a baseball season.
“We’re all used to playing five hours a day, six days a week, and now we’re sitting around and we don’t know what to do,” Ryhlick said. “We’re all trying to find things to kill time. I’ve been playing lot of guitar, that helps a ton. I’m playing video games, hanging out with family.”
Players hope to resume workouts when the OCC campus, which was shut down last week, re-opens. Johnson said he will try to place as many players as he can in summer leagues.
Like the NCAA, which granted spring sports athletes whose seasons were disrupted by the coronavirus an additional year of eligibility, the CCCAA granted junior college players another year of eligibility.
Johnson said sophomore shortstop David Morgan, who has a scholarship offer to Oregon, likely will move on. Johnson is urging other players to wait for several weeks before making any decisions, “because no one has a full understanding of what’s going on,” he said.
Ryhlick has an offer to play at Houston, but with the level of scholarship the school can offer unknown, he said he likely will remain at OCC for another year.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll stay for a third year because it’s bigger than baseball at this point,” Ryhlick said. “I don’t think everybody will come back, but I think most guys will because we want to play for Alto, and we want to win for Alto.”