One year after his death, John Altobelli still inspires Orange Coast baseball team
The mantra of his beloved coach pops into Michael Ryhlick’s head any time the Orange Coast College pitcher gets discouraged by his team’s pandemic-induced 11-month limbo or feels his motivation wane because of an uncertain future.
“Make today the most important day of the year,” John Altobelli implored his players before every practice, “because tomorrow is not guaranteed.”
Ryhlick and his Pirates teammates heard that familiar refrain as they stretched on their Costa Mesa campus field Jan. 25, 2020, just three days before their season opener.
The following day, Altobelli, 56, died along with his wife, Keri, 46, and the couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, in the helicopter crash that killed former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and four others.
“That’s why it stuck with me, because Alto said that to us the last day we saw him,” said Ryhlick, a sophomore left-hander. “It’s kind of freaky. You hear that quote and you’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s good motivational stuff,’ but when you see living proof of it, you’re like, ‘Whoa.’
Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others perished in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. Remembering the Lakers legend a year later.
“Now, I try to live by it, and it kind of pushes me through everything. If I’m feeling lazy or like I want to take a rep off, I feel I can do more. I can’t mess around and not care about this because if I wake up tomorrow and all of a sudden I can’t play sports again, I don’t want to live with that regret. Why not give it my best shot every day?”
Tuesday will mark the one-year anniversary of that foggy Sunday morning when a chopper carrying three girls from a Newport Beach-based club basketball team, four parents and an assistant coach to a tournament in Thousand Oaks crashed into a Calabasas hillside, wiping out three-fifths of Altobelli’s immediate family.
John, Keri and Alyssa are survived by oldest son J.J. Altobelli, 30, a former college shortstop who is a Southern California area scout for the Boston Red Sox, and daughter Alexis (Lexi) Altobelli, 17, a Newport Harbor High School senior who plans to enroll at the University of Texas and study sports management in the fall.
Nate Johnson, the OCC assistant promoted to head coach last season, canceled Tuesday’s practice. He said he’ll spend some time at the field in quiet reflection and then join Pirates coaches and friends for an afternoon golf outing with J.J.
“Shoot, I wish we could have a huge ceremony for him on the field with alumni,” Johnson said. “But campus has been essentially closed since last March.”
The Pirates resumed conditioning-only practices with some light baseball activity in early January in hopes of opening an abbreviated 28-game season in April. OCC was 12-8 when the coronavirus wiped out their 2020 season last March.
Johnson, 31, spent seven years as an assistant under Altobelli, who guided the Pirates to four California community college state championships and racked up more than 700 victories in 27 seasons at OCC. As intense as the on-field competition was, it’s the light-hearted camaraderie with his mentor he misses most.
“I miss the quirky little things he’d say when I walked into the office, those conversations we’d have before a practice or game, the talk about what we did that weekend, ‘The Bachelor’ episode or the game we watched the night before,” Johnson said. “Those conversations, just me and him, were really special. You don’t realize how good some stuff is until it’s gone.”
School officials are working to name the OCC baseball field after Altobelli, who five years ago spearheaded a $2.1-million fundraising effort to upgrade the facility with a new artificial playing surface, scoreboard and sound system, batter’s eye, batting cages and bathrooms. The stadium is only a part of Altobelli’s legacy.
“Twenty-seven years, four state championships, 700-plus wins … it’s a tough legacy to carry on, right?” Johnson said. “But I got to watch him teach these guys for seven years, and I think the thing that really makes OCC special and that made him special was that feeling of family, of making sure everyone who came through here felt like part of the Pirate family.
“As hard as that is to do, I think that’s also one of the easier things that I know I’m going to be able to try to do — make sure everyone understands that once you’re here, you’re part of that family, you’re an OCC Pirate for life.”
Tony Altobelli, the youngest of seven children, said not a day has gone by in the past year when he hasn’t talked about his older brother. After hearing news of the crash, Altobelli immediately went to the OCC field, where he spent six hours consoling hundreds of players, former players, coaches and friends, and conducting media interviews.
Before going home that night, he fought through tears to write a news story about the crash and an obituary on his brother for the school’s website.
“I look back on it now and I have no idea how I did it,” Altobelli said. “I told people it was adrenaline and denial. I said, ‘For the next six hours, this isn’t my brother, this is the baseball coach at OCC, and I have to do my job.’ And that’s how I got through it.”
Two days later, Altobelli was able to “get out of my comfort zone” and eulogize John, Keri and Alyssa before a crowd of about 2,000 at OCC’s 2020 season opener. The thousands of words he has written, the many media interviews he has conducted and the hundreds of conversations he has had about his brother since have been therapeutic.
“I’ve watched people in my family that maybe don’t have the opportunity I do as far as being more in the public realm, so they don’t get asked questions about John, they don’t get asked about stories, and they don’t get a chance to talk about it,” Tony Altobelli said. “I see it building up in people, and it’s to the point where they’re still … I don’t know if wallowing is the right word, but they’re still really grieving over what happened.
“I’ve kind of gone in the other direction. I’ve been talking about it every day. I got thrown in front of the cameras on day one, and I’m grateful it happened that way, because it has allowed me to communicate my feelings to everybody, and it hasn’t festered. It hasn’t stayed in my soul or my system to the point where it maybe paralyzes people. It’s helped me drain the abscess out of my heart.”
Like Johnson, Tony Altobelli misses the private moments he shared with John, “the banter of my brother, the random text with the funny quote, the goofy meme, talking about the Cubs, our favorite team,” he said. “The fact that he was the foundation of the OCC baseball program and a steady force in our family . . . I just miss having that comfort of him being there.”
Tony will always relish the last baseball moment he shared with John at the 2019 state tournament in Fresno, where OCC swept a doubleheader from El Camino College to win the title. Almost predictably, the Pirates scored the winning run in the decisive game on two singles, a sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk and a chopper to the shortstop hole.
“John loved small ball — he loved hit-and-runs, sacrifice bunts, getting guys over and getting them in,” Tony Altobelli said. “He loved great defense. He hated giving away runs, errors and walks. He really pounded the fundamentals. It was boring to watch sometimes, but you know what? It worked.”
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