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Beloved coach honored: 'He did it all'

John Altobelli remembered at his school's season opener
@RhettBollinger
January 28, 2020

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Opening Day was always the favorite day of the year for longtime Orange Coast Community College baseball coach John Altobelli. But on Tuesday, the first game of the Pirates' season took on a different tone after the death of Altobelli, 56, his wife Keri, 46, and

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Opening Day was always the favorite day of the year for longtime Orange Coast Community College baseball coach John Altobelli.

But on Tuesday, the first game of the Pirates' season took on a different tone after the death of Altobelli, 56, his wife Keri, 46, and his daughter Alyssa, 13, in the helicopter crash on Sunday that also claimed the lives of six others, including legendary basketball star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

Altobelli's brother, Tony, though, made sure it was a day of remembrance and positivity regarding Altobelli, who would've been entering his 28th season with the junior college power and had a lengthy list of accomplishments, including four state titles and more than 700 wins. Tony serves as OCC's baseball sports information director and their final time on a baseball field together came last May when OCC won the state championship in Fresno. He told the crowd, which stretched foul pole to foul pole, that he had received more than 3,000 messages of support over the past three days.

"A lot of the messages I've received throughout the week are, 'What can I do for you?'" Altobelli said. "The answer is nothing, you know. Just give me some love and support and maybe some space. But today, I'm taking you all up on that offer. I want you all to smile, to laugh, to tell funny John stories. Today is a day of remembrance and it's sad -- we're going to have a lot of sad days -- but it's the season opener and baseball so let's smile and have some fun."

Altobelli's son, J.J., now a scout with the Red Sox, and his daughter, Lexi, a high schooler, were also at Pirate Park on Tuesday. Fans were handed out No. 14 shirts in remembrance of Altobelli, while Pirates players all wore No. 14 during pregame warmups.

"Lyss, if you heard her laugh, it made you laugh," associate head coach Nate Johnson said. "She lit up any room she went into. She had an infectious personality. And the relationship she had with Lex and J.J., I couldn't do it justice if I tried to talk about it. It was a special relationship. They were a great family. They brought me in their family seven years ago. And they treated me like one of them. They treat everyone like one of them. That's why there's so many people out here wearing these 14 shirts. They made everybody feel like an Altobelli or a Pirate."

The Pirates, who play in the nine-member Orange Empire Conference in Southern California, voted unanimously to play on Tuesday. The game was suspended due to darkness with Southwestern College leading, 7-6, in the ninth, but the day was about much more than baseball. As fans walked into Pirate Park, a sign read "The House that Alto Built," while a makeshift memorial was created behind the pressbox and under a tribute to Altobelli that read that he was "Forever a Pirate."

"As you walked in, you saw this was the house that Alto built," said Johnson. "Everything you see here, he fundraised or found a way to get it done. The dirt, the pressbox, dugouts, bathrooms. He did it all. And when I say this is a house that he built, he didn't do it lightly. It took a long time. It took him 28 years and a dream job, and he loved every second of his job and he loved his family."

Altobelli had also previously dealt with the death of a player named Jourdan Watanabe in 2009 and spoke about how to remember those who are lost at the Final Four banquet last year in Fresno after the death of El Camino College infielder Sladen Mohl.

"He shared what it was like 10 years ago, losing Jourdan, the No. 22 you see on our field," athletic director Jason Kehler said. "What he shared with them was that you will see your brother's number everywhere you look. And every time you see that number you think of him and remember him. There are a lot of 14s out here today. Every time you see the No. 14, you think about John Altobelli and remember the man he was."

Altobelli coached several future Major Leaguers and touched the lives of baseball players throughout Southern California and beyond. New Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and former big league right-hander Dan Haren were among those at the game on Tuesday. Altobelli also coached the Reds' Boog Powell and the Mariners' Brandon Brennan at Orange Coast College, and as a coach in the prestigious Cape Cod League, he helped the Yankees' Aaron Judge, the Mets' Jeff McNeil, the Phillies' Scott Kingery, the Reds' Michael Lorenzen, the Mariners' Braden Bishop, the Brewers' Ryon Healy, the D-backs' Luke Weaver and the Nationals' Austin Voth reach the Major Leagues.

Southwestern College associate coach David Dinerman said before the game that Altobelli's teams always played the right way and that his team will try to emulate the Pirates' way in Altobelli's honor.

"We respect and admire the team's decision to play as scheduled and we know Coach Altobelli would have it no other way," Dinerman said. "We also expect the Orange Coast Pirates to play as they always have under Coach Altobelli: With effort, passion, pride, resilience, precision, resolve and dignity. The true measure of today's contest will be how it helps all of you turn your process from grief into gratitude. Today we are all Pirates."

Rhett Bollinger covers the Angels for MLB.com. He previously covered the Twins from 2011-18. Follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and Facebook.