SEATTLE -- Like so many on Sunday, Mariners reliever Brandon Brennan was stunned by the devastating news of Kobe Bryant’s death. And then, things got worse.
For Brennan, the next shock came with a phone call from former teammate Boog Powell, who was in tears as he told Brennan that John Altobelli, their beloved baseball coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., had been on the helicopter with Bryant along with Altobelli's wife, Keri, and 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa.
“I said, ‘Dude, don’t mess with me. That can’t be true,'” Brennan recalled. “But Boog was bawling.”
Knowing Altobelli’s daughter was on the select girls basketball team that Bryant coached and that the families were friends, Powell had texted Altobelli just hours earlier when he first heard the NBA superstar had died, hoping to alert his former coach before his daughter saw it on the news.
That text never was answered and never will be. That is the stark reality facing everyone who knew Altobelli, whose family was among the nine people who perished on the Southern California hillside north of Los Angeles.
“Kobe was a really big figure in the world,” Brennan said. “He’s known all over the place for what he brought and how he helped inspire people with his whole Mamba mentality and work ethic. In his own way, Alto was the same way, just on a smaller scale. Everybody in baseball in Southern California knew who he was, and he was there for so many guys that he coached.”
Brennan, who is in Peoria, Ariz., preparing for his second season with the Mariners, played for Altobelli at Orange Coast in 2012 and has remained so close to his former coach that he was at the school working out several days last week and talked to his team on Tuesday.
“He’s probably my favorite head coach I’ve ever had,” Brennan said. “He really knew how to embrace any type of person and personality into his program. We had all kinds of dudes, and he knew how to make everybody jell together and have fun.
“Because of that, we won. He’s done nothing in his career but win at OCC. But what was really cool, he made it so much more than baseball. I have forever relationships with guys who are no longer in the game and live all over the country, but we find a way to stay in touch. He was able to create a very family vibe. He was special.”
That family atmosphere began with Altobelli’s own wife and kids, which is what made Sunday’s news even more devastating.
“His wife was at every game,” Brennan said. “His daughters were both bat girls. They were on the bus when we went to play in the championships. They loved to be there for their dad. I had the good fortune to play with his son, J.J.”
J.J. Altobelli, 29, is now a scout working for the Red Sox. He and his sister Alexis, 16, are the lone surviving members of the family.
“My heart goes out to J.J. and Lexi," Brennan said. “I can only imagine what is going on in J.J.’s head now, with a little sister to protect and nurture. Everyone with OCC ties, all our hearts and prayers go out to those two. This 2020 season, for me, I’ll be carrying Alto, Keri and Alyssa on my back every day.”
Bishop, Healy played on Cape Cod teams
Altobelli also coached the Brewster Whitecaps in the high-powered Cape Cod summer league for college standouts from 2012-14. Former Mariners infielder Ryon Healy played for Altobelli there in 2012 on a team that also included Yankees standout Aaron Judge, while Mariners outfielder Braden Bishop played on his ’14 team.
Healy, who signed with the Brewers this offseason, was in Milwaukee at his new team’s FanFest on Sunday when word emerged on social media of Bryant’s death. Soon after, he got a text from George Horton, his former Oregon coach, that the Altobelli family was involved as well.
“I played with J.J. at Oregon for three years,” Healy said. “My heart goes out to him and his little sister. I can’t even put myself in those shoes. It’s unfathomable. It makes me want to melt.”
Bishop, who is with family in Sacramento, Calif., getting ready for Spring Training, got a phone call Sunday morning from his younger brother, Hunter, telling him the news about Bryant.
“I was already in shock, hearing about a star like [Bryant] who you think is untouchable,” Bishop said. “So I was really taken aback when we heard about Alto. I’d never put Alto in a helicopter with Kobe. But then it came to me that he had a daughter who played basketball and was the same age. He’d talked about Kobe and his daughters when we were at Cape Cod, and it hit me that, oh my gosh, it’s real.”
Players in the Cape Cod League only spend about eight to 10 weeks together, but Healy and Bishop both said Altobelli managed to pull players from all across the country together.
“We had prior connections with me playing with his son at Oregon, and I knew both his daughters and wife,” Healy said. “They were at every game, and I had a ton of interaction with his family. He wasn’t just a baseball coach. I respected him as a man and the way he treated his family and kids. For me, that’s how you see who a man really is, when he’s around the people he loves. He touched a lot of people, both inside and outside the game, and everybody is just numb.”
Bishop said Altobelli was unique in his style, in a good way.
“He had a different vibe: very mellow and didn’t say a lot,” Bishop said. “But when he did speak, he commanded the whole team. The first thing I noticed in Cape Cod, he loved his family and treated players like they were his kids even though we were pretty temporary. It’s crazy how many people he impacted.”
Respected by his peers as well
Andy McKay, the Mariners director of player personnel, began his coaching career at Sacramento City College about the same time in the early 1990s as Altobelli took over at Orange Coast. The two schools became two of the junior college powerhouses in California over the next 20 years and though they competed in different regions, McKay got to know Altobelli through their association and when both coached in the Cape Cod League.
“Like everybody else, if you’re in my line of work, Kobe was your poster child for 20-plus years,” said McKay. “I sat there Sunday thinking I’ve never felt what I’m feeling right now for somebody I didn’t know personally. It was overwhelming. Then I got a text about an hour after we knew about Kobe, saying John was on that helicopter was his wife. And I’m thinking, why the hell was he on a helicopter with Kobe?”
Like everyone else, the pieces began coming together for McKay as the news continued coming in. And when he saw photos of Altobelli’s players gathering to honor and mourn their coach at the Orange Coast baseball diamond on Sunday afternoon, the reality hit home.
“I know the impact he had on that program,” McKay said. “In junior college, you’re dealing with kids who either weren’t good enough or didn’t have the grades to go somewhere else and need a lot of help and guidance. You become a social worker, coach, academic counselor, father figure.
“The number of kids he touched in his career is in the thousands. When I saw the pictures of his kids in the dugout, it was devastating to me. They knew what they’d lost. I’m still numb.”
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.