Skip to main content
Welcome to
super saver spring
offer ends april 20
save over $140
save over 85%
$0.99
per week for 24 weeks
Welcome to
super saver spring
$0.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Associate coach Nate Johnson, left, embraces his wife Jonai during a ceremony held for John Altobelli, the late head coach of Orange Coast College baseball, who died in a helicopter crash alongside former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant in Costa Mesa, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. His wife Keri and youngest daughter Alyssa were also victims of the crash.

The Associated Press

John Altobelli’s team knew there was only one way to honour its late coach — by playing on his favourite day.

Altobelli’s Orange Coast College baseball team opened its season as scheduled on Tuesday against Chula Vista Southwestern. The game occurred two days after Altobelli, his wife and their 13-year-old daughter were killed in the helicopter crash that also took the life of Kobe Bryant and five others.

“They didn’t so much ask me. They told me,” athletic director Jason Kehler said about the team’s decision to play.

Story continues below advertisement

The game at Wendell Pickens Field was a celebration of Altobelli’s life and the 27 years he devoted to his program. More than 2,000 people were on hand on a sunny day at a field that seats 500. Fans were lined up and down the first- and third-base lines.

Altobelli’s son J.J., a scout with the Boston Red Sox, and his 16-year old daughter Lexi watched from an area reserved for family along the first-base line near the Pirates dugout.

After the game — which Southwestern was leading 7-6 when it was called due to darkness in the ninth inning — the team lined up to hug J.J. and Lexi.

“I went down and hugged Lexi probably every single inning because she needs it,” interim manager Nate Johnson said. “I told the team they need us.”

Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa were among the eight passengers killed along with the pilot Sunday morning when the helicopter chartered by Bryant plowed into a cloud-covered hillside in Calabasas.

The Altobellis, Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who was also killed in the crash, were on their way to a youth basketball tournament in which Alyssa and Gianna were to play.

There was a banner with Altobelli’s uniform number, 14, on the left-field fence as well as flowers and cards honouring the family on a wall behind home plate. Many fans were wearing No. 14 T-shirts that read “Forever A Pirate.”

Story continues below advertisement

“This is a fraction of the impact that John had. Today speaks to that,” Kehler said. “We couldn’t ask for more than this. We want to make sure that John and his family get the recognition they deserve. He deserves to have his story be told.”

Kehler, Johnson and Altobelli’s brother Tony spoke during a pre-game ceremony. Johnson paused a couple times as he reflected on his former boss and his family.

“They made everyone feel like an Altobelli or a Pirate. That’s why so many people are wearing 14 today,” Johnson said. “I know if (Keri) were here she would be judging me on everything I’d be doing. (Keri) really ran this team.”

”If you heard Alyssa laugh she would make you laugh. She lit up any room she went into. John loved his family and was so proud of his team. We’re going to do our best to honour him in everything we do moving forward.”

Johnson said Alyssa’s goal was to attend Oregon, because her favourite basketball player was Sabrina Ionescu. J.J. attended Oregon after playing for his father at Orange Coast.

Tony Altobelli — who is also Orange Coast College’s sports information director — said his younger brother’s death was emotional for everyone, including umpires.

Story continues below advertisement

“It was touching. The only thing that could come to my mind is could you imagine my brother making an umpire cry? I know he would have loved it,” Altobelli said.

Despite dealing with his own grief, Altobelli announced the game and carried on his usual duties.

“In days like this I wasn’t John’s brother, I was the SID at Orange Coast College doing something for my brother. That was the only way I could get through today,” he said.

John Altobelli, 56, won more than 700 games at Orange Coast. The American Baseball Coaches Association named him its coach of the year last year after he guided the Pirates to their fourth state title.

He also managed the Brewster Whitecaps for three seasons in the Cape Cod Summer League. Among the players he coached there were New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and New York Mets infielder Jeff McNeil.

McNeil told ESPN that Altobelli took a chance on him and credits him with being drafted.

Story continues below advertisement

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole, who lives in Newport Beach, attended the game and watched from the Orange Coast dugout for an inning.

Johnson said his team was trying too hard early. The Pirates committed three errors the first five innings and fell behind 7-1 in the sixth. They scored four times in the sixth and added a run in the seventh.

“It was a good day. It stinks that we didn’t finish it,” Johnson said. “It still doesn’t feel real to me. When I was making in-game decisions, I kept a seat open. You’re making decisions that the man who mentored you made the last seven seasons.

“Today, this team ran themselves. I put the guys out there that I thought Alto would want to see and I felt like were playing with emotion for him.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies