It was sometime last fall that Orange Coast College’s new president Angelica Suarez was touring Wendell Pickens Field hoping to meet the head baseball coach John Altobelli.
When she and Doug Bennett, the executive director of the OCC Foundation, were on their way to Altobelli’s office, Suarez noticed a man in a large floppy sun hat hand-washing each seat.
“I thought he was one of our employees in the Maintenance and Operations department. And Doug [Bennett] says, ‘Oh, no. No, that’s the coach. That’s coach Altobelli,’” Suarez said.
OCC baseball’s head coach John Altobelli, along with his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa, were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 outside Calabasas. The Altobellis have two surviving children, son J.J. and daughter Alexis.
With the Altobellis’ death a massive hole has been ripped in the fabric of the team, the school and the county at large.
Altobelli was a titan in Pirate athletics but according to new head coach Nate Johnson he was a devoted family man who loved drinking Coors Light, watching reality shows like “The Bachelor” with his family and giving off-kilter speeches.
He was famous for the speeches he used to give at an annual banquet for the final four teams in the state championship playoffs.
While most coaches would stick to more traditional, motivational speeches, according to Johnson, Altobelli was known for discussing whatever was on his mind — like the lack of chocolate cake at that year’s banquet or the top 10 reasons he drank Coors Light — several of them related to umpires.
When discussing favorite memories of Altobelli, some of his friends were not hard pressed for stories, while other friends and coaching staff didn’t want their favorite memories in print where their mothers could see it.
Altobelli also loved to encourage his daughter Alyssa’s passion for basketball.
It was through Alyssa Altobelli’s basketball games that the family got to know her Mamba Academy teammate Gianna Bryant and her father, former Laker great Kobe Bryant.
The helicopter the Altobellis were aboard was rented by Bryant for a trip to a tournament.
Because Alyssa Altobelli had always dreamed of playing basketball for the University of Oregon, attendees to a Thursday night candlelight vigil in Mariner’s Park in Newport Beach were asked to wear green and yellow in honor of her beloved Oregon Ducks.
Many of Alyssa Altobelli’s teammates wore green shirts emblazoned with her school jersey number — a number five in yellow. Earlier that day, her number was retired in an assembly at Ensign Intermediate School where she was in eighth grade.
One of Alyssa Altobelli’s close friends and neighbors, Sammy Forbath, described her friend as hardworking, kind and optimistic.
“She always worked hard with a smile on her face,” Forbath said.
Another friend and teammate, Riley McKibbin, was wearing Altobelli’s signature hair style.
“She always had her hair in braids, specifically Dutch braids and that’s what I have in my hair right now,” McKibbin said.
McKibbin also spoke of her friend’s love of Disney movies, especially both “Frozen” films.
According to McKibbin, her late-friend liked to listen to a variety of musical styles but “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry was a particular favorite.
“She always listened to that for some reason,” McKibbin said sadly.
A love of music was a bond that all of the Altobellis shared, but in particular, country music was a way for John Altobelli to spend quality time with his oldest daughter, Alexis Altobelli, Johnson said.
According to new coach Johnson, the pair were already excited for concerts they planned to attend this summer.
In honor of their coach, country music blared from the speakers throughout the Pirate’s season opener home game against Southwestern College in what is now being informally called, The House That Alto Built.
Meanwhile in Johnson’s ears, Keri Altobelli’s voice was even louder than the music.
“She was telling me ‘Don’t screw this up, Nate,’” he said.
Johnson said that he and Keri Altobelli loved to good naturedly poke fun at each other, often joking that she had more power to fire Johnson than her husband did.
“She was the ultimate baseball wife,” Kent Watanabe, an assistant baseball coach and Altobelli family friend said.
Keri Altobelli attended every one of the Pirates’ games, often working the snack bar or fundraising for the team. As a result, the Altobellis raised about $3 million to build the current stadium.
This commitment to team and family formed the core of the Altobelli family culture, Watanabe said.
In a poem read aloud at Thursday’s vigil entitled “Where I’m From,” Alyssa Altobelli reflected on her family’s values and culture.
“I am from holiday parties and competition, from John and Keri. I am from comedians and athletes, from let’s go outside and stay off electronics,” she wrote.
Her words fell heavy on an almost entirely silent crowd of several hundred.
Alyssa Altobelli’s close friends then released nine paper lanterns in honor of the victims of the crash.
As the lanterns drifted upwards, one became caught against a fence at the back of the park’s baseball diamond — its orange flame burning bright against a lavender sky.