Baseball in his blood

John Altobelli

John Altobelli won 705 games and four state championships over his 27 seasons as head coach of Orange Coast College baseball. He also took home the California Community Colleges Coach of the Year Award twice (2009, 2014), as well as ABCA National Coach of the Year in 2019 after winning his fourth and final championship with the Pirates. 

“People see the yelling, and the screaming, and Norman [John’s alter ego], and the vitriol for umpires, but at the end of the day he was just a passionate, big-hearted, do-the-right-thing kind of guy, and that's the legacy I want people to remember my brother with,” sports information director Tony Altobelli said.

Far above “Coach Alto’s” collection of accolades is the lasting impact he made on the OCC community and beyond before his death one year ago.

“I think he really touched the lives of so many people not even wearing baseball uniforms,” Tony Altobelli said.

Altobelli’s storied legacy reached the likes of ESPN baseball reporter Jeff Passan who wrote a moving piece last year highlighting the lives he touched away from Wendell Pickens Field.

“It was beautiful because he talked to people that were not even on the baseball team and what kind of an impact John had on them, and that really touched a nerve for me because I didn't even really know that about John,” Tony Altobelli said. “I used to joke with him about the fact that he coached CPR and Ping-Pong.”

One of John Altobelli’s defining qualities was leading by example on the baseball diamond.

“He was a head coach. He was an outspoken leader, but he also was one of those servant leaders,” said OCC baseball head coach Nate Johnson. “You’d look out on the field and that guy was putting in bases, he was picking up weeds, he was doing everything.” 

Furthermore, Altobelli’s ability to create a lasting bond with his players made him that much more respected.

“He was a father figure for all the guys out there, everybody could go to him to hang out, talk to, anything,” OCC outfielder Logan Jackson said. “He was a great role model for everything.”

Altobelli’s ability to mix cut-throat competitiveness with a nurturing approach made him one of a kind.

“Coach Alto’s legacy is my life’s motto now. His thing was the moment that you step on the field, whoever you're playing against, f--- ‘em,” OCC Outfielder Jared Shatz said. “You need to do whatever you can to live your dream. You have to go out there to compete and destroy other kids’ dreams.”

If this over-the-top competitive attitude sounds familiar, it’s because Altobelli shared this “Mamba mentality” with the one and only Kobe Bryant.

Altobelli and Bryant met through their daughters, who both played basketball for what is now called “The Sports Academy.” The location in Thousand Oaks dropped “Mamba” out of the name as a sign of respect after the passing of Kobe and his daughter, Gianna.

In a motivational text message to Altobelli in March 2019, Bryant stated, with sarcasm, “it’s not as if life can be taken away from you at any moment. Nooo [sic] that would be crazy, that would be cruel. Right?”

The chilling, almost haunting message sent to Altobelli and the OCC baseball team was printed and stays pinned inside the dugout to this day as a reminder of how quickly things can change.

The year that has transpired since the tragedy has been unforgiving as well, placing a burden on planning tributes during a year where in person meetings have become non-existent. 

Before athletics and the campus were shut down by COVID-19, plans were arranged for the entire baseball team to play a game wearing jerseys bearing Altobelli’s number 14.

“I told Nate that I can’t believe we are coming up on a year because...for me mentally it’s still March 12. I still feel like I’m getting ready for that baseball game against Irvine Valley that was going to be played on the 14th,” athletics director Jason Kehler said.  

That game in question was never played. It was the first game cancelled of a season that never resumed. It was also the game where OCC would have unveiled a lineup clad in number 14 jerseys.

It was one of the first tributes postponed because of the pandemic. Some that have followed since were golf tournaments, special events planned for all OCC baseball games held on the 14th of every month, and more importantly an in-person memorial for the one-year anniversary. 

Postponements haven't prevented OCC from finding other ways to recognize John’s legacy

“Our coaches unanimously agreed to retire the number 14 across the department so we’re working on a banner for the gym and finding ways to memorialize John where we can,” Kehler said. “We’re going to make sure no one forgets about John Altobelli, I know that’s one of my personal goals.”

John’s legacy will alway be felt within the OCC athletic department, but his mark left on campus could eventually engrain itself into its foundation.

Though uncertainty over what to do in regards to the baseball field's name still remains, it seems plausible for there to be an eventual change that would involve John Altobelli.

“There is nothing official yet in terms of naming, but we’ve all fallen in love with “The House that Alto Built”, and that is definitely going to be something that is going to be carried on. It's important to Nate, and it’s important to me,” Kehler said. 

There are plans to, at the very least, brand the name on the team's social media.

Away from campus the community rallied to honor and support the Altobelli’s whether it was through donations or just being there for the surviving family. 

“It's been a horrible ordeal but I could not have got through it without that kind of love and support,” Tony Altobelli said. “I'm really touched by all that love and support the world has given us.”

The OCC Foundation who established the Altobelli Family Memorial Fund raised around $65,000 dollars for the Altobelli family, and another $50,000 for scholarships given in John’s name to members of the baseball team. 

“It was incredible in our office,” executive director of the Foundation Doug Bennett said. “Every time we would get an online donation I’d get an email notification of it, and my phone was just sort of pinging all the time for two days.”  

Donations continued from far beyond just the local community, including a GoFundMe page started by the Boston Red Sox director of amateur scouting Paul Toboni raising $366,250 at the time of publication. 

There are plans for Spring 2022 to establish a memorial tournament between OCC and El Camino College. 

“[It would] honor my brother, honor Sladen, honor Keri and Alyssa, and show a weekend's worth of baseball the way John would want, which was intense and passionate,” Tony Altobelli said. “It's going to be pushed to the edge as far as you can, but with the most respect and dignity that the two teams deserve for each other.” 

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