- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
IN LATE MARCH 2019, the Orange Coast College baseball team lost two games in a row. For the powerhouse junior college program, this constituted a mini-crisis. As OCC’s coach, John Altobelli, searched for ways to prevent the skid from worsening, he happened upon the perfect solution. He would ask Kobe Bryant for help.
Over the previous three years, Altobelli had become close with Bryant. Their daughters played basketball together on Bryant’s elite Mamba Sports Academy team. Altobelli lived vicariously through Alyssa the same as Bryant did Gianna. The fathers were quite the pair — Altobelli the legendary junior college coach with nearly 700 career wins and three state championships, Bryant the legendary NBA star who saw in Altobelli what he saw in himself: drive and fire and desire. They were winners. So were their girls.
During the previous season, Altobelli had invited Bryant to speak to his team at OCC. Once the players stopped gawking and grinning, they hung on every word. So on March 27, 2019, Altobelli thought nothing of asking Bryant for some encouragement that he could share with the team.
For the rest of the season, on an orange bulletin board inside of OCC’s dugout, four push pins held up an 8½-by-11 sheet of paper. Printed on the top third of the paper was a photograph of Bryant, mid-fist pump. Beneath the picture was the text message Bryant sent Altobelli that day.
ON JAN. 26, John Altobelli died alongside his wife, Keri, 46, and Alyssa, 14, in the helicopter crash that killed 41-year-old Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and four others traveling to a Team Mamba basketball game in Thousand Oaks, California. The Altobellis left behind J.J., a 29-year-old scout with the Boston Red Sox, and a daughter, Lexi, 16.
John Altobelli was 56. Dutiful father, beloved coach, respected mind, rapier wit, Altobelli was, above all, something more.
“He was a collector,” Tyler Parker, a family friend, likes to say, “of lost baseball souls.”
Ryan Evans was one of those countless souls. In the summer of 2011, he drove with his sister and girlfriend to Disneyland. While in California, he cold-called local juco programs and asked for a tryout. Most didn’t bother responding. Altobelli invited Evans to visit OCC and throw. On the fourth pitch, he broke the catcher’s mitt. He was on the team.
Until then, baseball had teased and taunted Evans, who had missed the previous season with an arm injury. When Evans returned home from California, he tossed a twin mattress into the cab of his Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and drove 650 miles from American Fork, Utah, to Costa Mesa, California, where OCC is located. Before he found an apartment, he slept in his truck.
At practice, he remained dubious of the entire situation. He had been cut at his previous junior college in Utah and was sure Altobelli would send him back, too. “Are you kidding me, Evs?” Altobelli said at the time. “You’ll be playing D-I next year. I’ll make sure of it.” Evans thrived at OCC. And sure enough, come 2013, he was at Utah Valley University, a Division I program.
“I didn’t have a father in my life,” Evans says. “Alto played the role of my father. He may not have known it, but I know it. Coaches can be fathers to us kids without knowing it. He was one of mine. I love him and his family for sharing him with us.”
Family was a principle Altobelli constantly preached. His father, Jim, sits in the press box at OCC games and emerges with hot dogs to feed the dogs that fans bring into the stands. Altobelli’s brother, Tony, is the program’s sports information director.
For 27 years, Altobelli ran his two-year program with the personalized care of a boutique outfit and the aspirations of a Division I machine. One day he would summon Bryant or Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Palmer to deliver a speech. The next day he would spend two hours shepherding a recruit around campus on a golf cart or ensuring that a Division I coach visiting campus had a parking pass. He knew the junior college life because he had lived it.
After growing up in Southern California, Altobelli went to Golden West College, a top juco program in Huntington Beach, California. The University of Houston recruited him and named him captain in his first season. Within a semester, Altobelli was wearing cowboy boots and getting in fights at country and western bars. He graduated, got his master’s in education and spent six years as a Division I assistant before returning home.
With him came a treasure trove of adages Altobelli used liberally. “The game knows,” he would say. And: “Act like you have been here before.” Or: “Show respect to the other team and play hard.” He loved acronyms. One year, he made his team players write PMA — positive mental attitude — on their underwear. Instead of players’ names on the backs of their jerseys in 2019, everyone sported the same four letters: NEGU — never ever give up.
Altobelli wasn’t all preach either. For home games, he arrived to the field around 6 a.m., even though first pitch was typically eight hours later. Two knee surgeries, a skin cancer scare and heart surgery never stopped Altobelli from preparing the grass with a push lawnmower, making sure not to leave even a single sunflower seed on the ground.
“I beat him to the field one time,” said Murphy Stehly, who parlayed a standout 2019 with OCC into a spot on the University of Texas baseball team. “He said, ‘That will never happen again.’”
LUCAS PARKER WAS born blind in his right eye, and among his pediatrician’s suggestions was that he play sports. Maybe, the doctor said, it would help regenerate some of his lost vision or at least help with his depth perception. Any sport, he said, would work — except baseball. Parker taking a ball to his good eye was too risky. The thing is, baseball was the only sport he wanted to play, and in 1992, when Parker was 7, he brought home a shoddily designed flyer that said the new coach at Orange Coast College would be running a summer camp for children trying to learn the game.
“Mom,” Parker said, “please.”
Liz Parker was wary. She called the number on the flyer and asked to talk with John Altobelli. He was 29 years old, fresh off losing his job at UC Irvine, which had shuttered its baseball program. She explained her concerns about her son getting hurt. Altobelli said that wouldn’t happen. His players were the coaches. They would teach him the right way.
“We’ll protect his eye,” Altobelli said.
When Liz and Lucas Parker arrived at the camp, not even 10 kids were there. What Altobelli lacked in marketing, Liz soon found out, he made up for in coaching. At the end of the day, when she returned for pickup, Lucas told her immediately to unenroll him in the zoo camp and environmental-nature camp he was supposed to attend in the coming weeks.
“Coach Alto says I’m the best and I have to be there every Friday,” Lucas said.
The next year, when Liz signed Lucas up to join another baseball camp for kids who needed to hone their skills, the coaches told her after the first day: “Don’t bring him back.”
Lucas kept playing anyway and spent two more summers at Altobelli’s camp. He improved. Some of his vision returned. The tricks Altobelli’s players taught him — how to properly anticipate and make up for the lack of depth perception — allowed him to play catcher in high school and wide receiver on the football team. Missing out on environmental-nature camp didn’t hinder him much either. Lucas Parker is an experimental physicist who works in Los Alamos doing research on the cosmic background radiation released by the Big Bang.
Parker’s little brother Tyler was only 4 when Lucas enrolled in the OCC camp — too young to join. But that didn’t stop him from trying. When Tyler saw Altobelli’s son, J.J., who was 2½ years old, tagging along with his father, he asked Altobelli: “Can I be your son so I can play baseball here?”
Altobelli loved baseball and lived to teach others to love it the same. This is what Tyler Parker noticed about Altobelli when he described him as a keeper of lost souls — an instinct to latch on to anyone in need of help. The kid who’s blind in one eye, the Division I flameout in need of juco redemption. Even Tyler himself, who grew into an excellent pitcher, suffered an arm injury and received guidance from Altobelli as he recovered. Baseball wasn’t merely a game. It was a salve, one with which Altobelli devotedly anointed.
ON MARCH 31, 2018, a tall, imposing right-handed pitcher for Ventura College named Jackson Hokuf entered in the fifth inning of a game against Orange Coast College. Two runners were on, and he issued a walk to load the bases. Then he allowed a three-run double and another walk before hitting the next batter to reload the bases.
As he was pulled from the game, Hokuf couldn’t feel his right arm. From Ventura’s dugout, he yelled toward the OCC players, the frustration boiling over. Hokuf knew this was bad, that something was very wrong, that his career might be over.
When Hokuf walked across the field to meet with the trainers, who sit next to OCC’s dugout, he was greeted with silence. Then he heard a voice.
“Hey, bud,” Altobelli said. “How you doing? I know that was a rough one for you out there.”
At first, Hokuf couldn’t believe it. He had cursed out Altobelli’s team, and here was the coach checking on him. He shouldn’t have been surprised. In Hokuf, Altobelli saw another baseball soul to save.
When Hokuf composed himself, he laughed and said, “Yeah, it’s been better.” Altobelli told him to stay positive and wished him a speedy recovery.
“It was a 30-second interaction,” Hokuf says, “that meant the world to a 21-year-old kid who felt like he just lost the only thing he’d ever known.”
NOBODY GOT MAD like John Altobelli. He even had a name for this alter ego: Norman — as in Norman Bates. When Norman emerged, not a soul was spared, and he saved his deepest vitriol for a particular subset of people: umpires.
Altobelli developed a reputation for getting thrown out of games. Not much bothered him about junior college baseball, but the umpiring? He did not suffer fools gladly. And umpires, in particular, needed to know what everyone knew about how Altobelli treated baseball: This game is the most important thing.
Occasionally, it would backfire. Toward the end of the 2009 season, Altobelli engaged an umpire in an argument. As he returned to the dugout, he groused, “God damn it, get things right!” The umpire ran Altobelli.
It was his second ejection in 2009, and by rule two ejections meant he would need to sit out the rest of the season. This was his best team in 17 years coaching OCC, and he spent the remainder of the year outside of the dugout. He wasn’t on the field for his first championship.
Something changed in Altobelli around that time. J.J. was off to play baseball at Oregon. It was just him, Keri, Lexi and Alyssa. The girls were getting older. They would sit down the right-field line in beach chairs during games. Altobelli wanted to set a better example. Norman needed to appear with far less frequency.
Keri’s influence helped. They had met at a bar after Altobelli divorced J.J.’s mother and got married two weeks later. She would censure him when necessary. “Alto,” Keri would start, calling him by the same nickname his friends and players and pretty much everyone who knew him used. And then she would tell him what he was doing wrong. He usually listened. To Alto, Keri spoke in gospel. After Altobelli underwent open-heart surgery in 2011 to fix a weakened valve, Keri reminded him to save Norman only for the most necessary moments. He had two girls to raise.
Altobelli never missed an opportunity to brag on his daughters. He and Nate Mulberg, an assistant coach at the University of Richmond who visited OCC on a recruiting trip last year, bonded over basketball. Mulberg grew up outside of Philadelphia — same as Bryant. “I’ll never forget Coach Alto telling me during my visit there about how his daughter played travel basketball with Kobe’s daughter,” Mulberg says.
Altobelli took such joy in Alyssa’s excellence. As much as Altobelli spent his life on baseball’s lost souls, there was room for more. At OCC, he taught a golf course. In the fall semester of 2010, a 22-year-old named Jessica Oropeza decided to audit it. She had never played sports, and the sight of Altobelli — his jaw square, his stare searing — did little to ease her nerves. Then he started to teach.
Adaptation was Altobelli’s greatest gift. He reflexively understood what his players needed. When he coached in the elite summer Cape Cod League and his team was wrapping up a disappointing 2013 season, Altobelli tried to give his players a memorable going-away present by playing Scott Heineman at all nine positions in the season’s final game. It was little things, small gestures — acknowledgment that however strong the Norman in him might have been, the counterbalance outweighed it.
Even though Oropeza couldn’t hit the ball — when she brushed the top, it would roll 2 feet in front of her or fly almost sideways — Altobelli remained patient. He “was hard when he needed to be,” she says, “but also gentle.” He switched out balls for pieces of grass. When Oropeza hit four in a row, she was upgraded to hitting a tee. From there, she graduated to balls again. Golf, Altobelli told her, wasn’t about strength. It is a competition between you and the ball. All the frustration is worth it too, because it’s a forever game, its utility infinite.
Oropeza is 32 now. She still plays golf. And even if the ball isn’t screaming off her clubhead, she hits it straight with every swing thanks to Altobelli.
“He’s the only man,” she says, “I can ever call Coach.”
EARLY LAST MONTH, more than 7,000 baseball coaches, representing all levels of the sport, gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, for the 76th annual American Baseball Coaches Association Convention. Amid the skill clinics, trade show, Q&A’s and other presentations, the ABCA hands out its national coach of the year awards. The winner for the Pacific Association Division, spanning California, Oregon and Washington, was John Altobelli.
Keri joked that he should have won a few by now, and she wasn’t wrong. It amounted to a lifetime achievement award: For 27 years at OCC, where Altobelli sent hundreds of players to Division I schools. For three years on the Cape, where he coached Aaron Judge, Jeff McNeil and nine other major leaguers. For the summer camps. For the hospitality during recruiting visits. For being Alto.
Lexi accompanied Altobelli on the trip and got to see firsthand the scope of his influence. Coaches from across the country congratulated him. David Pierce, the University of Texas coach who played with Altobelli at Houston, beamed at the long-overdue honor for a friend who could’ve been anything and opted to be a lifer.
“He could be the head coach at the University of Texas,” Pierce says. “He could be the head coach at USC. That was a choice of his.”
The night after he was feted, Altobelli and Lexi met up with a group of coaches, including Pierce, who were having a drink. Lexi is a junior in high school. She is trying to figure out where she wants to go to college. The only thing she had decided, Pierce says, is that wherever she goes, she wants to work with the school’s baseball program.
Altobelli made people want to be a part of the game, and of his circle within it. Ten miles up the 405, at Golden West, Altobelli’s old friend Bert Villarreal had been doing the same for more than 30 years. He and Altobelli had been teammates at Golden West nearly four decades earlier, and they somehow managed to remain rivals and confidantes simultaneously. During the 2009 playoffs, when Altobelli was banished, he would chat with Villarreal during the games. This year, on the day of Golden West’s opener, Altobelli texted Villarreal, who plans to retire after this season, to wish him luck — then ended OCC’s practice early to scout Villarreal’s team’s game.
Two days later, Villarreal was grabbing lunch at BJ’s. The people in line in front of him were talking about how Kobe Bryant’s helicopter had crashed. Villarreal pulled out his phone and sent a text to Altobelli.
“I know you were close friends with Kobe,” it said. “I’m so sorry for your loss. If you need anything, I’m here.”
TWO DAYS AFTER the crash, OCC played its first game of the season. Outside Wendell Pickens Field, near the banner that read “The House That Alto Built,” Liz Parker sat at a table. She had joined the school as a fundraiser years earlier and worked with Altobelli on manifold projects, including convincing an anonymous donor to replace his beloved grass with a turf field that cost nearly $2 million. On this day, Parker was collecting money for J.J. and Lexi.
A woman, maybe in her late 20s, approached Parker. Altobelli had taught her in a CPR class. He was such a great educator, she said. She wanted to donate but was worried about the amount.
“I can’t give much,” she said.
Parker told her there was no such thing as too little. The woman pulled out a credit card and contributed $10.
People from across the country had come to honor Altobelli. Jackson Hokuf paid his respects, even though he’d spent less than a minute of his life with Altobelli. During a speech by Nate Johnson, OCC’s new coach, Hokuf cried. A half-dozen umpires showed up. When someone joked that all the umps who had ejected Altobelli came to Costa Mesa, Tim Matz, a longtime OCC assistant, said: “Where’s the other 20?”
Matz met Altobelli when he was coaching at Santa Ana College. In a game at OCC a dozen or so years ago, a foul ball flew into the parking lot and cracked the windshield of Matz’s car. That night, he received a call from a number he didn’t recognize. It was Altobelli. He said OCC would take care of the damage. Always the little things. In the days after the helicopter crash, Matz scrolled through his text-message exchanges with Altobelli.
“I was so overwhelmed by how many things he checked on me about,” Matz says. “Be it my wife Rhonda’s health. ‘Hey, how’s your son today?’ I’m just one person in the tens of thousands of people that he touched.”
Another was Tyler Parker, Liz’s younger son. Recently, he decided he wanted to return to school. He was going to study to become a high school chemistry teacher. At the same time, he hoped to become a member of Altobelli’s coaching staff.
“I was looking forward to joining his collection,” he told Liz.
All of the souls who attended the game were convinced Altobelli was looking down, ensuring a victory for OCC, which wore T-shirts with his No. 14 on the back and #FOREVERAPIRATE on the front. But baseball doesn’t always work that way. Life doesn’t work that way. The Pirates faced a 7-1 deficit going into the bottom of the sixth inning. Then they scored four runs. They added another in the bottom of the seventh. After a scoreless eighth, it was 7-6 heading into the bottom of the ninth, with the middle of OCC’s lineup due up. But they had to postpone the rest of the game to be played at a later date.
They had run out of time. The sun had set. The day was gone. The game, for now, was called on account of darkness.
UNIFORMS ON, SHOES TIED, the OCC baseball team was ready to stretch before its March 28, 2019, game at Riverside City College. First, Altobelli said, he wanted to talk. The team retreated to the bullpen down the right-field line. This team, he said, was too good to be playing such a mediocre brand of baseball. Somehow he needed to remind them of who they were. So he read Bryant’s response to his text message — about the game, about how it bends to no one, about the sadness of impermanence and the frailty of opportunity — aloud.
For the rest of the season, “F— ’em” became OCC’s rallying cry. During pregame practice. Before team introductions. When they scored. Any time was the right time.
On May 28, 2019, exactly two months to the day the OCC players heard Bryant’s words for the first time, the Pirates, playing their fourth game in 26 hours, rode a walk-off single in the ninth inning to the school’s fourth state championship with John Altobelli as coach.
They beat El Camino College. Five weeks earlier, Sladen Mohl, El Camino’s 19-year-old catcher, was killed when a 16-year-old suspected of DUI hit him with her SUV. When El Camino lost the state championship, its coach, Nate Fernley, was crestfallen. He had wanted to win, for Sladen.
Altobelli could empathize. Before the 2009 season, Jourdan Watanabe, a catcher for OCC, died under mysterious circumstances. Altobelli’s team did win that title for Watanabe, and for the next decade, Watanabe’s memory was never far from the program. His father, Kent, worked the snack bar at OCC games, then became an assistant coach. In 2019, Altobelli gave up his No. 14 so he could wear Watanabe’s No. 22.
Fernley’s disappointment at the loss in the state championship game carried through the winter — all the way until Jan. 26, when he saw the news. He sent an email to Tony, John’s younger brother. He lauded Alto’s grace during a speech he had given before the championship tournament in which he expressed solace and solidarity with El Camino, offered deep condolences to Tony and said the months of frustration and exasperation over the end result of the championship game were for naught.
“I always thought that I would change the final game of last season in a heartbeat if anyone could give me that option,” Fernley wrote. “Now I know it ended exactly as it should have.”
The championship ring OCC commissioned was its biggest and most beautiful yet. On top, the words CALIFORNIA and CHAMPIONS cover the edges. In the middle is the shape of a baseball diamond, with 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2019 — the years of OCC’s titles — where the baselines would be. On one side, the edge says 36 INNINGS IN 26 HOURS, an homage to their Final Four performance, above the person’s name and a flag with a W. The other side’s edge says FOREVER A PIRATE atop 39-9, OCC’s record, and NEGU.
The engraving on the bottom of the ring is simple and succinct, three letters and an apostrophe, the perfect coda for a team, a man, that made “every single f—ing one” — every day, every game, every moment — count.
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