John Altobelli Honored by Orange Coast College at Baseball Season Opener

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2020

The Orange Coast College baseball players stands for the national anthem while wearing shirts with the number 14 on their backs for late head coach John Altobelli, who died in a helicopter crash alongside former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant in Costa Mesa, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

The Orange Coast College baseball team used its season-opening game Tuesday against Southwestern to honor longtime head coach John Altobelli, who was killed Sunday morning in a helicopter crash along with Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and seven others.

ESPN's Alden Gonzalez reported there was a memorial outside the team's stadium and associate head coach Nate Johnson left a place open on the bench in the dugout in remembrance of Altobelli, who led the Pirates to over 700 wins and four state championships across 27 years.

"You're sitting there, and you're making all these decisions that the man who you looked up to, who mentored you, was making the last seven years," Johnson said. "It won't hit me for a while. Maybe it'll hit me tonight. Maybe it'll hit me during the game tomorrow or Saturday. Whenever it is, it's going to hit me that, 'Wow, I am this person now. I'm running this team.'"

Among those in attendance was Lexi Altobelli, the coach's daughter, whose sister and mother were also killed in the crash. She watched the game with her brother, J.J., who works as a scout within the Boston Red Sox organization, per Gonzalez.

"It was very heartbreaking because we only got a little bit of it," OCC's Nolan Funke said. "He was just our coach. He wasn't our father. Even though we all felt like he was, we didn't experience that bond that they did. Just seeing them out there, it really put it into a different light."

New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, an Orange County native, also went to the game and posted a message on Twitter afterward.

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"We are all grieving this week for those who lost their lives tragically this past Sunday. Today was no different," he wrote as part of his tribute. "I did not personally know Coach Altobelli, or 'Alto', but his program carries a prestigious brand around here, something I've known since my youth baseball days."

Orange Coast College trailed 7-1 in the sixth inning Tuesday but fought back to make it 7-6 when the rest of the game was postponed until Feb. 18 because of darkness in the ninth inning.

"There was no quit tonight," Johnson said, per Gonzalez. "Most teams, they're not going to come back from down six like we did today and make it a game with what we had to deal with these last few days. Honestly, any result would've been a win. Just showing up today was a win."

Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday that a preliminary report on the helicopter crash is expected within the next 10 days.