May 27, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Orange County baseball coaches, former players devastated by death of John Altobelli

Former CdM baseball coach John Emme was among those paying tribute to Coach John Altobelli. (Photos Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone)

Baseball coaches around Orange County and former coaches who knew Orange Coast College Coach John Altobelli were devastated this week when they heard that Altobelli had died in a helicopter crash with eight others, including Kobe Bryant on Sunday.

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Former Corona del Mar Coach baseball coach John Emme, who was on hand Tuesday for a tribute to Altobelli, was among them. He knew Altobelli well and attended many OCC games.

“I just feel for the family,” said Emme. “John was a unique guy in that his whole life was his family. This one floors me, it really does. I was good friends with Tony (Altobelli) as well. I just feel for J.J. (Altobelli) and his (John Altobelli’s) daughter, it’s just awful. But what a great man.”

Emme recalled a special night. He was there when Altobelli met his future wife Keri, who also died in the accident along with the couple’s 13-year-old daughter Alyssa.

“Joel Desguin (the Los Angeles Harbor baseball coach) and I were with him the night he met Keri,” Emme recalled. “We never got John to go out, John was kind of a home body. He liked to be with his family…We got him out to Irvine Spectrum and Joel and I and his equipment guy and John were sitting there and this girl was staring at us for about 20 minutes….So Joel walks over and goes, ‘which one are you staring at?’ She points to John, and they got married two weeks later.”

Beckman Coach Kevin Lavalle, who earlier in the day shared his thoughts on Altobelli with OC Sports Zone, was among the high school coaches paying their respects. Former UC Irvine Coach Mike Gerakos was there too.

Laguna Hills baseball coach Drew Hillman, who played for Altobelli at OCC, was also there to honor Altobelli. He played for Altobelli at OCC in 2008 and 2009.

“He recruited me when I was at El Toro in 2006 and 2007,” said Hillman, now in his fourth year as head coach of the Hawks. “My heart broke for all the families, obviously knowing Alto’s, it heart-broke for them, playing with JJ (Altobelli’s son) and Alto also played a big role with what happened in 2009 with the Watanabe family and helping them recover from their loss (OCC player Jourdan Watanabe died during the season). My heart broke for them as well. It’s just difficult, a difficult time for a lot of people in this area.”

Hillman said Coach Altobelli was special and he’s carried some of those characteristics into his own coaching style.

“He was just a good guy,” Hillman said. “Being a teacher and a coach now I’ve been really lucky with the influences I’ve had and he’s definitely a person who influenced me to get into coaching and I model certain aspects of my coaching style after Alto, in what he does and how he handles players. He always had our backs, and when he needed to get on us, we knew it was time to get going.

“But he cared about all of us, 2009 was such a unqiue with what took place and he provided kind of a father figure for a lot of us. That was a difficult time when you’re 19 and you lose a friend a teammate and this was the place we all came and bonded over that and overcame it. He provided us an outlet. I know he has provided that to many years of players. It’s super unfortunate. We actually won state that year, it was a tragic year, a sad year.”

Hillman played against Watanabe when Watanabe was playing for Northwood and he was at El Toro.

He has been trying to deal with Coach Altobelli’s death.

“It’s tragic he is no longer with us,” said Hillman, who teaches U.S. history at Laguna Hills.

OCC Athletic Director Jason Kehler said Tuesday he was still in shock over Altobelli’s death, but was appreciative of the support of the community and proud of the Pirates players for handling the adversity.

“John was OCC baseball,” Kehler said. “He meant so much for our athletic department. He was a staple, twenty-seven years, going into his 28th year as head coach. Everything he did for this program was remarkable, the success is all over this park. But it really is the athletes, and they’re all here today, the ones who have received scholarships.”

Those who didn’t continue playing baseball were also successful, Kehler said.

“They went out and got a job and became businessmen,” he said. “He did so much for everybody that came in contact with him. He was truly a remarkable person.”

Kehler said that Altobelli, 56, was excited about the season.

“He kept saying this was a very special team, you’re coming off a state championship and a fairly sophomore heavy team last year but the returners were mainly pitchers and you don’t get that a lot,” Kehler said. “He was excited about this team and he coached these guys all the way up to Saturday. They’re playing John’s baseball today. They’re prepared because he prepared them.

“We’re excited for the season. It’s going to be hard. But these young men are going to come together as a family like no team ever has. Athletic teams are always a family. This is different. This is going to be special, not in a way you want it to be special but it will still be special.”

RELATED: Photos, stories from Altobelli’s tribute at OCC

-Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone; timburt@ocsportszone.com