Altobelli Wasn't About Getting Attention; He Was Focused on Kids becoming Men
John Altobelli was to embark on his 28th season as the head coach of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Ca., on Tuesday.
He, however, was killed along with former NBA great Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash two days earlier along with Altobelli's wife and daughter, a teammate with Bryant's daughter on a youth basketball team.
The news about the crash focused on the death of Kobe Bryant "and seven others," to the point that Rockies scout Walker Monfort was at a game on Sunday when he saw a tweet about Bryant's death and mentioned the helicopter crash to the scouts seated near him. The scout next to him, who had just received a brief call, nodded his head.
"My dad was one of them," said Red Sox scout JJ Altobelli.
Orange Coast College officials left it up to the members of the baseball team whether to play the season-opening game against Southwestern College, and the members of the team left no doubt.
It's Play Ball at Orange Coast College.
“The more normal you can keep things, the better,” assistant coach Ron La Ruffa said after the vote was announced. “And I think ‘Alto’ would want us to play.”
No one who knew Altobelli would disagree.
For Altobelli, life wasn't about him, it was about what he could do to help teenagers grow, not just on a baseball field but in life. And in his death, those who knew Altobelli will tell you he certainly wouldn't want life to be put on hold for even the briefest of times for him.
For Altobelli, and other long-time junior college coaches, the job isn't about money or national television. It is about working far from the mainstream with a focus on not only winning battles on the field but helping players winning battles for success in life.
That's the driving force behind anyone who spends more than two successful decades at the junior college level.
They don't get the five-star recruits, by any stretch.
There's no longer the January draft nor the secondary draft of June, both of which focused on the junior college athlete, which drew attention to the two-year programs from athletes who might not have been ready for pro ball out of high school, but didn't want to have to wait what is a minimum three years at a four-year school.
Don Sneddon knows the drill. He had a winning record in all 32 of the seasons he coached Santa Ana College before stepping down to manage the Rockies Class A California League team at Modesto. His team had a .700 winning percentage or better in 22 of those 32 seasons, won 16 conference championships, and three state titles.
"I use the term we get kids with baggage," said Sneddon. "It could be they didn't have the grades, they weren't quite good enough, they aren't ready for the four-year challenge or they didn't make the grade at a four-year school, and step back. Our job is to coach them up and get them to that next level."
An Orange County California native, who briefly coached at the junior college level, Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt spoke in glowing terms about Altobelli, and the success he had in the challenging world of junior college baseball.
"He was a great person who did an impressive job," said Schmidt. "There's not a lot of stability at the junior college level. No player is there for more than two years, and a lot are there for just one. Your team changes every year. A lot of times you get a bounce-back kid from a four-year school.
"He won four state titles. Not many junior college coaches get a chance to manage in the Cape Code League, but he did for three summers."
Long-time Sacramento City College coach Jerry Weinstein, now a special assistant with the Rockies, did not know Altobelli, but he knew of him.
"To have won four state championships in California is unbelievable," said Weinstend. "The kids you get, most of them are on edge. It's a job where you rake the field every day. You run fund raisers for your program. He was one of the better guys around."
Altobelli was one of those guys who made the kids who played for him into men, and they left his program better people than the were the day they arrived.