Heartbroken over Altobelli deaths, Orange Coast College baseball team starts picking up the pieces

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

COSTA MESA, Ca. — There were three children on that helicopter, one of them they called Lyss, short for Alyssa, and when on Tuesday afternoon they talked about what John and Keri Altobelli raised here — a stadium, a program, a baseball community, a forever family — she would’ve been the one with still all the growing to do.

“If you heard her laugh,” John’s associate baseball coach, Nate Johnson, said, “aw, it would make you laugh.”

One day, and that day must be out there somewhere, they will see only the faces present and not intermingled with the ones that should be. One day again, their feet and hearts and souls will cast the same shadow, and it’s not to say that will be a good day or not, just that it will be.

John out front, Keri in her chair by the right-field bullpen, Lyss wherever the wind blew her those sunny spring afternoons, now they are the 14 — John’s number — on the left-field wall at Orange Coast College. Now they exist in the young men sent into the world from the corner of Fairview Road and Adams Avenue after a few hundred innings of baseball and life. They are the wins and losses, the dirt and patchy grass that became gleaming turf, the Pirate flag that snaps atop the center-field wall in the late afternoons, and the decades of dignity and decency and achievement that in spite of its foundation still had some growing to do.

Lyss was 13. She’d often come to the ballpark in her basketball uniform, coming from or going to her games, or in practice gear. About the first Jason Kehler, the athletic director at OCC, saw her, Lyss had batgirl duties and was chasing a stray straight into a play at the plate. The last he saw her, not so long ago, she was in the gym here shooting baskets with her dad. She was determined to go to the University of Oregon, like her big brother J.J. did and like her hero Sabrina Ionescu, and hadn’t Kobe promised them if they worked hard and minded their studies the Division-I scholarships would come? Kehler watched for a while and thought, right, the foul poles.

“They needed to be painted,” Kehler said.

Seems John had found some rust where nobody else could. He’d been asking about that a lot lately.

“So Sunday, I came here,” Kehler said. “The team was here. The coaching staff was here. I’m crying. And I look up and see the foul poles. I thought, ‘Sorry John, they still haven’t been painted.’”

The Orange Coast College Pirates, some new to John, others not, stood shoulder to shoulder Tuesday afternoon on the first-base line. It was opening day. They wore orange T-shirts that read “Forever a Pirate.” On the backs, No. 14. Maybe 2,000 people — standing room only behind the backstop and along the chain-link fences to the bullpens — joined them in their grief and encouraged them to hang in there and what better way than to play ball. Two of John and Keri’s children — son J.J., a Boston Red Sox scout, and daughter Lexi, a junior in high school — watched from near the seat Keri always occupied.

“They are a great family,” said Nate Johnson, whose every pause could have been measured against his grief. “They brought me in seven years ago. They treated me like one of them. They treated everybody like one of them.”

He paused.

“Today,” he said, “was Alto’s favorite day. He loved opening day.”

He said John would arrive to the ballpark long before anyone else, on opening day in particular. He’d blow the leaves from beneath the bleacher seats or manicure the warning track or raise the flags in center field. That was the tradition, except it wasn’t so much a tradition as an obsession.

He paused.

“Today,” he said, “I beat him to the field. It’s going to be the only time I ever do.”

Associate coach Nate Johnson, left, embraces his wife Jonai during a ceremony held for John Altobelli, the late head coach of Orange Coast College baseball, who died in a helicopter crash alongside Kobe and Gianna Bryant. His wife Keri and youngest daughter Alyssa were also victims of the crash. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

Some of the best parts of parenting is when other people do it for you. Takes the pressure off. 

The homeroom teacher keeps him after school for wearing the flip-flops he swore were OK to wear. Tough break, buddy.

The coach benches him for being late in spite of the fact he knew he could get there in exactly four minutes. Gotta hurt, pal.

The DMV flunks him for not going 10 and 2. Here’s a bus pass.

John Altobelli sounded like the kind of guy who helped with the raising. Who finished the rest. Who raised his and raised yours a little and called it square. And Keri? Johnson smiled. “K really ran this team,” he said with a smile.

In the family picture — dad, mom, son, two daughters and a dog — only the son, a daughter and, perhaps, the dog remain. Sunday was a terrible day, too terrible. Nine people perished, including those three little girls who were supposed to play ball and come home and finish growing up. John and Keri’s Lyss wore knee pads when she played, because that’s the kind of player she was and was going to be, John and Keri’s John Stockton to Kobe and Vanessa’s, well, Kobe.

Instead, in the gloaming of a Tuesday that had started baseball again, Lexi Altobelli accepted hugs from her dad’s players, and she held on tight to every one of them. They’d called the game because of darkness, OCC behind by a run, as though John tossed the sun over the horizon by himself.

A damp chill settled over players maybe not sure how they’d gotten through the previous 48 hours. Some cried from sadness, others from relief. Some loved they’d had something to do to pass the time, a few hours they wouldn’t have to think about again. All those people had come to see them play, but mostly to see them persevere, to help them persevere, to wear their T-shirts and honor the man who’d raised this thing into a forever family. 

They’d left two chairs empty near the right-field bullpen. One was for Keri. The other for Lyss, forever now the kid sister for a forever family.

“Oh, she was a firecracker,” John’s brother, Tony, said.

She was a player, Tony said. More, she was a beautiful and smart and joyous little girl. But, oh, yeah, she was a player.

“If you’re part of that camp,” Tony said of Kobe’s girls, “you’re going to be special. Also, I know she’s an Altobelli. Which means you’re going to work hard. You’re going to be relentless.”

You’re going to cast a shadow.

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