Nearly the last thing a person would have thought about during the unfolding coverage of the crash of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter on Sunday was that there would be a University of Houston connection . . . And even if a connection was possible, it would have been easy to assume it was a basketball connection . . . Well, given enough time for the details to be discovered, sure enough, Cougars baseball was sadly part of an overall unbelievably tragic story.
Former Coogs baseball player and coach for a year, John Altobelli, along with his wife, and their daughter who played basketball with GiGi Bryant, were among the nine who died in the accident Sunday morning.
John Altobelli played for the Cougars in 1984 and 1985 and coached as an assistant in 1987, with a minor league stint in between . . . Altobelli took over the Orange Coast College baseball program in 1992, only leaving his previous coaching job at the time when the University of California Irvine shuttered its baseball program that year, the start of a ten-year hiatus from baseball for the school.
The next twenty-seven years were not easy for the baseball coach, but Altobelli compiled over 700 victories as a coach and he led numerous young men to be better men, better students, and better baseball players . . . All of this even as the game, and life in general, took its toll on him personally.
Asked in May of 2013 by the Orange County Register how much longer he would coach, Altobelli said, “I had open heart surgery a year ago last December. My knees aren’t holding up and I’m not throwing nearly as good in batting practice, but I’m still enthusiastic.”
Four years later, speaking with Spencer Golanka of Coast Report Online, Altobelli sounded the same note, “It [my body] has taken its toll, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. These guys know I’ll do anything for them.” He explained why the pains were worth it and why he would keep coaching, “I can still make an impact in young people’s lives, not so much x’s and o’s of baseball, but life things. I want to make sure they make good decisions off the field by being a good teammate and taking care of business”
Asked by the Orange County Register if hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports, Altobelli answered, “People that don’t really understand the nuances of the game will say that it’s not. But this is a sport that you have to grow up playing and you can’t take time off. I do think it’s the most difficult thing to do in sports, to hit a 93-mile-per-hour ball with a lot of movement on it.”
When a person is in the same place for 27 seasons, especially as something such as a baseball coach, they are doing something special, in John Altobelli’s case, what he was doing was bigger than just baseball.
Baseball tragically lost a great ambassador on Sunday . . . John Altobelli was a baseball man, he loved the game, he “felt it” in his blood, but his lasting impact was bigger than baseball . . . Cougars Nation can be proud we crossed paths with this servant leader for a short time; a short time with a lasting impact.