When the Orange Coast College baseball team, the Pirates, gathered at Wendell Pickens Field to begin their 2020 season on Tuesday, a very important member of the team was missing: Coach John Altobelli, who tragically died with eight others in a helicopter crash on Sunday morning.
John, his wife Keri and their daughter Alyssa passed away alongside NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, as they were all on their way to a basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks, California when their helicopter crashed, killing everyone on board.
After walking into the stadium underneath a banner that read “The House That Alto Built,” the OCC Pirates — all wearing John’s number, 14 — and fans in the stands took a moment of silence before the first pitch to honor their fallen coach on Tuesday afternoon.
“We have a long hard day ahead of us, but we’ll entertain ourselves for a couple hours with some baseball,” John’s brother, Tony Altobelli, said to the crowd before the game began.
“OCC baseball kicks off the 2020 baseball season on Tuesday at home, beginning at 2 p.m. We will be having a pregame ceremony at 1:45 p.m. to recognize and honor the life of our fallen leader, Pirate baseball coach, John Altobelli,” a statement by the team on Facebook said. “Please spread the word and let’s get as much love and support into Wendell Pickens Field as as can. We all sure could use it.”
The players voted to keep the game against Southwestern Community College, just two days after the death of John, on schedule, something that assistant coach Ron La Ruffa said is what John would have wanted.
“The more normal you can keep things, the better,” La Ruffa told the Orange County Register on Monday. “And I think ‘Alto’ would want us to play.”
OCC confirmed the deaths of John, Keri and Alyssa on Sunday.
“John meant so much to not only Orange Coast College, but to baseball,” the school’s athletic director, Jason Kehler, said in a statement. “He truly personified what it means to be a baseball coach. The passion that he put into the game, but more importantly his athletes, was second to none – he treated them like family. Our deepest condolences go out to the Altobelli family during this time of tragedy.”
Known fondly as “Coach Alto,” John led the Pirates to numerous conference and state championship titles. He counted more than 700 wins and four state championships during his career and was honored last year by the American Baseball Coaches Association as an ABCA/Diamond National Coach of the Year, OCC’s statement included.
“I’m numb right now, I’m numb, I’m broken, I’m going to miss him terribly,” John’s brother, Tony Altobelli, told PEOPLE. “He was my brother, he was my idol growing up, also my idol as an adult.”
“You want to live my brother did, he was straight and narrow, he worked hard and he earned the respect of everybody who ever knew him and he left a legacy that will go way beyond his time spent in Orange Coast,” Tony continued. “I don’t know how you can not want to live a life like that.”
John is survived by 16-year-old daughter Alexis and 29-year-old son J.J., who is a scout with the Boston Red Sox.