Ringolsby: Remembering The Life Of John Altobelli

John Altobelli was to embark on his 28th season as the head coach of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Jan. 28.

Two days before Opening Day, however, he was killed, along with former NBA great Kobe Bryant, in a helicopter crash that also took the lives of Altobelli’s wife and daughter, who was a teammate of Bryant’s daughter on a youth basketball team.

The news about the crash focused on the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna “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,” Red Sox scout JJ Altobelli said.

And John Altobelli was more than “one of seven others.” He may not have been in the limelight, but in his role as a junior college coach he had direct impact on the lives of many young men.

The values Altobelli taught his players were evident.

Orange Coast College officials left it up to the members of the baseball team whether to play the opening game against Southwestern College, and the members of the team left no doubt when they voted to play.

It was “play ball” at Orange Coast College, which won four California state junior college titles under Altobelli.

“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.”

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. Those who knew Altobelli will tell you he certainly wouldn’t want life to be put on hold for even the briefest of times in the wake of his death.

For Altobelli, and other longtime 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 win battles for success in life.

That’s the driving force behind anyone who spends more than two successful decades at the junior college level.

Junior colleges don’t get the five-star recruits, by any stretch.

There’s no longer the January draft nor the June secondary phase, both of which ceased to exist in 1987, when the draft was streamlined into one event. Those phases drew attention to junior college programs and the athletes who might not have been ready for pro ball out of high school but who didn’t want to delay draft eligibility for three years by going to a four-year school.

Don Sneddon knows the drill. He had a winning record in all 32 seasons he coached Santa Ana College before stepping down to manage what was then the Rockies’ high Class A California League affiliate in Modesto. His team had a .700 winning percentage or better in 22 of those 32 seasons. He won 16 conference championships and three state titles.

“I use the term, ‘We get kids with baggage,’” Sneddon said. “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 (they) step back. Our job is to coach them up and get them to that next level.”

Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt, an Orange County native who briefly coached in junior college, 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,” Schmidt said. “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 Cod League, but he did for three summers.”

Longtime Sacramento City College coach Jerry Weinstein, now a special assistant with the Rockies, did not know Altobelli, but he knew of him.

“The kids you get, most of them are on edge,” Weinstein. “It’s a job where you rake the field every day. You run fundraisers 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 they were the day they arrived.

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