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Baseball community remembers former Cape League coach John Altobelli, killed in Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

For 27 years, John Altobelli led the baseball team of Orange Coast College of Costa Mesa, Calif.
For 27 years, John Altobelli led the baseball team of Orange Coast College of Costa Mesa, Calif.Associated Press

John Altobelli’s teams won just 48 of 132 baseball games during the three years he managed the Brewster Whitecaps of the Cape Cod League. But success was measured in other ways for the distinguished college baseball coach, who died with his wife and daughter Sunday in the California helicopter crash that killed basketball superstar Kobe Bryant.

It was measured in the relationships he forged with his players as Brewster head coach from 2012 to 2014. The camaraderie he found with longtime coaches in the elite summer league. And in the simple joys of eating ice cream with his family, enjoying the Cape Cod beaches, and teaching the game he loved for two idyllic months each summer, far from his Southern California home.

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That’s the Altobelli whose memory was honored Monday by Cape Cod League coaches and officials, as well as Major League stars Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees and Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets, who both played for Altobelli in Brewster.

“This isn’t real,” Judge wrote Sunday on Twitter.

Altobelli, 56, had expected to lead state champion Orange Coast College of Costa Mesa, Calif., in its season-opening game Tuesday, just as he had led the junior college team to more than 700 victories over 27 years of coaching there.

Instead, the helicopter crash turned the cusp of another season into a time of shock and despair. Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and 13-year-old daughter Alyssa had been flying with Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, to the girls’ basketball practice at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy. Nine people were killed in the crash.

Altobelli leaves another daughter, Alexis, and a son, J.J., a scout for the Boston Red Sox who played one summer for his father in Brewster. In his first season as Whitecaps manager, Altobelli tapped Alexis to be the team’s bat girl.

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Chaim Bloom, chief baseball officer of the Red Sox, said in a statement that the organization is “devastated by the news of yesterday’s tragic helicopter crash in Southern California. We are heartbroken for the victims and their families.”

“While the Red Sox and its foundation will be providing financial and emotional support for the Altobelli family,” Bloom added, “a GoFundMe page has been created for those who would like to offer the family additional security during this difficult time.”

Altobelli loved baseball, but there was more to his life than the game, said John Schiffner, who managed the Chatham A’s of the Cape League for 25 years until 2017.

“Winning was not the absolute end for John. Winning for John was that these kids would be better when they left the Cape,” Schiffner said.

“He was just a really great person, just so much fun to coach against because he did it the right way," Schiffner added. “He didn’t take himself too seriously, and he knew what the Cape League was for.”

It is for fine-tuning the skills of All-Americans and other college baseball stars from across the country, many of whom go on to become professional ballplayers. The goal is to have fun doing it, too.

Altobelli was a master at that balancing act, said Paul Galop, the league’s commissioner from 2004 to 2018.

“When the players left here in August, they left as much better baseball players, and they left as much better people,” Galop said.

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One of those young men was J.J. Altobelli, who played baseball at the University of Oregon, and whose father once called him “my favorite player of all time.”

Just three weeks ago, Altobelli received a national coach’s award at a ceremony in Nashville. Altobelli’s fellow Cape League coaches also benefited from the coach’s journeys east each summer, Galop said.

“Sometimes, breaking into a long-term group like that is difficult," Galop said of the Cape League’s coaching fraternity. But they immediately embraced his baseball knowledge and the way he handled the kids.

“That’s as good as it gets, because they’re hugely competitive people. He knew what he didn’t know, he knew how to ask, and he knew what he needed to do."

Schiffner recalled that Altobelli sought him out early in his four-year stint — Altobelli served as an assistant coach for Brewster in 2011 — and asked to pick his brain for tips on managing in the league.

“As a Cape League manager, you’re more of a psychologist than a baseball coach. They’re darn close to a finished product. You can tweak here and tweak there, but basically you let them play," Schiffner said.

"When we’d talk before a game, we just talked baseball. There was no vindictiveness that some football coaches have where they can’t talk to the opponent,” Schiffner said.

Sometimes, those talks could extend long after games, over a beer with other managers, even on a cruise on Schiffner’s boat.

Chuck Sturtevant, the Cape League president, echoed the accolades.

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"He was just phenomenal. It’s just a sad time for baseball,” Sturtevant said. “His whole attention was to individual ballplayers. He really got to know them, and by doing so he was able to help them mature personally as well as athletically."

McNeil, an all-star outfielder for the Mets, tweeted Sunday what Altobelli had meant to him.

“One of my favorite coaches I have ever played for and one of the main reasons I got a chance to play professional baseball,” McNeil wrote.

Soon after the news of Altobelli’s death, nearly 300 current and former Orange Coast players and coaches gathered at the school’s baseball field and placed flowers atop home plate.

Ned Monthie, the Whitecaps general manager, said he last saw Altobelli at the ceremony in Nashville. “He was great; he was his old self. He was very appreciative of the award,” he said.

Monthie was stunned when he heard the news. “Complete shock. I didn’t know how to process it,” he said.

Altobelli "was an educator. He taught the boys not just baseball, but about being a good person,” Monthie said. “That was John.”





Major League Baseball also tweeted a tribute to Altobelli, calling him a “legendary” coach.

USA Baseball and NCAA Baseball also shared photos of Altobelli and words of sympathy on Twitter.





Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.