Thousands show love and support at Pirate baseball opener

Photo courtesy of Steven Guersch
Photo courtesy of Steven Guersch

COSTA MESA -- Wendell Pickens Field was a literal sea of humanity on Tuesday as over two thousand people came to the 2020 season opener to pay their respects and honor longtime head coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri and daughter, Alyssa, who tragically died in a helicopter crash on Sunday.

In a story that has been reached throughout the country and around the world, dozens of media outlets swarmed to OCC to witness today's pregame ceremony as well as today's game against Southwestern. The Pirates and Jags had to halt their game in the top of the ninth with Southwestern ahead, 7-6. The game will conclude on Feb. 18 at Southwestern College before their regularly scheduled game that day.

But the story of the day was remembering "Coach Alto" and it was a story that has continued to take this community and this country by storm. 

"I remember John talking to the El Camino College players at the State Final Four banquet this past year," OCC head coach Jason Kehler said to the crowd before the game. "They had lost a player during the season and he gave such a heartfelt speech about looking for all of the 16s in your world and making them special. Well today, there are a LOT of 14s here and every time you see a 14, I want you to think of John and what he meant to this program, this school and your life. This is an incredible turnout, but it's only a fraction of the impact John left here at OCC."

Speaking before the game included Kehler, as well as OCC associate head coach Nate Johnson, SWC assistant coach David Dinerman and John's brother, OCC Sports Information Director Tony Altobelli.

"Today was surreal," Johnson said. "I left Alto's seat empty all day and probably will all season. To see the amount of support from this community today was amazing. I knew it would be big. Alto, Keri and Alyssa deserved everything that happened today and more. Today was a day that I'll never forget. To be able to share this experience with (surviving kids) J.J. and Lexi hopefully brought a small amount of comfort to them, knowing that their OCC has their backs and are here for them. I can't tell you how many times I ran down to hug Lexi in-between innings. If I had a favorite moment from today, it was those little moments I was able to share with her and be with her. It's a tradition that I want to keep doing because she helped me calm down today without her even knowing it."

Under an intense microscope of coverage, the Pirates and Jags competed and both teams played the way Coach Alto would have wanted.

"We made some mistakes that were completely uncharacteristic to our team, but we were playing with some heavy hearts and some increased pressure to make sure we made Alto, K and Lys proud," Johnson said. "We're still only down a run and I thought the boys enjoyed today and made those three very proud."

Coast trailed 7-1 heading into the bottom of the sixth inning before rallying with a big inning. An Andrew Cromwell walk and back-to-back singles by Jared Schatz and Ryan O'Halloran loaded the bases with nobody out. Two batters later, David Morgan nubbed a well-placed infield single to second, scoring Cromwell to make it 7-2. A wild pitch followed to score Schatz and Oscar Favela lined a single up the middle to score Morgan and O'Halloran to bring OCC to within a pair at 7-5.

In the bottom of the seventh, with runners on first and second with two outs, Favela struck out swinging, but the ball one-hopped the catcher and scooted far away from the SWC catcher, allowing O'Halloran to score from second base and make it a one-run game, 7-6.

It stayed that way until the top of the ninth. SWC opened the inning with back-to-back singles when the umpire crew decided to halt the game due to darkness. 

"I went out and told the guys that John would've been very proud of them today," Tony Altobelli said. "We fell behind, 7-1, and it would've been easy to pack it in, but they kept fighting, just like John would've told them to do. I know they really wanted to win today ... and who knows, they still can ... but this was a HARD day to play. They did great."

OCC will return to action on Wednesday at Long Beach City College (2 p.m.). Coast will return to Wendell Pickens Field on Tuesday to take on Palomar, also at 2 p.m.