George Horton was ready to sit out a baseball season for the first time in his adult life.
Then Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli — who sent his son, J.J., to play for Horton at Oregon — died two weeks ago in a helicopter crash that killed eight others, including his wife and daughter as well as Kobe Bryant and his daughter. One of Horton’s best friends, OCC assistant coach Tim Matz, asked if he would join the baseball staff at the Costa Mesa school to assist a grieving team and staff.
Following a conversation with J.J. Altobelli, Horton was back in uniform.
“It’s a calling for me,” Horton said last week as he prepared to board the team bus for a game at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “The more I thought about it, ‘Alto’ must have been in heaven yelling ‘Do this Coach’ because I got pulled in.'”
Horton attended a memorial service Monday at Angel Stadium of Anaheim for Altobelli, his wife Keri, and 14-year old daughter Alyssa.
“As you are hearing from everybody, John had an engaging personality and was one of those guys who had a great rapport with everyone he touched,” Horton said.
Horton’s memories of Altobelli go back to 1983 when he played at Golden West College against Cerritos College where Horton was an assistant. The two ran in similar Southern California coaching circles for nearly 20 years as Altobelli was an assistant at UC Irvine before getting hired at Orange Coast in 1992 while Horton coached at Cal State Fullerton from 1991-2007.
The two coaches developed a deeper friendship when Horton signed J.J. Altobelli prior to his second season with the Ducks. Altobelli was a four-year starter at shortstop who batted .263 with 127 runs scored from 2010-13.
Altobelli later joined Horton’s staff before becoming a scout for the Boston Red Sox.
“J.J. grew up in a baseball family and was well-schooled by his father,” Horton said. “He was fundamentally sound, a coach’s dream.”
The 29-year old Altobelli has a 16-year old sister, Alexis, who was a regular at PK Park with the rest of her family during his playing days with the Ducks.
“Alyssa and Lexi would put on their Duck cheerleading outfits with my granddaughters and cheer us on,” Horton said. “My relationship with the Altobellis blossomed more through my family. They used to hang out whether there was a baseball game or not. They would be together socially.”
Alyssa Altobelli played basketball with Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, on Team Mamba and dreamed of someday joining the Ducks. The two girls would visit with the Oregon women’s basketball team during their trips to play in southern California.
Horton added Altobelli to his staff when he was named head coach of the Collegiate National Team in 2016 as they traveled to Cuba, Taiwan and Japan.
“We got to do that tour together and he went from a guy I knew quite well so somebody I really knew,” Horton said. “I got to know the family better through that time. He was a very intelligent and detailed coach. He had a great balance with a fun and demanding coaching style. I saw the same things you are hearing about his efforts at Orange Coast.”
After Horton’s tenure with the Ducks ended following last season, he sold his home in Eugene and moved back to Yorba Linda, Calif., to spend more time with his family.
Following Altobelli’s tragic death, Matz reached out to ask Horton about helping out at OCC where Nate Johnson was promoted from assistant coach to replace Altobelli.
Horton does not have an official title with the Pirates — he calls himself a “program developer” — but he’s back in a dugout this spring with the Pirates, who are the defending California Community College baseball champions.
“When I called J.J., he was overwhelmingly convincing for me to do this on behalf of his dad,” Horton said. “I am trying to help the coaches and players get up off the deck emotionally from a devastating situation. I can bring some experience to the staff. When the players and coach Johnson approached me to do this, I was honored to be part of it for the sake of 'Alto' and his family.”
Follow Steve Mims on Twitter @SteveMims_RG or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.