A banner that read “The house that Alto built” hung in the entryway to Wendell Pickens Field at Orange County College on Monday afternoon as the school’s baseball team was holding a memorial for their former coach on their opening day.
Underneath the banner stood former Pirate Jaiden France. The stadium was the house that the late John Altobelli built, but France was the man that Alto built.
“He cared for me so much, he cared for his players,” France said. “I felt like I didn’t show enough gratitude back in the day and I really wanted to let him know before what happened, happened. I feel like people should know how much of a great man he was.”
France played prep baseball at Golden Valley High School and finished his college career at The Master’s University. In between, along with a few other schools, France played at Orange Coast College under Altobelli, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday in Calabasas that also claimed the life of former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna.
Altobelli was 56 and was one of nine victims in the crash. The coach led the Pirates for 27 years and won four California community college state championships, with the most recent title won in the 2019 season.
France played for the Pirates for one season in 2016, but his interactions with Altobelli were momentous. He recalled one game in particular where he struggled, striking out twice and committing an error, and was pulled from play.
As he sat at the end of the dugout and mulled over the thought of how difficult the next few weeks would be in terms of getting right both physically and mentally, Altobelli approached him.
“He put his hands on my shoulders and he told me, ‘There’s a lot of season left, keep your head up and you’ll get back into it. Don’t worry,’” said France, who played at Grambling State before going to OCC. “He said that, walked away and I’m like, did that really just happen?
“Especially at the D1 level it’s kind of like, you play and do well or you’re just shunned and having a relationship with your coach is huge whatever level you’re at. With Alto, it’s easier.”
Altobelli knew what players like and what they didn’t like, according to France. He knew how to get players excited for 6 a.m. batting practice. He knew how to keep his players calm during games and he knew how to get them to the next level.
At one point in the season, Altobelli asked his players to bring him a list of five four-year schools they wanted to play at.
“He had connects for days,” France said. “You could definitely see that because he was on the helicopter with Kobe Bryant. He knows everybody, especially in the baseball world. When I came with my list, he was like all right, I’ll see what I can do for you.”
By the end of the season, Altobelli had made some phone calls and had gotten France a spot on the San Jose State roster, a Division 1 baseball program.
France estimates he was one of at least six players from that team to earn a Division 1 scholarship by the end of the season. Many of those players were at Altobelli’s memorial on Monday. Just like the stadium and France, they were built by Alto.
“As the day progressed, everyone was just happy and just kind of deep down, we were still sad but it was good seeing everybody because this brought everyone together,” France said. “Past teams, coaches, family members, all uniting to remember Alto.
“He just cared about not just the baseball side of things, but cared about my family, my schooling and that I’m doing well in school. The dude was really awesome.”