Orange Coast Interim Baseball Coach Nate Johnson and the 15 days that changed Pirates baseball forever

Nate Johnson, Orange Coast Baseball
Nate Johnson, Orange Coast Baseball

COSTA MESA - They were 15 days that nobody associated with Orange Coast College and its baseball team will ever, ever forget.

There was sadness, there was anger, there was confusion … and yes, there was even a remarkable glimpse of human spirit and kindness thrown into the hearts of the Pirate Baseball family following the loss of longtime head coach John Altobelli, who died on Sunday, Jan. 26 in a helicopter crash, along with his wife, Keri, daughter Alyssa, and six others, including Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant.

While the world was turned upside down for everyone involved, there were still several unanswered questions that needed to be answered moments following the tragedy. And, thrown into the mix was a then-29-year-old assistant coach who quickly had to become the new face of this team and this baseball community as well as the leader of a team grieving and emotionally shattered.

Here is a candid, one-on-one interview with new OCC head baseball coach Nate Johnson, who talks about those two weeks that changed everyone's lives and the world of baseball at Coast with the COVID pandemic.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 25, 2020 -- It was the final preparation for the upcoming 2020 season for the defending state-champion Pirates, who brought back several key players and brought in several standout newcomers in the hopes of returning to the State Final Four for the fourth time in seven seasons.

NATE We had the parents out and played in our final intersquad before we started the season up. It was our last calm weekend before the start of the semester and the start of the season. I got to the field that morning around 7 a.m. and of course, Alto was there ahead of me. We talked about the lineups for both teams and who we wanted to see do something impactful that day … then we talked about our Sunday plans. I told him I didn't have any major plans and he talked about going with Alyssa to Calabasas for a basketball tournament and he was excited about going with Kobe on a helicopter to the tournament. We also talked about a potential internship for Lexi with Scott Boras and he thought that was going to happen, so he was really excited about that.

It was already "Opening Weekend" for most teams so the day before, we went to Golden West and saw them play and talked to (soon-to-be-retired head coach Bert Villareal) and Alto told him how jealous he was that he was going to retire after the season. From there, I went to go check out the Cypress/Long Beach game and I texted Alto about that game and about our intersquad. His last text to me was about a home run that Garret Barto hit and how nice it was to see that! I told him to have a great time with Kobe and have fun on the helicopter.



SUNDAY, JANUARY 26 – The calm before the storm for every coach at this level. It was the final Sunday before the start of the baseball season and the final Sunday before the start of the school year. A nice, relaxing, peaceful Sunday … until it wasn't.

NATE
 I really didn't have any plans that Sunday. (Nate's wife, Jonai) and I got up that morning and didn't do a whole lot. It was a very gloomy day and we were just making breakfast and hanging out. I received a text from one of my friends and it said, "Did you see what happened with Kobe?? His helicopter crashed." Right then, my heart sunk because I kind of knew what that meant, so I quickly tried to find it on the news and I tried to call Alto like 5-6 times, but they all went to voicemail. My first hope was that my calls were going to voicemail because everyone was trying to reach him and his line was busy. Then, players started texting me and I began to get calls from coaches (Tim Matz and Jeff Piaskowski). All I wanted was my mind to wrap around what was going on. I tried to call Lexi and she didn't pick up. I then called J.J. and he kind of confirmed it when he said, "They're all gone." At first, I wasn't sure what "All" meant?? Was everyone on that helicopter? Then he told me it was Alto, K and Alyssa.

From there, it was a bit of a blur, but I wanted to get everyone together so I called (team captain Michael Ryhlick) and had him reach out to all the players and get them to the field. I just wanted to open the field up and get the guys there and hang out and just trying and figure things out. Word started getting out to the alumni and to the rest of the campus and by the time I got there, a good chunk of the team was already there. By the time I arrived, I probably had 15-20 more texts from others reaching out to me. Within 30 minutes to an hour, everyone was there and with parents and alumni and others, there were probably 300 people at the field. If I could describe the mood, it would be confusion and devastation.

When I got there and saw everyone for the first time, that's when it really hit me … holy (expletive) … I'm now the head coach. I needed to gather my thoughts and I went from worrying about me to worrying about everyone else. Before, I was the guy NEXT to Alto … now I've got 40 guys looking at me. Pretty soon I saw reporters coming and they were starting to talk to the players and I didn't want that so I told them to talk to me. I told the reporters that the person I'd admired and everyone admired had passed away with Kobe. I wanted to make sure everyone knew there were others on that chopper. Every interview I did, somehow, I didn't cry.

By the time I left the field, it was dark. I drove home, picked up some food and it really hadn't hit me fully yet. I just sat around and answered as many texts as I could. There were so many messages and voicemails that I received while I was at the field, but I just kept my phone in my pocket to take care of my guys. There were already several media requests from TV stations, radio stations and newspapers. It was nonstop.

MONDAY, JANUARY 27 – The entire world had heard about Sunday's tragedy and dozens of media outlets made their way to OCC to get comments from anyone who would talk. In addition to that firestorm … it was also the first day of school with over 20,000 students on our campus, trying to figure out where to go, where to park, etc. It was a firestorm and Johnson was right in the middle of things.

NATE There were so many things coming at you at once. I was trying to prepare for the season opener, I was trying to get the players back to a place mentally where they could even play. They were grieving, I was grieving, our coaches were grieving, people at school were grieving … oh and it's also the first day of school!

Monday was definitely the hardest day for all of us. I didn't sleep much the night before and as soon as I woke up, it all hit me again. I was up at 4 a.m. and I knew I had a meeting with (Dean of Kinesiology/Athletics) Michael Sutliff and (Athletic Director) Jason Kehler that morning. I just laid in bed and cried.  As I was walking to the baseball office, it REALLY hit me … Alto wasn't gonna be there. He always greeted you with something other than just "hello" … usually it was some smartass-type of greeting. I cried again when I got to the office. I got there early to gather myself as much as possible because there were so many unknowns at that point. I went to the meeting and asked what classes of Alto's I would be taking over and they told me to just worry about the baseball team. They would get them covered and I should just focus on the team. I got through the meeting and went back to the office … now what? Media people were calling me left and right … I should be working out a practice plan for the day, then, someone else would call/text you. Monday was absolutely a cluster. We had some media people come out to practice and I know we did some hitting, but other than that, I don't remember too much. This definitely wasn't the situation I had hoped for when I dreamed about becoming a head coach.

TUESDAY, JANUARY 28 – Season Opener. Full-fledged media storm throughout that entire morning and an anticipated crowd of several THOUSAND people in attendance for the 2020 opener against Southwestern College.  

NATE I was nervous beyond belief. Again, I was up at 4 a.m. I had to do a morning interview with CNN and I was at the office by around 5 a.m. … way earlier than I wanted to be. I went home and hung out before going back to the office at 7 a.m. I had to prioritize the morning. I made sure I had a lineup, I jotted down a few ideas and I began to get the flags up around the field. Alto was definitely a "flag guy" and he used to joke with me, "As soon as you take over, I know you won't be doing all these flags" but I got them all up. It took me FOREVER as far as getting the separation of each one just right. John would usually get them up on Saturday and that was never my job. Getting them to all fly right – that took the biggest chunk of my morning!

Then people from OCC came by to ask me what they could do as far as where we were putting Alto's family, where to put the media, etc. Then, the eligibility stuff came in and (Athletic Compliance Specialist) Ashley Rippeon came in and worked her magic to get that done. The morning moved by so fast, but I really didn't get a lot done with all of the requests. The flags and lineup were just about it!

Once the players got there, I really wanted it to feel as "normal" as possible, which was impossible with all of the cameras around. I'm not even sure if I saw batting practice or not. Southwestern showed up and they were all very compassionate and sympathetic to what we were all dealing with. Lexi and J.J. showed up around batting practice time and we made sure to move the cameras away and I let them in the office so they could just cry. I gave J.J. one of Alto's old jerseys and gave Lexi her old bat-girl jersey. Then, they saw the memorial area behind the press box for the first time. I just let them do their thing and we put jerseys and flowers down over where K and Alyssa would normally sit.

From there, we just tried to get in a baseball game. I remember giving my speech before the game, but I have no idea what I said. The game started and for the first 4-5 innings, it was a total whirlwind. Fortunately, I knew there wouldn't be too much strategy in those first few innings so that was good. For the first time, I felt like I could take a breath and just coach a baseball game. The alumni were coming into the dugout and giving me hugs and I'd run down and hug Lexi over and over so I wasn't really doing a whole lot of coaching early on.  You could tell we were tight and our guys were trying to do too much. I remember telling them all to relax and go have some fun, "Nothing is going to get accomplished if you're uptight. Make routine plays and hit the ball hard all over the field." As the game went on, we all relaxed a bit and started playing much better and we got back into the game. It was getting dark and I didn't want to suspend the game … I just wanted the first game to end. But we all decided to hold the game in the ninth and finish it down at SWC. The finality of that first game without John hit me as we were saying goodbye to their coaches after the game. I was mentally and physically exhausted.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 29 – OCC at Long Beach. Life had to go on for Johnson and the Pirates as they quickly regrouped from the exhausting opening day with a road game at Long Beach City College.

NATE When we got to Long Beach, our players were in great spirits. They were laughing and loose and ready to go. Then, Long Beach had a pregame ceremony honoring Alto. It was a nice gesture and we were all appreciative of the thoughts, but for our guys, it was like getting a Band-Aid ripped off of a painful scab and with each road game we had, the Band-Aid kept getting ripped off over and over again. We didn't play well and lost 14-5. Lexi pointed out to me afterwards that both of those numbers were Alto's number and Alyssa's number which made the loss a little less painful. The media continued to ask for requests and all I wanted to do was spend more time in the office, helping our team get better.

THURSDAY/FRIDAY, JANUARY 30/31 – Fortunately for the Pirates, there were no games scheduled those two days, but the gas tanks were empty for everyone involved … from the players, to the coaches and the administrators … but especially Johnson.

NATE I was so tired by then … I had no emotion left. I was just trying to make it through each day. It would take me three hours to make a practice plan because I was so distracted. To be honest, I have no idea what we even did during those two off-days. I know we practiced, but on what, I'm not sure. It was all about just trying to make it through the week.  

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 1 – OCC at Mt. San Antonio – Another road game … another nice, but draining special ceremony.

NATE I remember when we got to our dugout at Mt. SAC, there was a signed jersey from their team hanging there, which was a very kind gesture. I was really hoping that was going to be it, but they wanted to say a few words before the game and do a moment of silence. I'm sure our players were completely worn out by all of this by then.

We just wanted to get that first "W" out of the way and we really played a much better game overall, but we just came up a little bit short and lost 5-3. When I got home from that game, I FINALLY crashed and refused to look at my phone for the rest of the night. Best night of sleep I'd had all week.

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 4 – Palomar at OCC. It was the first home game since the season opener and the Pirates made sure to have as "normal" of a game as they could. The media had moved on for the most part and it was just a nice, regular nonconference baseball game in front of a regular-sized crowd.

NATE We still hadn't won yet and I really wanted to get a win for our guys. As the new head coach, I felt like it rested on my shoulders and the wins and losses were starting to get in my head. If I kept losing, I could actually picture Alto and K yelling at me! It was close until late in the game and when we finally had that big inning that we've all been looking for, I could feel ALL of us finally exhale and relax a little bit. We just kept that inning going and the hits just kept coming (an 11-2 win over the Comets). I think the stars lined up for us because Jason (Kehler) got us a special "W" flag with Alto's number on it and it didn't arrive until earlier that day, so I guess we had to wait until that day to get our first win."

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 10 – Anaheim Stadium hosted a public memorial service for Alto, K, and Alyssa in front of over 8,000 people. It was one final, beautiful chapter to this two-week journey.

NATE This was going to be the closing chapter to all of this. Don't get me wrong … we will NEVER forget, but at least for the guys, those first two weeks were done. From there, we respectfully asked the remaining road teams for no more pregame ceremonies or moments of silence. It's a nice gesture and we know you care … but no thanks. We needed closure … our guys needed closure. Before that memorial service, we had practice that morning and once that was over, we saw the Altobelli family having a lunch at the field and the rest of the day, I was more of a host than a coach. Alumni came out to the field before the service and I was there to make sure they were doing OK.

For me, the service was a total blur … there were so many people. You could hear everyone talking about Alto/K/Alyssa and it was such an overwhelming event. But for me, it was a time to breathe and remember and grieve for myself too.  

LOOKING BACK

NATE: I don't think I would've done anything different. Early on, I would say to myself, "Would Alto do this or Would Alto do that?" I had so many people tell me there was no playbook in getting through this … no right or wrong.

COVID

NATE To be honest, the COVID pandemic was especially brutal at first. First you have to tell your players that your head coach, his wife and daughter had died. Then you tell them that because of COVID, your season is over. There was no closure … there was no "Alto Day" like we had planned. No chance to admire the new "14" on the field in honor of Alto … no chance to really get that full closure that a season would've given us. I couldn't get players back and give them one more hug and help them get through all of this. That really bummed me out.

FALL 2020

NATE It's been a ton of texts and zoom meetings and just making sure everyone is doing OK. When I officially got the job, I was nervous and I really wanted to show everyone that the program was in good hands. I wanted to be the one who carried this legacy moving forward and those first few months, there was a lot on my shoulders. School starting up again, but it's all online and how our players are still dealing with all of this.

I know we are all excited to get back on the field again for the first time since all this happened. There will be some emotions … that's for sure! The players are all anxious and a bit frustrated. They just want to play baseball and live their lives. That's the hard part and I really can't help them with that. We will use the time as best as we can. If they're struggling with things, I want to let them know that I'm here and we are all here for them.

It feels really good to talk about all of this … but it still hurts, obviously.

(Tony Altobelli, Orange Coast College Athletics)