COSTA MESA, Calif. — Nate Johnson spent the past seven years as an assistant baseball coach at Orange Coast College, working underneath the legendary John Altobelli. He was promoted to associate head coach before this season began, which put Johnson in line to take over when Altobelli retired, which Altobelli had continued to say would happen in three to four years.
On Tuesday afternoon, roughly 50 hours after finding out that Altobelli had died in the helicopter crash that also killed Kobe Bryant, Johnson was suddenly managing what will probably be the most difficult game of his life.
He kept a seat open next to him, to honor Altobelli and, perhaps, provide himself some comfort.
“You’re sitting there, and you’re making all these decisions that the man who you looked up to, who mentored you, was making the last seven years,” Johnson said. “It won’t hit me for a while. Maybe it’ll hit me tonight. Maybe it’ll hit me during the game tomorrow or Saturday. Whenever it is, it’s going to hit me that, ‘Wow, I am this person now. I’m running this team.'”
During almost every half-inning, Johnson jogged down the right-field line, found Altobelli’s daughter Lexi and gave her a hug….