2020 hasn’t gone the way Abraham Valdez had hoped it would.
The senior catcher wanted a redemption for his junior season, which didn’t go anywhere near as well as he’d hoped. He struggled with the transition, having transferred from Southwestern College.
Everything caught up with him — being at a new school, having to make new friends, adjusting to a different program and being further away from family — and it resulted in a drop in production. In his second season in California, Valdez batted .354, but only managed a .288 batting average his first season at BYU.
However, he didn't get his shot of redemption because the coronavirus put a stop to the season after only 16 games.
But the season also didn't start how he would have liked.
Less than three weeks before the season started, the country dealt with what was then the biggest blow to the sports world. A helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., left former NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others dead.
One of the passengers was John Altobelli, a college baseball coach, whose daughter Alexis and wife, Keri, were also on board. Altobelli was the reason Valdez was able to get the opportunity to play at the Division I program.
Yet, Valdez hardly knew the Orange Coast coach.
However, that didn’t stop the news of the crash from hitting Valdez hard. At first, the initial news of Bryant’s death was shocking, but as more news emerged about the other passengers, Valdez took to the internet to verify if it was confirmed.
“I was in shock,” Valdez recalls. “I just stared at my phone for a couple of minutes and I think the first thing I did was text my mom about it. … Just the fact that he passed away is devastating, but that fact that he had no control over what happened is kind of the hard part.”
Valdez was familiar with Altobelli through the California Community College Athletic Association. While Valdez’s Southwestern College is in the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference and Altobelli’s Orange Coast College is in the Orange Empire Conference, the teams played each other fairly often and usually saw each other in the postseason.
Two years ago, the BYU staff called Altobelli to ask the junior college coach if he had a catcher. The Cougars were looking to add a player in that position to their roster for the 2019 season.
Altobelli didn’t have anyone on his team who he believed would play well at BYU, but did know of someone else: Valdez. So, the Orange Coast coach recommended the Southwestern catcher.
“To know what he did that for me and he could have done it for anybody else — he could have done it for any other school in the state of California and recommend any other catcher — but the fact that he did that for me just kind of speaks volumes to who he was as a person,” Valdez said. “I don’t know him personally, but speaking for what he did for me, I can say he was a selfless person.”
Over the next two weeks, after Altobelli recommended Valdez, BYU assistant coach Brent Haring and the Cougars extended an offer. After signing his letter of intent, Valdez asked his coach for Altobelli’s phone number so he could thank him personally for the opportunity.
It was just a two- to three-minute call, but Valdez told the junior college coach he was looking forward to seeing the Orange Coast team in the playoffs so he could thank him in person. The Jaguars and Valdez were eliminated in one of the earlier rounds and never got the chance to see Altobelli again.
To this day, Valdez still doesn’t know why Altobelli recommended him to the BYU staff.
But processing and dealing with Altobelli’s sudden death helped Valdez in a different way. It allowed the catcher to be able to cope with the sudden end to the baseball season.
“He saw something in me that I should be portraying,” Valdez said. “After his passing, I had to prove to him that he was right — that what he did for me was the correct choice. That’s part of why I want to come back, because I want to prove to him that he gave me this opportunity and I want to make sure I give him my all. Partially, it’s me wanting to finish my senior year and another part is more of a thank you for coach Alto – ‘this season is for you.’”