How a rival coach’s referral got BYU catcher Abe Valdez from Mexico to Provo
Before he was tragically killed in the helicopter crash that also claimed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, Orange Coast College coach John Altobelli told BYU baseball coaches about the hot-hitting, strong-armed catcher from San Diego and Tijuana
PROVO — When a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 in Calabasas, California, claimed the life of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others, BYU catcher Abe Valdez was as heartbroken as most sports fans throughout the world.
Then the senior who was preparing for the Cougars’ opener on Feb. 14 received even more bad news: Among the casualties that day was Orange Coast (California) College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter, Alyssa.
The 56-year-old Altobelli, you see, is the biggest reason why Valdez is playing Division I baseball at BYU.
“I will be grateful to him for the rest of my life,” said Valdez, one of three seniors on the 7-9 BYU baseball team that had its season canceled after 16 games on March 12 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. “Hearing that he was in that crash really tore me up.”
Relaxing at his parents’ home in Alabama, where they moved a few years ago, Valdez said recently that he will probably take advantage of an expected NCAA allowance for an extra year of eligibility and return to BYU in 2021, but hasn’t fully decided yet. A lot depends on whether he is taken in June’s Major League Baseball draft, which could be shortened to 10 rounds, or fewer.
Taking online classes now like almost every college student across the country, Valdez will graduate this spring with a degree in exercise and wellness. So if he returns to BYU he will have to work on a postgraduate degree or a second minor.
BYU baseball coach Mike Littlewood says he would welcome Valdez and the other two seniors — pitchers Jarod Lessar and Ben Weese — back in a heartbeat.
“They are just great teammates, and they are good on the field for us,” Littlewood said. “But they are graduating, so maybe they will want to get a job, or go to graduate school somewhere else. There are just so many unknowns that way. … There are just so many questions that are really unanswerable right now.”
Meanwhile, Valdez’s thoughts as he contemplates his future go back to Altobelli, and a touching act of kindness.
Amazingly, Valdez didn’t play junior college baseball at Orange Coast, where Altobelli was preparing for his 28th season before the tragedy. Valdez played at Southwestern College in his hometown of Chula Vista after a standout prep career at Otay Ranch.
“Coach (Brent) Haring told me the basics of it, like no coffee, no drugs, no drinking, no (premarital) sex. But then I didn’t really know about the rule about no beards. I am Mexican, so I can grow a full beard in, like, three days. I didn’t know that part.” — BYU catcher Abe Valdez
But when BYU baseball assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Brent Haring called Altobelli needing a recommendation for a junior college catcher who could step in and help the Cougars immediately prior to the 2019 season, Altobelli told him to offer a scholarship to Valdez.
“You don’t really expect an opposing coach to recommend you to a school like that,” Valdez said. “He will usually find a way to get his own players there.”
When Valdez was told of Altobelli’s gesture, he got his phone number and texted him a thank-you. Altobelli called him back, told him he was a special player and would do well at BYU.
“That phone call has special meaning to me now, and I carry it with me in my heart, because of the tragic events that happened,” Valdez said. “I am grateful every day that I get to be at BYU; It was probably the best decision I ever made.”
Not that it was a seamless transition for the Mexican American who is not a member of the faith that owns and operates BYU, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Coach Haring told me the basics of it, like no coffee, no drugs, no drinking, no (premarital) sex,” he said. “But then I didn’t really know about the rule about no beards. I am Mexican, so I can grow a full beard in, like, three days. I didn’t know that part.”
Still, Valdez could learn to shave every couple of days. It was the coffee ban that gave him trouble, and the “tricky stuff” like having to take religion classes.
“I was addicted to coffee,” he said. “I used to drink two or three cups a day in California, so it was kind of hard at first.”
Culturally, he said Provo is a lot different than where he grew up in Mexico (Tijuana) and Southern California, and not just because of the weather.
Asked to name the best place to get authentic Mexican food in Utah County, he said: “My own kitchen. There aren’t many good options.”
Littlewood said Valdez’s personality has helped him adjust; because of his big smile and easygoing nature, teammates call him “Papi” — a shoutout to former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
On the field, Valdez slowly earned playing time in 2019, backing up starter Noah Hill and getting accustomed to his new surroundings.
He got 52 at-bats in 2019, collecting 15 hits and 14 RBI.
A starter this season, he was batting just .205 but having a strong start as a strong-armed defensive catcher. He suffered a setback in the series against New Mexico when he squared to bunt and the ball nicked the bat and caught him in the cheek, just below the orbital bone.
The cut required five stitches to close, but he only missed one game.
He thought he would miss what turned out to be the Cougars’ only home game of the 2020 season, a 5-4 win over Utah Valley on March 3, but was a surprise addition.
“I was getting a hair cut, and I saw my name on the lineup card; I was like, ‘Oh, OK,’” he said.
He went 1 for 2 in the game, and scored a run. Crossing the plate that night, he couldn’t help but think of Altobelli — the man mostly responsible for getting him to Provo.
More on BYU catcher Abe Valdez
• Born in Mexico and raised in San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico
• Attended Otay Ranch High School in Chula Vista, California
• Played two years at Southwestern College, batting .341 with 77 hits, 33 RBI
• Hit .288 in 21 games for BYU as a junior in 2019, with a homer and 14 RBI
• Is graduating from BYU this spring with a degree in exercise and wellness