Back in the Swing
Justin Lamber was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1997
courtesy of The Collegian
Over the last 10 years, Justin Lamber has been paid to play the game he loves. He's played baseball everywhere from New York and California to Venezuela and Puerto Rico, been teammates with Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran and been a member of five minor league championship clubs.
Now, Lamber, 30, is back as a student at the University of Richmond, living in Thomas Hall and eating his meals at the Heilman Dining Center. His days are packed with classes, and his nights, which often extend into mornings, are spent at the library.
In recent years, Lamber's biggest problem may have been deciding what pitch to throw with a one-two count and runners on the corners. Now, his classes give him plenty of problems, whether it's surviving his Spanish drill sessions or analyzing Nash equilibriums.
"It's been really tough," Lamber said of his transition back into Richmond academics. "I'm so overwhelmed with the workload sometimes; I feel like I'm retraining my brain.
"Lamber, a native of Hackensack, N.J., re-enrolled at Richmond this semester 10 years since leaving the university after his junior year to play minor league baseball. A decade after being a 17th-round draft choice of the Kansas City Royals, Lamber is working on getting the final 23 credits he needs to graduate from a Richmond that he says is much different than the one he left in 1997.
"When you walk around the campus, [Richmond] doesn't seem that different," he said. "But the classes are much harder than I remember them being. There's much faster-paced teaching and learning now.
"The most noticeable difference is the role of technology in the classroom, Lamber said. When he was here in the '90s, students didn't use laptops for school work. Classes now rely heavily on computers, PowerPoint presentations and academic Web sites such as Blackboard.
Lamber said he went through two computers in his first week and a half back just trying to get one that had all the necessary and updated programs.
Lamber also lamented the difference in tuition since his time at Richmond."I think I should be paying the $24,000 I used to," he said.
After being drafted in 1997, Lamber, a left-handed pitcher, spent five years in the Royals' system before being traded to the Seattle Mariners, reaching the Triple-A level on both teams. He also spent time on the minor league teams of the Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians before finishing his professional baseball career playing for the Long Island Ducks in the independent leagues for a few seasons. In 2005, he decided to stop playing because he said the league was too cut-throat, and he grew tired of the ugly side of professional baseball where too many people are interested in money rather than the love of the game. Lamber still loves baseball - especially his favorite team, the New York Mets and said because he had made friends with many players currently in the major league, he could probably get tickets to any given game because he knows at least a few guys playing.
Lamber has a class load of 16 credits this semester and plans to finish the remaining seven he needs for his interdisciplinary studies degree this summer. During his previous stint at Richmond, he was working on a sports science major, but the school no longer offers it and Lamber said the professors he had for those classes are long gone. He looked into finishing his degree at schools closer to home in New Jersey, but found out that many of his credits wouldn't transfer, and it would take him much longer to finish up at another university.
Lamber has a lot of respect for the Spider baseball program and coaching staff, and wants to help the team any way he can, but said he's so busy with classes to find time to get out to the field. Spider coach Ron Atkins, who coached Lamber from 1995-1997, spoke highly of him as a player and as a person.
"I'm very proud of him," said Atkins, who has been with the program since 1985. "I think it's commendable that he's had the opportunity to play pro ball and he still came back to finish up his degree. I think he's probably in the minority of players that would do that."
Atkins understands Lamber's commitment to his academics and said he realized he's back here as a student, not an athlete or a coach.
"He's got a full load with classes," Atkins said. "He's knows he's always welcome to come help out, but I don't want to put any pressure on him." Classwork has also kept Lamber's social life relatively low-key. He is a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and says the brothers often encourage him to come out to events, endearingly labeling him "gramps."
Lamber, who lives in a single, said going back to living in the dorms after all these years has been an interesting experience. While the noise level at night sometimes gets a little high, he said, he's in no position to complain. "I remember what I was like back then," Lamber said. "I wasn't exactly the quietest guy." The other students in the hall say it's not only fun but also insightful to have a 30-year-old living around them. "Justin provides us with a different perspective on things," said junior Alex Knecht, who lives down the hall from Lamber. Knecht is in the same fraternity as Lamber and says he's been more successful lately pulling him away from his books and getting him out to events.
"He's a great kid," Knecht said before quickly correcting himself. "Well, I guess I can't really call him a kid." After graduating, Lamber wants to work with the NFL, preferably in the New Jersey area. As someone who has been out in the real world, Lamber says Richmond's courses and workload prepare students well for an outside world that is full of challenges.
"A Richmond degree means more than a degree from most other schools," Knecht said. "That's why I'm back here."