When Chris Lamb walks across the stage May 14 to receive his diploma, most of his fellow graduates are going to ask, "Who's that?!"
Well, that is Chris Lamb, a member of the class of 2012 who took a few years off from Davidson to live the dream–playing baseball for the Oakland Athletics. The "A's" were his team while growing up in nearby Berkeley, California, and his dad took Chris and his little brother to many games. They were even in the stands in 2002 when the A's beat the Kansas City Royals, setting an American League record of 20 straight wins.
Lamb played baseball since age eight, but now looks forward to following another passion. He re-enrolled at Davidson this year to finish up requirements for graduation with a major in physics and minor in computer science. He's planning to earn a master's degree in computer science, and then find work in the field of artificial intelligence.
The registrar's office noted that it's very unusual for students to resume their Davidson studies after spending so much time away.
"We occasionally have students who leave as juniors or seniors with the intention to re-enroll, but they rarely follow through," said Registrar Angie Dewberry. "After a time, it's hard to drop everything else they're doing and return to school full time."
For that reason, Lamb's story is remarkable. He enjoyed a good high school baseball career, and caught the eye of a Davidson coach at the Stanford baseball camp. The coach recognized the undersized, hard throwing, academically strong left-handed pitcher as a good prospect.
When Davidson came calling, Lamb had never heard of the college. But he liked what he learned. He knew he was not big or talented enough to play in the top ranks of Division 1, but anticipated having an immediate impact with the 'Cats.
Davidson not only offered him a chance for substantial playing time, but also offered him a Lowell Bryan Scholarship–a full ride award recognizing students who display top level performance in both academics and athletics. Davidson became an easy choice.
Lamb didn't disappoint baseball coach Dick Cooke. He was a regular starter by his freshman year. He once pitched a complete game, and on another occasion pitched eight scoreless innings. He was throwing 90 mile-per-hour fastballs, and when it was "on," coach Cooke said Lamb's split-finger fastball was virtually unhittable.
Lamb always intended to be a pitcher.
"Baseball is sort of a slow game for position players," he said. "I love pitching because there's no down time. You're involved with every play."
After his junior year Lamb was drafted by his hometown Athletics and offered a contract. He was thrilled at the opportunity, and formally withdrew from Davidson at the conclusion of his junior year.
But Lamb also vowed that he would some day return to fulfill the requirements to earn a Davidson diploma.
He made the most of his five years in pro baseball. He traveled the country with A's teams at various levels of the organization. He played for colorfully-named farm teams like the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Burlington Bees, the Beloit Snappers, Stockton Ports, Midland Rockhounds and eventually the AAA Sacramento River Cats.
Lamb never played for the A's major league team, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience of minor league baseball.
He observed that playing professional baseball was similar to college ball, but without the burden of tests and papers.
"It's an interesting dynamic. You're competing with a dozen pitchers for roster spots, while another dozen are competing for fielding positions," he said. "But at the same time, we're all teammates."
Focusing completely on pitching, his skills and strength improved year by year. He also stayed healthy until suffering an elbow injury his fifth season. When the director of player development one day asked him to "come to the front office," Lamb correctly figured his playing days were over.
"There were no hard feelings," he said. "It's just a business. I still keep in touch with some of the players and administrators I got to know."
Lamb packed his bags and went home to Berkeley. He was eager to re-enroll at Davidson, and contacted his adviser, Professor of Physics Mario Belloni, to calculate a class schedule that would allow him to complete his physics major and earn a minor in computer science.
The academic plan they figured out required a heavy load of five courses in the fall semester, and four more now in the spring, including the physics senior advanced lab in optics and lasers.
"It's been an adjustment to return," Lamb said. "But the fall semester was my best ever at Davidson. Not having to practice baseball anymore frees up 30 hours a week, and now that I'm a little older I have a broader world view. Not knowing many students helps me avoid spending too much time on social pursuits, and living by myself in an off campus house helps me concentrate academically."
Lamb no longer has any official capacity with Davidson baseball, but has made acquaintance with some current players and offers them informal advice on pitching and the world of professional baseball.
He's grateful for having received the encouragement from Davidson to play the game he loves at its highest level. He's also grateful for the opportunity now to resume studies toward a career in an exciting, challenging field.
"Comparing the balance between academics and athletics here with that of many players I knew in the majors made me realize again how remarkable Davidson is. It's true what Coach Cooke always told us, ‘Academics was Priority 1, and baseball was Priority 1-A!'"