Two elite baseball players have played for the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) Royals.* One is catcher Erik Kratz, in his 15th season in the MLB and currently with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The second player, centerfielder Daryl Lambert, never made it to the majors, but there’s plenty of people who saw him play who say he should have been given a chance.
“Oh, he could fly,” says EMU head baseball coach Ben Spotts, who saw Lambert play at Fort Defiance High School and years later was his teammate in the Rockingham County Baseball League (RCBL). “He could run, throw, catch, hit and hit for power. He was that five-tool player everyone talks about. He just wasn’t physically where the scouts wanted him to be until he was older.”
Kratz and Lambert, both inducted into EMU’s Athletic Hall of Honor, are the only baseball players to have their jerseys retired.
Another accolade is coming for Lambert: induction into the RCBL Hall of Fame. On June 25, he will be honored with 12 other men who have made significant contributions to the amateur league, in existence since 1924. He is one of two honorees – the other, inducted last year, is head softball coach J.D. McCurdy – to be connected to EMU.
Lambert’s RCBL recognition is primarily for his nine standout seasons from 1988-1996 with the Grottoes Cardinals, during which he won three Most Valuable Player awards. But the honor, which also considers civic engagement and service, highlights Lambert’s contribution to youth athletics and baseball in the Valley: For 22 years, until he stepped out last season on the heels of retiring head coach Vic Spotts, he coached baseball at Fort Defiance High School.
‘EMU’s own Ken Griffey, Jr.’
While this article really should talk more about Lambert in the County League – and we’ll get to that – it’s irresistible not to share that Lambert’s athleticism and enthusiasm for both the game and his college experience changed the tenor and tone of the EMC baseball program, an observation confirmed by several sources.
In 1988, the team was 3-22. Their biggest margin of loss was an ugly 33-0 shutout to Bridgewater. The team photo includes 12 players, which might work but only if all of them can pitch well. (The ’88 yearbook entry, written by a player, promises that next year’s team will “seek respectability.”)
In the fall of 1988, Daryl Lambert arrives, along with a few local players including his good friend and county league teammate Bobby Swink. In the spring, the team loses its final game by 10 runs to Washington and Lee, but that’s the worst it gets, and they win five of 19 games.
In 1990, Lambert convinces Dale Glass and Larry Sorrells to join, “huge additions to an already fairly talented team,” he remembers.
The Royals beat Bridgewater for the first time, 7-6. Lambert, in centerfield, catches the final out, and adds another ball to his collection of game-ending, game-winning catches (in case you’re curious, he has a total of nine balls in this collection). The team loses twice to Bridgewater in one-run games.
The team plays home games at Harrisonburg High School’s Memorial Stadium, because the new field is being built on campus. “People who would never think of going to a baseball game go because they played at Memorial Stadium, under the lights,” said Kirby Dean, a classmate of Lambert’s and now EMU’s head men’s basketball coach. “Crowds of people would go. The team was fun to watch, there were good local athletes on the team and Daryl especially was good, making catches, hitting, stealing bases.”
The team still needs more pitching and they are light on the bench, but they compete well enough to make the semi-finals of the ODAC tournament. Lambert is an All-ODAC first team selection.
In 1991, Lambert convinces a few more local players to come out: Kevin Kirschner, Scott “Pistol” Hensley. “I would see ballplayers who I knew could play the game and I’d tell them to come to EMC,” Lambert said.
They beat Bridgewater again. They also beat Messiah, Virginia Wesleyan, Washington and Lee and several other teams that had previously offered a drubbing. There’s no tournament qualification, but Lambert is All-ODAC again.
In 1992, the team is 10-11-3, again making the ODAC tournament. There’s still only 16 players on the team, but many of them are talented local players recruited by Lambert, who is All-ODAC First Team, Virginia Sports Information Directors All-State team and DIII South Region All-American – a constellation of honors never collected before by any Royals player. He ended with a career batting average of .381 and a slugging average of .496. He had 136 hits, 49 RBI, and was successful in 41 out of 45 stolen base attempts.
“He could run, hit, throw, hit for power and chase down fly balls all over the outfield,” Dean is quoted as saying when Lambert went into the EMU Hall of Honor. “It was like having our own version of Ken Griffey Jr. playing at EMU.”
Playing for Grottoes
During Lambert’s County League career, he put on size, weight and confidence. Though he tried out for major league scouts, once locally and then by invite in Florida, by that time, at 24, he was middle-aged by baseball standards.
So Lambert settled in with the Grottoes Cardinals and played his heart out. Though the team never won a pennant or a series championship, that didn’t matter to Lambert. He evoked “winning fanaticism” among the Grottoes fans, while making a name for himself as a “relentless nuisance” with opponents, according to a newspaper article.
One former player from the Bridgewater Reds said that if an infielder fielded a ball hit by Lambert, “I always wanted to tell the player to just hold the ball and let Daryl run to the third base, because he was going to get there fast anyway. He might as well have been on third already.”
At one of his first games with Grottoes, then-rookie Ben Spotts remembers that Lambert, a County League veteran, made an impression: “He hits a single to left, steals second, steals third, scores. The next at-bat, he lays a drag bunt down, beats it out, steals second. Next at-bat, he hits a home run. I was just in awe. There was no one like him in the county league.”
For his own part, Lambert described himself as “a hustler, a scrapper.” His motto: “If it’s in the air, I’m gonna get it.”
Lambert, still a resident of Mount Sidney where he grew up, now works for Virginia Department of Transportation. He remembers his days at EMC with fondness, he said. He’s still good friends with Kirby Dean and also Kevin Griffin, head women’s basketball coach.
Though they no longer see each other on a daily basis in the spring, he keeps in touch both with the elder Spotts and the younger Spotts. And among his mentors, he names EMU men’s basketball assistant coach Bill Hale, who was a football and basketball coach at Fort when Lambert was a three-sport athlete.
“The friends I made at EMU were friends who were in my wedding and who I remain close to,” Lambert said. “That’s what I really took away was those close friendships.”
Editor’s note: * EMU alumnus Larry Sheets, who was drafted in 1978 out of R.E. Lee High School and attended EMU in his off-seasons, played basketball. He was not eligible to play baseball because of his pro career. He was an assistant baseball coach under Roland Landes in 1983, and was called up to the major leagues in 1984, where he played nine years as an outfielder and designated hitter.
The Rockingham County Baseball League Hall of Fame induction ceremony is Saturday, June 25, at the Weyers Cave Community Center. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. The program begins at 6 p.m. with a dinner. Tickets are $25. Please reserve a seat by calling (540) 236-8128.