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Former big league pitcher Dennis Lamp's adaptability still serves him well

CROWE'S NEST

Working the seafood counter at a Newport Beach supermarket might sound like a comedown, but that's not how Lamp sees it.

January 30, 2011|Jerry Crowe
  • Dennis Lamp, who pitched in the maor for 16 seasons, works the seafood counter at Bristol Farms.
Dennis Lamp, who pitched in the maor for 16 seasons, works the seafood counter… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Here's something you probably won't find in any other grocery store outside the Bristol Farms in Newport Beach: a former major league pitcher manning the seafood counter.

And it's no publicity stunt.


FOR THE RECORD:
Dennis Lamp: In the Jan. 31 Sports section, Jerry Crowe's column about former major league pitcher Dennis Lamp said that in 1979 Lamp gave up Willie McCovey's 513th home run, a record for left-handed batters at the time. The home run extended McCovey's National League record but was not a major league record. —

Though Dennis Lamp fields the occasional autograph request, most shoppers seem to have no idea that the burly, outgoing man handling their halibut once came within three outs of pitching a no-hitter against the Milwaukee Brewers.

The name tag pinned to his red-and-white checkered shirt — "Dennis L." — provides only this added detail: "Providing extraordinary service since 2004."

Lamp, 58, was not hired to glad hand or tell tales of his 16 seasons in the majors from 1977 to 1992.

He was hired to work.

"It doesn't matter if he was a major league baseball player," store manager Eric Fuchser says of Lamp, the recent winner of a customer-service award. "He's a great employee — great with the customers, and just a kindhearted man. …

"He talks sports. He sells fish. He works hard."

If fetching flounder or scooping scallops in a grocery store sounds like a comedown for someone whose one-time career ambition was to pitch in the World Series, so be it.

Lamp doesn't see it that way.

Though a 1999 divorce rocked him financially, the father of three says he is not broke.

He made about $4.5 million in the majors.

"I just enjoy working," he says.

In fact, before his hiring at Bristol Farms seven years ago, Lamp worked at Nordstrom. Before that, he worked for his brother's temp agency and before that, he worked briefly in radio.

Except for brief hiatuses to help care for his autistic son, the Los Alamitos-bred Lamp says he has not been out of work since he graduated from Bellflower St. John Bosco High in 1971 less than a week before making his minor league debut in Idaho.

A 6-foot-4, 215-pound right-hander, Lamp compiled a 96-96 record as a starter and reliever for six major league clubs in a career marked by landmark brushes with Hall of Famers.

With the Chicago Cubs in June 1979, Lamp gave up Willie McCovey's 513th home run, at the time a record for left-handed batters. Two months later, Lamp gave up Lou Brock's 3,000th hit, a line drive off the back of the pitcher's right hand.

"I'm in pain," says Lamp, who had to leave the game, "and nobody's paying any attention to me."

In August 1981, with the Chicago White Sox, Lamp gave up the first of Cal Ripken's 3,184 hits.

Nine days later, he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning before giving up a leadoff double to Robin Yount.

"I thought I had it," Lamp says of his no-hit bid, "but then he got the hit just under the glove of [left fielder] Rusty Kuntz. If it was at Fenway, it would have been an out."

In 1984, when Lamp signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays, the White Sox claimed 39-year-old Tom Seaver from the New York Mets as compensation.

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Lamp says of his Zelig-like place in baseball history.

He enjoyed his greatest season in 1985, compiling an 11-0 record in the regular season and a 0.00 earned-run average in three relief appearances during the playoffs.

Lamp's teams reached the league championship series three times but never made the World Series.

In 1992, three months before his 40th birthday, he retired.

"I was a consistent, reliable pitcher," says Lamp, who was utilized as a starter, middle reliever and closer, "and I was able to multitask, which helped me."

His adaptability has served him well in retirement too.

"I come from a humble background, which I think helped me make the adjustment," Lamp says. "A lot of people get bored when they stop working and things really start to unravel. A lot of guys can't handle the fact that they're not playing anymore."

Seven years ago, when Lamp decided that working on commission in a department store didn't suit him, a friend of his brother's arranged for an interview at Bristol Farms.

Ernie Mathis, who hired Lamp, admits he was dubious.

"I thought he was a great guy, a really nice guy," Mathis says, "but I was wondering how long this was going to last. Not to say that he wasn't going to make it, but I was thinking he's probably going to say, 'Forget this. I'm not doing this.' "

Lamp, whose most recent brush with a Hall of Famer was serving store visitor and former Baltimore Orioles right-hander Jim Palmer, says the thought never crossed his mind.

"I like working," says Lamp, who lives by himself in an apartment in Rancho Santa Margarita. "I think there's something in the male psyche that says, 'I've got to work.' "

The only time he's bored, he says, is when he's not busy.

"It's life," he says. "Every day, there are new and exciting things happening. It was great during the holidays. My God, we were here until midnight, but we were so busy.

"The time just flew by."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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