Ex-baseball player on deck as US ambassador to NZ
Mark Gilbert batted leadoff in the same lineup with future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver and Carlton Fisk, tracked down a flyball lofted by Eddie Murray and hit a key single off Orel Hershiser.
Now the former Chicago White Sox outfielder is on deck for a new position: If confirmed by the Senate, he’ll become the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
The U.S. State Department said it couldn’t find any other record of a former major league player having served as an ambassador.
Gilbert played seven games for the White Sox in July 1985. Fleet and good with the glove, he hit .273, scored three runs and drove in three for manager Tony La Russa’s team.
“Sure, I remember him,” La Russa told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I was always taken with his intelligence and how he was committed to what we were trying to teach — to become a teammate, a competitor and to pursue excellence as a professional.”
“You do that and get a proper foundation and out of the bottom, out drops your fame and fortune. I think he’s now raised his excellence to a new level,” he said.
Told that ambassadors are often addressed as “His Excellency” or “Your Excellency,” La Russa chuckled.
“I think if Mark walks into a clubhouse with his old teammates, I don’t think they’re going to call him ‘Your Excellency,’” he said with a laugh.
Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin and Dennis Martinez are among the many former big leaguers who have served the State Department in roles such diplomacy envoys, goodwill ambassadors and baseball sports envoys. Gilbert, incidentally, once hit a bases-loaded double off Martinez at Comiskey Park.
Next up, a rookie diplomat in a new field.
“Baseball is America’s pastime, so what better way to represent the United States overseas than with someone who, before he was a successful businessman, began his career as a major league baseball player?” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
“While this clearly wasn’t the reason for his nomination, it doesn’t hurt that ambassador-designate Gilbert played for the president’s favorite team, the Chicago White Sox,” she said. “As fans all around the country and the world, including die-hard Rex Sox fan Secretary of State John Kerry root for their teams in the World Series, Embassy Wellington is preparing to hopefully get a new manager sometime soon.”
President Barack Obama officially nominated Gilbert on Tuesday. The 57-year-old Gilbert has been a banking executive and was a member of the Obama for America national finance team.
Those nominated for ambassadorships typically don’t comment during the confirmation process.
Several baseball executives have become ambassadors. Among them, Texas Rangers President Tom Schieffer served in Japan and Australia.
Gilbert starred at Florida State, where he also played basketball for a season. He was a 14th-round draft pick by the Chicago Cubs in 1978 and hit an RBI single off Hershiser in the 1979 Midwest League playoffs.
Twice Gilbert stole at least 50 bases in the minors, stealing 55 while playing alongside Eric Davis in 1984 at Triple-A Wichita, the top farm team of the Cincinnati Reds.
Gilbert signed with the White Sox before the 1985 season. Called up in midseason, he went 6 for 22 with four walks. One of his hits came against former Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan.
New Zealand is known more for rugby, cricket and America’s Cup sailing more than baseball. The Kiwis played in the qualifying tournament for the most recent World Baseball Classic, and local star Scott Campbell was a Triple-A infielder for Toronto in 2009.
The country does play a lot of softball. That could come in handy: When he gets time, Gilbert still likes to run around the softball field.
“Mark was a very talented player. He could hit, he could bunt, he could steal his bases,” Davis said Wednesday. “But what I remember about Mark is how meticulous he was about his game, how he took pride in wearing the uniform right and passing along what he knew.”
Davis was a two-time All-Star and World Series champion. In the minors, he became the leadoff man and Gilbert moved to the second spot.
“I was young, had power and didn’t want to walk. Mark taught me about taking pitches, setting things up for the hitters behind me. That tutelage really helped,” Davis said.
“I never got a chance to thank him for all the time he spent with me, our paths took us in different directions,” he said. “But I never forgot what he did for me.”