Is being a United States ambassador an even cooler job than being a Major League Baseball player? If he's confirmed by the U.S. senate, Mark Gilbert is about to find out.
President Obama has nominated Gilbert, 57, to be ambassador to New Zealand. Gilbert has been a banking executive with Barclays Wealth (good name for a thing, in that industry) who played for the Chicago White Sox — Obama's favorite baseball team — for about 11 days in the summer of 1985. Gilbert also was an early Obama supporter in Florida, not long after his first presidential campaign started in 2007, and his family hosted a fundraiser for Vice President Joe Biden in 2009. Being named an ambassador is one of the ways debts like those get paid. From the Associated Press:
"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.
Gilbert's career in the majors lasted about 11 days in the summer of 1985, which was something of a golden era for the Sox. Tony LaRussa was the manager, Dave Duncan was the pitching coach and Jim Leyland coached third. Carlton Fisk was having one of his best seasons ever behind the plate at age 37. It definitely was the pretty good ol' days. Following an injury to outfielder Rudy Law, the White Sox promoted Gilbert from Class AAA Buffalo at 28 years old. Gilbert would only have a cup of coffee with them, but he made an impression that went beyond the speed and plate discipline he showed as a player:
"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."
He came off the bench in his first game, July 21 against the Indians, and started the next six in all three outfield spots — getting on base at least once in every game. Gilbert batted .273/.385/.318 with a double, three runs scored, four walks and three RBIs. But closer Bob James was coming off the disabled list so and the team needed a spot so, come Aug. 21, the White Sox sent Gilbert back to Buffalo. They never called him up again. Nobody did. His playing career ended when Buffalo's season did.
Before coming to the White Sox, Gilbert played in the minors with the Cubs and Reds — and he made an impression on prospect Eric Davis before he became one of the best players of his era.
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."
Fundraising and finance, personal work habits, the value of getting on base: Mark Gilbert has made an impact wherever he's gone. Gilbert's father played minor league ball, and his grandfather declined a tryout by Connie Mack — because, grandpa said at the time, being a professional athlete was like being "a bum." So Gilbert's ascension to the majors was the culmination of something within his family that was meant to be, no matter what grandpa thought 80 years ago.
And now for Gilbert (maybe): diplomacy.
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.
It's unlikely that Gilbert will transform New Zealanders from cricket players into baseball players en masse. But who knows? If given the chance ...
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