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From MLB to New Zealand, former Forest Hills resident now making name as ambassador

| Saturday, July 25, 2015, 9:50 p.m.
Mark Gilbert (left), U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, with New Zealand prime minister John Key.
Trib Total Media
Mark Gilbert (left), U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, with New Zealand prime minister John Key.
Mark Gilbert played one season for the White Sox. He was 6 for 22 in seven games with three RBIs in 1985.
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Mark Gilbert played one season for the White Sox. He was 6 for 22 in seven games with three RBIs in 1985.

For his first 4th of July celebration as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, Mark Gilbert picked sports as the theme. This was not a reach. He and his wife, Nancy, are avid outdoors people, and Gilbert played some baseball in his day.

Party invitations featured the logo for the 1979 World Series — Gilbert's idea, too — when the Pirates beat Baltimore in seven games. Growing up in Forest Hills, he cheered his team at Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium, often attending games with his father, Herb, an ex-professional ballplayer, and his grandfather, Joe, who wanted to be pro ballplayer but never got there. During summers, Mark Gilbert played for the Little Pirates.

In his holiday remarks, Gilbert channeled the Pirates' “We Are Family” theme song of that season, “which I think could be our U.S.-New Zealand theme song,” he said.

But 1979 means even more to Gilbert than the franchise's most recent world championship. He met Nancy that year. And he got traded, probably delaying his ascent to the major leagues until he finally made it with the White Sox six years later.

It was a short stay but long enough for Gilbert to realize his dream of being inscribed in “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” chiseled-in-stone proof of his time in the big leagues.

Among the thousands of major leaguers listed in the massive record book (and on baseball-reference.com, which puts the current number as 18,573 and counting), Gilbert is the only U.S. ambassador. An investment banker for 29 years and a prominent fundraiser for President Barack Obama during both campaigns, Gilbert was nominated by Obama in 2013 and sworn in at the White House last January.

“That caught me by surprise, especially when they talked to me about New Zealand,” he said by phone from the embassy in Wellington. “I thought it would be someplace that is a banking or business center.”

Gilbert, who also serves as ambassador to nearby Samoa, said he has embraced his new job half a world away, calling New Zealand “a very interesting country.” He described his duties as essentially covering three areas: diplomatic, which includes military and intelligence; building what he calls “people-to-people ties”; and helping develop business and commercial relations between the two countries.

With its beaches, favorable climate and varied terrain, outdoor sports are popular in New Zealand. So are rugby, cricket, soccer and a growing basketball culture that produced former Pitt center Steven Adams. Softball is booming.

“It's very sports-oriented,” said Gilbert, who turns 59 next month but is not averse to mixing it up on the court with players less than half his age.

Baseball, however, has yet to make big inroads. On the other hand, New Zealand is the only nation whose resident U.S. ambassador played for Tony La Russa and shared the diamond with two other Hall of Famers, Tom Seaver and Carlton Fisk.

The right decision

In 1978, the Chicago Cubs drafted Gilbert, a switch-hitting center fielder, in the 14th round out of Florida State. Converted from pitcher less than a year earlier, he could run, catch and throw. He did all that and proved he could hit, too, in the minor leagues. In Class AAA in 1984, he hit .280, stole 55 bases and had 19 outfield assists.

Still, the majors never called. He hurt a shouler, an ankle, a knee. He was behind some talented players. Or it was simply a judgment call. A minor league manager once told Gilbert he would never hit big league pitching. Still, the Cubs seemed ready to give him a chance before Cincinnati took him in '79 as the player to be named later in a trade.

The Reds' farm system had a strong crop of outfielders that included Eric Davis and Paul Householder. Feeling stifled, Gilbert signed with the White Sox in 1985. In July, playing with Buffalo and having another productive minor league season, he finally got the call after center fielder Rudy Law got hurt. A 29-year-old rookie, Gilbert joined a veteran team that included Seaver, who won his 300th game that season, and Fisk. The manager was La Russa, who got his law degree from Gilbert's alma mater, Florida State. Jim Leyland coached third base.

“They were all very nice to me,” Gilbert said.

He played in seven games, starting six and batting leadoff, before returning to the minors because the Sox needed a catcher. He never came back. He went 6 for 22 (.273) with a double, three RBIs, three runs scored and a bad knee.

Before spring training the next season, an orthopedic surgeon had to dig deep into Gilbert's femur to locate the trouble. Eventually he found it; the bone was shattered on the inside. After the operation, Gilbert recalled, “He recommended I try something sitting down for a living.”

Rather than withstand a lengthy rehabilitation and then risk further damage, Gilbert retired. After 22 straight summers, he was finished with baseball.

“But I did play a week (in the majors),” he said. “Every game I started, I got on base, which I thought I was good at. In hindsight, maybe I should have taken the year to rehabilitate the knee and give it one more try. I'm not one of those people who believe in looking back. I thought at the time it was the right decision to make.”

Gilbert said he rarely brings up his big league career in conversation. In New Zealand, he said, people frequently do it for him. He recently ordered three dozen Louisville Sluggers, the same model as when he played, for autograph purposes. One he gave to John Key, the prime minister,

“I always loved playing,” Gilbert said. “And everywhere I played, I felt I could compete and do really well. I always believed I could play in the big leagues. I played against a lot of big leaguers. I felt I always had a really good ability to do what I did.”

With a keen intellect, a powerful competitive drive and a business degree, adjusting to the real world came easily. Gilbert's upwardly mobile career included serving as deputy national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

No one seems surprised

“Mark stood out,” said La Russa, now the Arizona Diamondbacks' chief baseball officer. “You could tell he was quick. He was smart. He was articulate. The whole range of things. I guess I remember that his intelligence was special. And he had a personality. I knew he had some qualities besides being a good-looking athlete.”

Asked if he could have imagined Gilbert as an ambassador, John Boles, his manager at Buffalo, said, “If you had told me that he was gonna be president of the United States, I would have said, ‘OK, I believe that.”

During his 7 12-year baseball career, Gilbert said he “read everything” about investing, taxes and other heavy subjects, plus biographies of prominent business people. Rather than work at the family furniture store, as he did for 12 summers and off-seasons going back to college, “I decided to go the investment bank route,” he said.

“He always carried a briefcase,” said his father, Herb. “His teammates called him ‘The Professor.' ”

Mark Gilbert said it was because so few college graduates were playing pro ball. “A ‘Gilligan's Island' thing,” he called it.

Pie and candy

Herb Gilbert lived in Squirrel Hill and graduated from Allderdice, which had no baseball team. He starred in semipro leagues, playing with and against such notables as Tony Bartirome, who played briefly with the Pirates before becoming their longtime trainer, and future major leaguers Dick Groat, Bobby Del Greco and Tito Francona. Through word of mouth, he landed a partial baseball scholarship at Georgia.

He played one season for the Bulldogs, signed with the Cubs and spent a season in the minors before serving two years in the Air Force. He resumed his pro career with the Pirates' Class B affiliate in the Big State League and eventually got his degree.

A third baseman, “Herbie” Gilbert hit .269 in 91 games for the Waco (Texas) Pirates in 1956. In August of that year, while he was off playing ball, his son, Mark David, was born in Atlanta near his mother's hometown. Herb played one more season in the minors and returned home. He hit .228 during his career.

“I really wasn't that good of a player,” he said.

Herb Gilbert, who is 84 and lives in Delray Beach, Fla., settled with his family in Forest Hills, just east of the city. He worked with his brother, Bruce, in the family business, Gilbert's, a Downtown furniture store on Smithfield Street founded by their father, Joe, in 1929.

Joe was a talented young player. In 1919, legendary Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack invited him to a tryout. His parents refused to let him go. According to Herb Gilbert, who kept the letter Mack sent to his father, the family did not believe it was dignified for a Jewish kid to play professional baseball.

“But he pushed me to be a player,” Herb Gilbert said. “When I was working in the store, he let me leave early to go to practice.”

Joe Gilbert died in 1990. He was 90. He had fed his passion for the game by rooting for the Pirates and cultivating friendships with players, scouts, writers, fans and even umpires. According to Herb Gilbert, his father had season tickets for 40 years at Forbes Field and then Three Rivers Stadium.

Joe was especially close with Pie Traynor, the legendary former Pirates third baseman. Herb Gilbert said he and his father drove Traynor to Cooperstown, N.Y., for his Hall of Fame induction in 1948. Traynor, he said, often dropped by the store before hosting his nightly radio show on KQV and afterward would visit Joe and Priscilla Gilbert at their apartment on Bigelow Boulevard “and a eat a box of candy.”

A good idea

Herb Gilbert, who continued to play semipro ball after he retired, witnessed, in-person, Bill Mazeroski's home run to win Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit and Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception. When he was 6 or 7, he said, he took tap lessons at Gene Kelly's studio in Squirrel Hill from Kelly himself before the famed dancer hit it big in Hollywood.

“Now that I think of it,” Herb Gilbert said, “I've lived a pretty full life.”

Mark Gilbert starred in baseball, basketball and track at Churchill High School, which later merged with two other schools to form Woodland Hills. He moved to Pompano Beach, Fla., before his senior year, with his brother, Jeff, a Miami attorney, and his sister, Karen, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, after Herb relocated the store.

Mark was 14 when he started playing for the Little Pirates, a summer-league club run by the big Pirates usually for players 16 to 18.

“We actually wore their old uniforms,” he said. “We played a minimum of eight games a week. We played in Three Rivers Stadium when the Pirates were on the road. I was a pitcher. It was the first time I ever pitched (when) there was no backstop. And it was the first time I played on AstroTurf.”

An outstanding point guard in high school, Mark played the piano before every game to relax. He was both competitive while competing and noticeably calm. In college, he said, “some people never expected me to make it to the major leagues” because they believed he was too laid-back, that he lacked the intensity that seems to draw attention.

“Which I always found to be interesting,” he said.

Gilbert was a successful pitcher in high school and college. Pitching for FSU during his junior year, a lineup switch forced him to bat for the first time. He hit a two-hopper to shortstop, almost beating the throw on a bang-bang play. Gilbert recalled that when he returned to the dugout, his coach, Woody Woodward, asked if he ever played the outfield. No, why? “Because I've never seen anyone get down the line that fast in my life,” Gilbert said Woodward told him.

“He listened and he thought it was a good idea,” said Woodward, who went on hold several front-office positions in the majors, including Seattle's general manager. “He took to it like a duck to water. He also hit very well. He had the tools.”

Playing with the Seminoles' summer-league team, Gilbert learned to play center field under the tutelage of then-assistant coach Mike Martin.

“We would do certain drills that required the ability to jump and to react to the ball, right or left,” said Martin, the Florida State head coach since 1980. “Mark was literally head and shoulders above anybody I ever coached. His jumping ability was second to none.”

Gilbert played one year of basketball with the Seminoles before concentrating on baseball. At 6-foot, he could dunk with both hands.

“Pure athleticism, no doubt about it,” Martin said. “He got rid of the ball quickly, and obviously he had a strong arm. The thing that got me is he worked every day to get better.”

Martin called Gilbert a “great teammate” at FSU. In the minors, Gilbert willingly shared his knowledge with younger players, even those who were more talented.

“He was a model professional baseball player,” said Boles, who worked in several front office capacities and managed the Marlins in 1996 and from 1999 to 2001. “He always did the right thing. He (ran) the bases right. He threw to the right base. He bunted for a base hit.

“We were all pulling for him to get to the big leagues. I used to go home and tell my wife, ‘We've got a guy here that wants to get to the big leagues so badly, and he's doing everything to get there.' When that day came, it was really exciting to me.”

Gilbert acknowledged it often was frustrating, especially after leaving the Cubs in 1979. But he left the game with no regrets.

“I had made it,” he said.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.

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