Cal Ripken Jr., who usually avoids the political arena, was named a State Department sports envoy yesterday. He plans to remain politically neutral even as he joins forces with the Bush administration to try to bolster America's image overseas.

The former Orioles superstar said yesterday that he didn't accept the unpaid post to make a political statement but rather to work with children from other nations on baseball.

He's part of an effort, largely orchestrated by longtime Bush confidant Karen Hughes, to expand the role of athletes in diplomacy. The effort has included sending American wrestlers to Iran and naming figure skater Michelle Kwan as an envoy in 2006 and dispatching her to Russia and China.

Ripken is essentially a consultant working for as long as he is interested and needed.

"I don't think there's any term limits on the job yet," he said jokingly.

The State Department's Bureau of Educational Affairs will pay his travel expenses. His first trip will be to China in late October.

The Hall of Famer's appearance with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others from the Bush administration raised the question: Can a sports celebrity enter a political world and still be apolitical?

To Ripken and spokesman John Maroon, the answer is yes. But not everyone is so sure. In Washington, it is hard to pose for pictures with Rice and Hughes - as a smiling Ripken did after delivering brief remarks yesterday - without political meaning being attached to the gesture.

"If I'm someone who is looking at those pictures, I am going to think Cal Ripken supports President Bush," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "Ripken is obviously an incredibly popular baseball player and President Bush is unpopular, and you could ask the question: 'Is he trying to boost his popularity?'"

Boyle emphasized that she didn't take issue with Ripken or the notion of trying to spread good will through sports.

"This is an honorable thing for [athletes] to do," she said. But she said she doubted that the administration would appoint anybody so visible - even to an unpaid post - without researching his or her political background.

Maroon says Ripken is a registered independent, the political equivalent of a designated hitter not attached to a position - or, in this case, a party. Word of Ripken's appointment came out last week.

"For him, this isn't a political appointment - in his view, this is an apolitical appointment - because it's for the greater good," Maroon said.

Ripken, who was inducted July 29 into the Baseball Hall of Fame, has an image that all candidates would envy: high visibility and a pristine reputation grounded in his setting the all-time record for consecutive games played.

"He's had tons of candidates inquire about endorsing them," Maroon said, adding that the list includes presidential hopefuls. "He's made it a practice to steer clear of that sort of thing. He considers his political point of view to be somewhat private, and he views himself as a baseball player and one who shouldn't be swaying votes one way or the other."

As has been his practice, Ripken did not contribute to candidates in the high- profile Senate and gubernatorial races of 2006, campaign records show.

Ripken knows Bush dating to his days as owner of the Texas Rangers. From 2001 to 2004, Ripken made appearances as commissioner of the president's T-ball program for kids on the White House lawn.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said Ripken probably feels comfortable with Bush because he senses that the president "is a baseball man."

"But I don't think Cal Ripken has any political bones in his body," Whalen said.

Maroon said Ripken knew that people would try to gauge his politics, particularly now that he's working with the State Department.

"We knew going into this that there was that association, just like it would be if it were President Clinton. It comes with the territory," Maroon said. He said Ripken knows Bill Clinton, who attended games at Camden Yards while Ripken was playing.

Even for Ripken, the past two weeks have been noteworthy.

"Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago and now this honor bestowed upon me by the State Department - that's a pretty good little run, pretty good little streak," Ripken said.

Hughes said the State Department reached out to Ripken in 2002, after his playing career. Ripken said he was interested then but the timing wasn't right. It is now.

"At this point in his life, he feels, with the foundation set up and the youth baseball program established, that it's a good point for him to be able to go out and represent us," Hughes said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com