"I think of public diplomacy sort of like my Olympic dreams," she said. "You start having the dream when you're 5 years old, but it takes years and years of hard work to actually achieve.

"That's how I view public diplomacy - changing the conceptions day by day, encouraging them to read more, to talk with different people, to seek out all these things."

Neither Kwan nor Ripken seems to harbor grand illusions about the impact of such brief visits. Kwan's advice to Ripken: "It's not all about wowing 50,000 people in a ballpark or something. Cal will be there to speak with a hundred kids at a time, and it's just a chance to give them a better understanding of the U.S. It's spreading the word because there are misconceptions out there."

Ripken's appointment sparked some criticism from Common Cause officials, who said it could be seen as an endorsement of Bush administration policies. But Ripken, who has avoided endorsing politicians, says his work as a special envoy should not be viewed in a political light.

Though Ripken visited Japan three times as a player and this summer Ripken Baseball hosted a dozen Chinese coaches in Aberdeen, the trip will be his first to China. It also will be the first time many Chinese children have seen a bat and ball.

Ripken's family will also make the trip, along with a documentary crew. During the next 1 1/2 weeks, Ripken has meetings scheduled with Chinese baseball officials and U.S. Ambassador Clark T. Randt Jr., but much of his government-sponsored visit will take place on the baseball diamond.

With the assistance of former Oriole B.J. Surhoff, he'll conduct skills clinics similar to those Ripken Baseball holds in Aberdeen. The clinics will include hundreds of children and coaches with little familiarity with baseball. While a sport like table tennis is a point of passion for the Chinese, baseball is still relatively obscure.

"Dad always had the best glow about him when he had someone who was a blank sheet of paper, someone who had no idea what the sport was and he could open up a new world to them," said Ripken, whose father managed the Orioles when both he and his brother, Billy, played for the team. "So Billy and I certainly share in that.

"We do care about baseball; we think it's magical in many ways. It has this amazing ability to connect people of all backgrounds."

rick.maese@baltsun.com