Cal Ripken Jr. has developed a lucrative, baseball-centered career that includes stints as a television analyst, co-owner of a minor league team and a long list of other business interests since retiring from the Baltimore Orioles in 2002. But when he boards a plane at Washington Dulles International Airport today for his latest venture, he'll be carrying a batch of newly printed business cards.

On one side of the small card his name appears in English, and on the back is a series of Chinese characters - an important tool for the newly appointed special envoy for the U.S. Department of State.

In his first assignment for the government, Ripken is headed on a 10-day tour through China, teaching baseball to Chinese youth and coaches. But the real mission of his appointment, State Department officials say, is much bigger: portraying a positive image of America to all corners of the globe.

"We use baseball to get in front of the kids, communicate with them and have an exchange about principles and values in life," said Ripken, whose trip includes stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. "Sport has the ability to open doors sometimes where other means might not."

Though the trip will give Ripken his first look at China, it's hardly the first time the United States has leaned on the sports world to cultivate its important and sometimes tenuous relationship with that country.

Sport helped bring China and the United States to the same table after a decades-long stalemate. From 1949 to 1971, Americans were prohibited from setting foot in China. At the time, it was improbable that sport might bridge that gap because during Mao's Cultural Revolution, spurred by the Communist Party of China's Chairman Mao Zedong, many athletic pursuits were expunged, along with a wide range of thoughts and practices deemed too liberal by the Communist regime.

But not table tennis, a fringe sport in America that is credited with helping to thaw relations between the countries.

Tim Boggan was a part of the historic "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" mission 36 years ago. The U.S. team was competing in Japan when an invitation was extended to visit the People's Republic of China.

In 1971, Boggan was 40 years old and slowly moving past his career as a top-ranked player. As vice president of the U.S. Table Tennis Association and editor of its monthly magazine, he was with the 15 American players who crossed the bridge from Hong Kong to the mainland.

"It was completely different from anything we'd ever seen," said Boggan, the association's official historian. "We came in, and we were greeted by a guard and we walked down railroad tracks to Mendelssohn music blaring. We got on the train and we finally came into Canton [Guangzhou].

"We were walking up some steps and we entered a cordoned room of well-wishers. They were all clapping, but there was just nothing in their faces. They looked like aliens to us, and we must've looked like aliens to them."

The American contingent was an eclectic, diverse bunch. The top men's player, Glenn Cowan, had long hair and a free spirit. Fifteen-year-old Judy Bochenski-Hoarfrost toured the country wearing miniskirts. Olga Soltesz, 17, found herself in tears when she couldn't find a hamburger.

The group played exhibition matches, took in the ballet and introduced a new generation of Chinese to America. Time magazine called the trip "the ping heard round the world," and Premier Chou En-lai received the Americans at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, declaring "a new page in the relations between the Chinese and American people." Sure enough, former national security adviser Henry Kissinger was in China two months later and within a year, President Richard Nixon made his historic visit.

Today, the U.S. government is still relying on sport as a conduit for foreign relations.

Appointed in August by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ripken is just the second special envoy for the State Department. His volunteer role is the brainchild of Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, and is part of a much larger public relations initiative aimed at improving the United States' image abroad.

Hughes says diplomacy is a priority with the Bush administration, and the fledging special envoy program is considered a benchmark for these efforts. "This sends an important signal to people that America is reaching out, and we want to engage with people across the world," said Hughes, who said she hopes to expand the program with more athletes, as well as entertainers.

Last year, she appointed her first special envoy, Olympic figure skater and five-time world champion Michelle Kwan. As with Ripken, Kwan's first assignment was a trip to China, which she made in January. And like Ripken's, her itinerary was built around meeting young people.

"Young people are sometimes more open-minded in their opinions," said Hughes. "Maybe they haven't formed their opinions about the rest of the world. All of our embassies, I asked who are the target audiences you want to engage, and they all came back and said young people."

In many ways, Kwan was a natural for the post; she's 27 years old, a Chinese-American and studying political science and international relations at the University of Denver. In visits to China and later Russia, she said sport was only an entry point. Asked to assess the success of her missions, she said that meeting with young people is like planting seeds.

"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