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Iron envoy takes the field in China

Diplomacy, apparently, has no dress code.

Cal Ripken Jr., Hall of Fame baseball player turned American emissary, spent the first half of his first full day as a Department of State special envoy yesterday dressed in a sharp business suit. He shook hands, met with the American Chamber of Commerce, Olympic baseball organizers and officials with the Chinese Baseball Association.

By afternoon, though, Ripken was wearing athletic gear when he introduced himself to 150 Chinese children at Xidan Elementary School in the city's fledging financial district.

"Hello, my name is Cal Ripken and I used to be a professional baseball player," he told the students, with the aid of an interpreter. The students, most wearing Ripken Baseball T-shirts with Ripken's No. 8 printed on the back, had been briefed on the ballplayer's storied career. But they were a bit tentative as Ripken began a baseball instruction exercise. As was Ripken.

"It seemed like at first I was trying to warm up to them and they were trying to warm up to me," Ripken said. "But then after a while, it just seemed to flow very well."

It was the first of 11 baseball clinics that Ripken will stage in three Chinese cities. The makeshift ball fields were outlined with orange cones on artificial turf behind the school, and the tall apartments and banks rising on all sides created the air of an outdoor urban fortress.

Any language barrier was barely noticeable as Ripken and his fellow coaches relied on a few universals - "Ohhhs" and "Ahhs" and plenty of laughs and teasing. As formal as Ripken was in a business suit, he blended right in on the schoolyard ball field. And the school-age players, many of whom had never swung a baseball bat, ran and screamed their way through Quickball, an abbreviated version of baseball that features a soft foam ball, pitching and hitting, but little else.

"Kids are kids. And kids enjoy swinging the bat and enjoy having an activity that goes fast," Ripken said. "And that's why we like Quickball. Many of the same things we did today - even trying to communicate by throwing the ball at them a little bit, getting them to laugh, to loosen up - that works whether it's the inner city, whether it's in the country of the United States or [like] today."

Earlier, Ripken visited the Wukesong Olympic fields, which will be the site of the Summer Games' baseball events in August. The fields were built by Murray Cook, the Baltimore-based Major League Baseball consultant, who was on hand yesterday to assist Olympic officials with a tour.

"It was a field that felt like baseball," Ripken said. "A good environment for it. ... I really had an urge to go out there, hit some ground balls, see if I could still hit the ball over the fence. I haven't had that urge in a while, so I was very impressed with the venue."

Ripken's meetings with the Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese Baseball Association were introductory. There was no formal business to be done or agreements to be made, though Ripken expressed interest in having a Chinese youth team participate in the Cal Ripken World Series, held each August in Aberdeen. Ripken's former Orioles teammate B.J. Surhoff and Chris Flannery, chief operating officer for Ripken Baseball, attended the meetings.

Despite the busy schedule, the day's highlight was clearly the Quickball clinic at the school. While many Chinese children have little or no familiarity with baseball, the students at Xidan have at least a physical education, said Lei Chang, who teaches the sport's basics.

Lei was one of 12 Chinese coaches who took part in a four-week clinic by Ripken Baseball in the summer. He wore a New York Yankees jacket early yesterday afternoon but when told that the Yankees are a bitter rival of Ripken's former team, he immediately changed before Ripken arrived, careful not offend his invited guest.

Li Wei, wearing a Washington Nationals jacket as he helped Ripken's crew, is another Chinese coach who learned in Maryland. The enthusiasm he saw from the children yesterday gives Li hope that they'll want to pick up a bat again soon.

"The market is totally different here," Li said. "It's more commercialized in the U.S., but it's still not very popular in China. What we can do is give the kids hope. Someday, hopefully, they can play in the U.S., be like Yao Ming and basketball."

The turf's all-purpose field was hardly ideal for baseball. Near one end stood a basketball hoop. At the other, three table-tennis tables lined the perimeter. Ripken spent much of the afternoon clowning with the kids - chasing the students, throwing the foam balls at them as they ran for cover and impressing them with a deep blast that might've cleared the Great Wall.

His ball cap spun backward, Ripken prepared to pitch to a young student in the area near the pingpong tables. He held five balls in his hand and silently mouthed the numbers as he counted - "1-2-3-4-5." The player at the plate smiled and eagerly nodded his head as Ripken pitched all five balls at once. A mighty swing sent at least two drives right back toward Ripken, who spun around for cover and drew screams of laughter from the group.

When the games were finished, Ripken returned to the microphone and accepted a gift - six colorful drawings of Ripken playing baseball.

"This one here reminds me of when I had hair," he said, rubbing his head. A translator relayed the joke and the students laughed.

"I would like to thank you for letting me play with you guys," Ripken said. "Even though I'm grown up now, I still feel like a kid in my heart."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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