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Ripken to visit South Africa in envoy role

He will travel to country next spring to continue sharing baseball with world's youth

By Dan Connolly

Sun reporter

July 9, 2008

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Cal Ripken Jr.'s personal mission to teach baseball to children around the world will continue next spring, when the Hall of Fame Oriole and other Ripken Baseball representatives visit South Africa.

It will be the second time in about 18 months that Ripken will represent the U.S. and baseball in another country.

The U.S. State Department and Ripken, who was named an American public diplomacy envoy by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007, are expected to make the official announcement today.

"I've had a lot of people tell me it is a great place to go," Ripken said in a telephone interview with The Sun. "I'm excited about the opportunity to go down there. There already is some baseball down there, and we'll be able to share what we know."

In October, Ripken, former Oriole B.J. Surhoff and other Ripken Baseball staff members worked with coaches and children in three Chinese cities - Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It's something Ripken said he will not forget.

"You are going over to represent the state and to spread goodwill," he said. "It's an open-minded, nonagenda trip where you share your experiences and your joy of baseball. And sometimes that common interest will break down any sort of barriers you may have. It is easy to trust sports."

After the China experience, other countries contacted the State Department with requests to meet with Ripken, who was the second American athlete (figure skater Michelle Kwan was first) to be named a special envoy. Continuing the goodwill tour once a year or so intrigues Ripken.

"Absolutely," he said. "The more you do it, the more you want to do it."

The specific itinerary for Ripken's trip has not been solidified, but it will happen next spring and include visits to multiple South African cities. As part of the baseball exchange, 11 South African youth coaches - seven men and four women - will travel to the U.S. next week and spend 2 1/2 weeks at Ripken Baseball headquarters in Aberdeen.

Ripken, his brother Bill and other staff members will instruct the South Africans on basic Ripken Baseball coaching philosophies. Once in South Africa, Ripken will be grouped with the same coaches who visited Aberdeen.

"We'll have a chance to work with them and share ideas, and that makes it a whole lot easier when they invite you into their country," he said.

When Ripken was introduced as an envoy, Karen Hughes, then-undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said of the program, "This sends an important signal to people that America is reaching out, and we want to engage with people across the world."

South Africa, a country of 48million people, has not produced a majorleague baseball player. However, its team in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 nearly pulled off a major upset before losing to Canada, 11-8, in its first game.

Ripken said he knows little about the country, and that's fine with him. He compares it with his pursuit of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record. He said he didn't know a lot about the New York Yankees great until he neared the record and was flooded with Gehrig stories.

"I could go in and have learned a lot about South Africa or I could go in with an open mind and take it in from the beginning. I think I like the second one," he said. "I guess that's my personality. I'm not spontaneous in many ways, but I do like having new experiences, and that happens when you go to new places."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com