Thinking backon his efforts as an ambassador of baseball, Cal Ripken Jr. recalled howthe teens he worked with in Nicaragua were so excited it was impossible to corral them into groups, while the kids in China were so reserved it was hard to get them out on their own.
But one of the things both sets of young players shared, he said Tuesday, was a love of the game.
That's part of the reason why the Hall of Fame shortstop isn't intimidated by his latest diplomatic assignment from the U.S. Department of State: Hosting 16 teenagers from Japan who were profoundly affected by the earthquake and tsunami in March. Though cultural differences crop up, Ripken said he's never had any trouble getting his message across.
"It's sort of a universal language of fun. Barriers seem to come down. It's just people being with people," Ripken, who was named a sports envoy for the State Department in 2007, told The Baltimore Sun. "It can serve as a distraction. It can serve as an escape. I know that I've used it that way professionally in a couple of tough scenarios."
The students — eight boys and eight girls, from 14 to 17 years old — arrived on Monday and will remain through Aug. 23. They are scheduled to participate in baseball clinics, including at the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy in Aberdeen, see the Orioles play the Chicago White Sox atCamden Yards and attend the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
In November, Ripken will travel to Japan to see some of the students in their hometowns.
The students and four of their coaches, wearing matching white t-shirts, filed into the ornate Treaty Room at the State Department on Tuesday afternoon to meet Ripken and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. State Department officials said several of the teens, who were selected by schools in Japan, lost relatives in the March disaster.
"We love Japan for many reasons, but one of them is because they love baseball," Clinton said as her words were translated for the teens. "The Japanese people have shown great resilience and they are fully together to support each other during this time. And sports is a way to bring people together."
As she walked out of the room, Clinton turned to offer a final comment that needed no translation: "Play ball."
Ripken's latest diplomatic undertaking, which follows similar exchanges with Chinese students in 2007 and Nicaraguans in 2008, is part of a broader government effort to bridge cultural divides through sport and burnish the nation's image abroad.
Ripken also hosted teenagers and coaches from Iraq last year.
Along with figure skater Michelle Kwan and Ken Griffey Jr., Ripken is one of three sports envoys in a program established by President George W. Bush and continued under PresidentBarack Obama. The positions are unpaid.
"Most of our traditional diplomacy is done government-to-government," Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said in an interview. "You're looking at kids who are engaging and opening up dialogues that might not otherwise happen."
Ripken said Japan's rich history with baseball will make it easier to connect with the teenagers.
"Relating through baseball is going to come easy and it's going to be something that's received really well. At the same time, you can't put out of your mind what happened in Japan," he said. "Sports has a magical way to heal and I couldn't speak intelligently on why that is, but I know it exists."
Reporters were not permitted to interview the students Tuesday.
Ripken played games in Japan in 1984, 1986 and 1996. Though he didn't have much time during those trips to tour the country, he said he is more familiar with the culture than other places he has visited with the program.
He nevertheless expects the department will offer some cultural training, as it has in the past, to minimize the potential for faux pas.
Asked how well he handles chopsticks, Ripken quipped: "I don't have any problem eating, with any kind of tools."
He said he does not have plans to meet with Sachio Kinugasa, the professional Japanese baseball player whose world-record consecutive-games streak Ripken beat in 1996.
Sport has been a powerful diplomatic tool for decades — most notably in 1971, when the U.S. table tennis team became the first sports delegation to visit Beijing since 1949. The trip helped to thaw relations between the United States and China, leading to a visit by President Richard Nixon and adding "ping pong diplomacy" to the lexicon.
More recently, the leaders of India and Pakistan gained worldwide attention when they side-by-side at the Cricket World Cup semifinal game between their national teams in April. Tensions on the Indian subcontinent remain high in the wake of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
The Japanese spirit, still reeling from the earthquake and tsunami, was lifted last month when the country's women's soccer team beat the U.S. to win the World Cup in Germany.
Sports exchanges, experts say, capitalize on that good will.
The programs "allow people from America to talk to people from Japan or Iraq about things that relate to their real-life experience," said Donald W. Mitchell, director of the Indiana Center for Cultural Exchange at Purdue University, which has led sports delegations to Kurdistan, Algeria and other predominately Muslim countries.
"It has a healing effect," Mitchell said.
Ripken dismissed speculative questions about whether his endeavors abroad and his philanthropic work in the U.S. put him in a strong position to take a more active role in politics. As he has in the past, he said has never considered seriously running for office — any office.
"I'm a baseball player. I love the fact that baseball's allowed me to do some wonderful things and create some opportunities," he said. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm saying 'yes' to too many things. But still, it's pretty fulfilling.
"I believe in it," he said. "And I've had a chance to witness the value in it."