For the past year, most of Cal Ripken Jr.'s activities were plotted on a calendar months ahead of time. The two books he released in 2007 were planned and written months earlier. He was hardly a long shot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and all of the activities that led up to his July induction kept him plenty busy. And the diplomacy mission he completed last week on behalf of the U.S. State Department had been in the works for a long time.
When Ripken returned home from China on Tuesday night, he found the next few weeks in his datebook pleasantly barren. Finally, a chance to catch his breath, a chance to reflect as much as plan.
Since he retired from baseball, his to-do list has grown by the day. But much of 2007 revolved around his anointment in Cooperstown. Now, with the Hall of Fame after-party finally winding down, even he isn't exactly sure what's next.
"But as a result of some of the recent things, there's going to be new opportunities," Ripken says. "Don't know what they are yet. But experience tells me there will be new things - looking at new minor league teams, new complexes for kids, design elements - that's a normal part of our business. And an opportunity like [serving the State Department] always creates another opportunity. Don't know what the next one is, but I'm sure it's out there."
I was in Beijing for much of Ripken's China tour, in which the former Oriole taught baseball to Chinese coaches and kids and also met with leaders from the sports, government and business worlds. From back in Baltimore, many of the correspondences I received followed a general theme: Hey Cal, nice of you to promote baseball in China - but what about baseball back here in Baltimore?
Swooping in and saving the Orioles isn't penciled into 2008's itinerary, but Ripken hasn't veered from his long-range plans. While his efforts right now are still focused on growing the sport at the grass-roots level, the more time passes, the closer we get to seeing his inevitable return to Major League Baseball in some fashion - either pulling the strings for a team or perhaps owning the whole ball of yarn.
"I think in my own timetable, my own thinking, I really value a flexible schedule and a schedule I can control," he says. "I have the choice to block off sections of time - OK, I'm going to be here for Rachel's recitals, or I'm going to be at home for this or that. And I love that part.
"My kids are getting older. Rachel is looking at [colleges] right now, Ryan is getting into his day-to-day athletics. At 14 or 15, they don't seem to need dad and mom so much. It's important to be there. As soon as they're more out on their own and more independent - which won't be long - that opens up more things to consider and certainly Major League Baseball is one of those things."
Ripken, always careful and thoughtful with his words, has said similar things in the past. Watching him play, teach and tease children on Beijing ball fields, you can just see how much he enjoys working with kids. But it's also painfully obvious that Ripken is destined to be much more than a glorified Little League coach or clinic instructor.
No one wants to put a countdown clock on the seconds until his children graduate from high school, but it will certainly be interesting to see what the baseball landscape looks like in a few years.
For now, Ripken Baseball - the umbrella company that oversees all things Ripken - will stay the course. The focus right now is still on growing the sport from the bottom, not ruling it from the top.
Everyone involved with his first diplomacy mission - from the State Department to Ripken himself - hailed the 10-day tour through China as a success. In meeting with Chinese baseball officials, Ripken planted the seeds to have a Chinese youth team possibly compete at next year's Cal Ripken World Series in Aberdeen.
And so impressed with Ripken's efforts in China, government officials are looking forward to deploying him again. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appointed Ripken as a special diplomat in August, U.S. embassies all over the globe began calling her office, eager to host Ripken.
Ripken and his representatives will talk with State Department officials and begin planning his next trip, possibly to India early next year.
But that meeting won't take place for a few more weeks still. For now, he's content knowing there will be plenty of opportunities on the horizon. He'll deal with the specifics later.