Sixteen Japanese youngsters left the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy in Aberdeen Wednesday laden with gifts from their host, Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.
As a U.S. State Department Public Diplomacy Envoy since 2007, Ripken has traveled to China and Nicaragua on goodwill missions. In November, he will make a similar trip to Japan.
This summer, Ripken is participating in an international exchange program in a partnership with Cal Ripken World Series, the Little League World Series, Ripken Baseball and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs' SportsUnited Office, according to the Ripken Baseball website. The 2011 Cal Ripken World Series for 12-year-olds is being played this week at Ripken's academy in Aberdeen.
The 16 Japanese youngsters, who are survivors of the recent tsunami and earthquake, visited Ripken in Aberdeen Wednesday as part of the exchange program.
The eight boys and eight girls, ages 14 through 17, as well as their coaches, gathered in a hotel room by Cal Sr.'s Yard, one of the replica ballparks in the complex, as Ripken presented each with a book bag, several of which included baseball bats.
As each student stepped up, they also had their pictures taken with the Hall of Famer.
Chance to travel, help others
For Ripken, participating in programs such as these gives him an opportunity to help others, he explained.
"Once you retire, you're still a relatively young person," he said, "and you want to have an impact and you want to help other people fulfill their dreams."
As a shortstop and third basemen for The Orioles for 21 years, Ripken said he fulfilled his own dreams and "didn't have to grow up" while doing so.
With the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy especially, Ripken said the spirit was all about his dad, Cal Ripken Sr., who died in 1999 from lung cancer. The elder Ripken was a longtime coach with the Orioles and managed the team in the late 1980s.
"He was a teacher and a developer of people in this sport," Cal Ripken Jr. said of his dad, "and certainly some of the choices I made here had him in mind."
Becoming a State Department envoy has allowed Ripken to travel to different countries and use his baseball expertise to connect with people around the world.
While Ripken said he is able to go to different places, each visit has a "similar message."
"We're using baseball just to say 'hi,'" he said. "We're using baseball to make friends."
With Japan, he said, there is already a good relationship and the exchange program is about "humanity."
"I think because Japan loves their baseball so much and we love our baseball so much, my hope is that we connect in some ways," Ripken said, "and maybe put a smile on your face, maybe give you a chance to escape a moment and maybe distract a little bit."
For Ripken, baseball and sports in general can have "healing properties," he said, as well as letting the Japanese nation and the survivors of its natural disaster, like those who were in Aberdeen Wednesday, know that "we care."
Bringing the students to the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy in his hometown was important to him, Ripken said.
"In Aberdeen, I mean, I can't be more proud of where we are," he said.
With the annual Cal Ripken World Series going on, he said, teams from around the world are being exposed to the baseball complex and also have a chance to gain a cultural experience.
"So, I'm always proud to do this," he added.
League of Dreams
Ripken isn't the only member of his family using baseball to make friends. His children, Rachel and Ryan Ripken, have spearheaded a project, League of Dreams, which, too, was a part of Wednesday's activities in Aberdeen.
Through youth and adult leagues, as well as volunteer and school programs, League of Dreams brings baseball and softball opportunities to children with disabilities.
What started as a community project for Rachel and Ryan Ripken at their respective schools, according to Tim Richardson of Maroon Public Relations, has now become a part of the Cal Ripken World Series.
Cal Ripken took part in Wednesday's ceremony in which Justin Jaquis, 11; Daniel Marano, 16; and Olivia Calvert, 6, served as honorary captains for the teams playing in one of the day's World Series games.
League of Dreams players will get to play a game at the academy this Friday at 5 p.m.
Following the honorary captains' introductions, Cal Ripken headed to the Yankee Stadium field to join Ripken Baseball staff in conducting a clinic for the Japanese visitors.
Programs like the international exchange program and others associated with his public position are helping Ripken realize his goal of growing baseball worldwide the "Ripken Way."
"In some ways when we started the company, we said we wanted to grow baseball worldwide the Ripken Way, almost in tribute to dad," he said, "and it's kind of ironic that we have the opportunity to make these world trips and it's baseball that actually catapults us in doing that."
"We feel like we have a little momentum and we're doing some good stuff. [It's a] long way to go," he said.