BEIJING—At Cal Ripken Jr.’s first press event in China, the press couldn’t go. Minutes before Ripken, the United States’ special envoy for public diplomacy, left the St. Regis Hotel for a tour of the 2008 Olympic baseball fields at Wukesong on Oct. 30, a State Department staffer intercepted me in the lobby. “Who are you with?” she asked, by way of introduction: the international flacking question of doom.
Only the small group of media who’d been on the plane with Ripken could go to the baseball fields, and they were keeping their cameras tucked away till they got inside. The Chinese had asked for a promise of no bad publicity, word in the lobby had it, and when the Unites States Embassy demurred—free press, and so on—the baseball fields were off limits.
So: bad publicity. Who was behind the latest breach of China’s Olympic pledge of openness to reporters? The Beijing Olympic committee’s media center referred me to the people in charge of the Wukesong fields. The embassy, despite having complied with the press ban, said it had “no information to give” about where it had come from, then suggested I call Wukesong as well. The Wukesong press officer said he was working on an answer.
The special envoy could be found later in the day behind Xidan Elementary School, leading 150 students through a small-field version of baseball called “quickball.” Ripken is the most mythical, and self-consciously mythical, baseball star since Joe DiMaggio, and in his post-playing-career he has outdone even DiMaggio’s consistency—he is not Mister Coffee, but Mr. Baseball. His Ripken Baseball Group encompasses, among other things, two minor-league pro teams, a ballpark-design consultancy, coaching clinics and the Cal Ripken World Series, a rival to the Little League version.
The appointment to the Bush administration’s public-diplomacy program, led by Under Secretary Karen Hughes, seemed less a distinction bestowed on the retired ballplayer than one bestowed by him: the scrupulously neutral icon lending his good name (and baseball’s) to the country. The August press conference announcing the job, according to the official State Department transcript, ended with Ripken being asked to autograph a baseball for a child:
MR. RIPKEN: I’ve never signed an autograph before. [laughter] [Ripken autographs baseball.] You’re being used, you know.
UNDER SECRETARY HUGHES: That’s great.
QUESTION: Is that bad?
MR. RIPKEN: No, it’s all for the good. Is that O.K., or do you want your name on it?
Quickball is promoted by Ripken Baseball as an easy way to get kids playing. The rules at Xidan were minimal: one team batting, one team fielding en masse, and a neutral party pitching foam baseballs as quickly as batters could scurry up to the plate. There were three games going at once in the schoolyard, in various directions, on a hard and aging fake-grass carpet. Tall buildings overshadowed it all.
The schedule, mistakenly, had billed this as the school’s first encounter with baseball. Most of the students had put on T-shirts with Ripken’s name and number eight on the back, but mixed in were players from the Xidan team, wearing black caps with an interlocking XD, and white uniforms with black pinstripes, like the Chicago White Sox.
The pitchers were Ripken, his former teammate B.J. Surhoff, and Major League Baseball’s director of operations in Asia, Rick Dell, who moved to Beijing in September to try to deepen China’s engagement with the American Pastime. (The Chinese national team is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, where it is getting drubbed.)
Watching Ripken through the years has meant focusing on two separate figures at once—the everyman hero-legend at the home-plate microphone, and the athletic prodigy somewhere behind him, at shortstop, chasing ground balls. Now he pitched from his knees, keeping his retirement-thickened big frame down at child height, moving nimbly. The paragon of the work ethic was a class clown set loose on recess, making hubbub: He flopped to his belly, chucked spare balls at the players on deck and in the field, flinched from line drives in mock alarm. The little kids hit ten-hoppers; the uniformed boys swung from the heels. Balls bounced off the school building, sailed over the fence (chain-link, at least 20 feet high and twined with autumn-red ivy) and caromed in the far corners, among the built-in outdoor ping-pong tables.