Sports Outside the Beltway

Ambassador Cal Ripken

The State Department announced yesterday that Cal Ripken would become an unofficial ambassador for the United States.

Baseball Hall of Fame player Cal Ripken Jr. is taking his talents teaching kids the fundamentals of the sport to a higher level as a new U.S. State Department public diplomacy sports envoy.

Ripken’s first assignment will be visiting China October 28-November 6 to train Chinese youngsters in the Asian country’s budding baseball program.

Ripken, a shortstop and third baseman in his 21-year career with the Baltimore Orioles, said August 13 at the State Department that he plans to use his new position to bridge the gap between people of different languages and cultures.

Ripken will be the second “sports envoy” the first was figure skater, Michelle Kwan.

The first State Department public diplomacy sports envoy, figure skating star Michelle Kwan, recently returned from Russia on behalf of the United States, where her “message of working hard and dreaming big resonated with young people” in that country, said Hughes.

The Baltimore Sun has a little more on the program.

Cal Ripken Jr., who usually avoids the political arena, was named a State Department sports envoy yesterday. He plans to remain politically neutral even as he joins forces with the Bush administration to try to bolster America’s image overseas.

The former Orioles superstar said yesterday that he didn’t accept the unpaid post to make a political statement but rather to work with children from other nations on baseball.

He’s part of an effort, largely orchestrated by longtime Bush confidant Karen Hughes, to expand the role of athletes in diplomacy. The effort has included sending American wrestlers to Iran and naming figure skater Michelle Kwan as an envoy in 2006 and dispatching her to Russia and China.

The position is unpaid though the State Department will pay for Ripken’s travel.

The Sun brings up an additional quesiton, that isn’t particularly fair.

The Hall of Famer’s appearance with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others from the Bush administration raised the question: Can a sports celebrity enter a political world and still be apolitical?

To Ripken and spokesman John Maroon, the answer is yes. But not everyone is so sure. In Washington, it is hard to pose for pictures with Rice and Hughes – as a smiling Ripken did after delivering brief remarks yesterday – without political meaning being attached to the gesture.

“If I’m someone who is looking at those pictures, I am going to think Cal Ripken supports President Bush,” said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a government watchdog group. “Ripken is obviously an incredibly popular baseball player and President Bush is unpopular, and you could ask the question: ‘Is he trying to boost his popularity?’”

It isn’t really a question now. If a Democrat is elected next year and Ripken immediately steps down, that would be a political statement. But nothing Ripken’s done or said suggests that there’s any political agenda here.

I’m not convinced that this program will work, however I have little doubt that if the State Department of President Kerry had initiated a similar program, that Ripken would have accepted a similar role. It’s all hypothetical now, of course, but the question is a little too cynical.

More at USA Today and ESPN.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.

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