Ripken leads exchange with Japanese youth affected by earthquake, tsunami

Baseball players often say the best approach is to keep it simple. See the ball, hit the ball.

WASHINGTON — Baseball players often say the best approach is to keep it simple. See the ball, hit the ball.

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. has the same philosophy in mind for a sports exchange with Japanese children affected by this year’s earthquake and tsunami.

“Maybe the value of sport is to bring people together. Sometimes the escape that sports can provide. Sometimes the distraction of what it can provide,” he told The Associated Press in an interview at the State Department on Tuesday.

Sixteen teenagers and four coaches from Japan are participating in a two-week exchange in the U.S., starting with a meeting with Ripken and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday.

Other highlights of the trip include a clinic at Ripken’s baseball academy, a clinic at Camden Yards where the group will also watch a Baltimore Orioles game and an appearance at the Little League World Series, where one of teens will throw out the first pitch for Japan’s game Aug. 18.

Then in November, Ripken plans to travel to Japan to meet with youth affected by the earthquake and tsunami. It will be Ripken’s third trip as a State Department public diplomacy envoy, following visits to China in 2007 and Nicaragua in 2008.

“I wasn’t sure what I was getting into,” he recalled. “But I always believed that sports was a universal language, and it does bring people together, and I was glad to play that role.”

In China, Ripken said playing with the children helped him connect with them, despite the language barrier.

“Many people in China thought a person of my status would have somebody else actually do the work,” said Ripken, who played in a major league-record 2,632 consecutive games.

“But the real joy is in getting down on your knees and flipping a ball to a kid.

“Getting them to smile and like it.”

The Japanese delegation includes eight boys and eight girls, aged 13-17, along with two male and two female coaches. Two of the boys lost their fathers in the disaster, one boy had his home washed away, and five kids were students of an American teacher who perished.

Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs, said in a separate interview that Ripken was a natural choice to lead the effort.

“He’s the ultimate team player,” said Stock, who oversees the sports diplomacy office known as SportsUnited.

“His leadership skills are known worldwide. He’s a hero to young people. He knows how to build teams. He knows how to be part of a team. It’s taking those skills you learn on a baseball field and putting them in to real life.”

“Think about what sports can do for a country,” Stock added, citing Japan’s winning the women’s World Cup last month.

“That united Japan, and they needed that boost, from everything that they suffered.”

The U.S. has used sports diplomacy for decades, most famously in the “ping pong diplomacy” with China in the early 1970s that thawed relations and helped pave the way for a historic visit by former American President Richard Nixon.

Ripken said his work as an envoy gives him a sense of purpose beyond baseball. The job is an unpaid position for which the government pays only travel expenses.

“You have a baseball career, and you get to be a kid, and live out a dream,” he said. “Because I had success, and because I was able to do things, I like to spread that.

“This is a challenge for me, because it takes you out of what you did in this country. And you’re communicating the same message in different cultures.”