He's at the Wall

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Cal Ripken Jr. has been to Yankee Stadium, built in 1923, renovated in 1976.

And he has been to Fenway Park, built in 1912, renovated in 1934.

Those antique structures had nothing, though, on yesterday's visit with architectural history - the Great Wall of China, built in the sixth century, renovated in 1386.

"It was amazing," Ripken said at the end of the only sightseeing stop slotted into his busy, 10-day China itinerary. Before leaving Beijing last night, Ripken and his traveling party toured the Great Wall at Mutianyu, about 45 miles northeast of the city.

Ripken's State Department-sponsored special envoy mission continues today in Shanghai, despite an unexpected wrinkle. As Ripken conducted an interview at the St. Regis Hotel yesterday morning, news of Karen Hughes' resignation scrolled across the bottom of a nearby television screen. Hughes is the State Department's undersecretary for diplomacy, and she's leaving her post at the end of the year. The envoy program that shipped Ripken to China for his initial diplomacy assignment falls under her authority.

With a little more than a year remaining in President Bush's second term, department officials said they didn't expect Hughes' departure to have a negative effect on the program. Last week, Hughes hailed the special envoy program, which formally began last year with the appointment of figure skater Michelle Kwan. Hughes had said funding is already secured and additional diplomacy trips and additional special envoys are in the works.

After a Wednesday during which Ripken conducted three baseball clinics, he had a chance to catch his breath yesterday. He visited the Great Wall after a round of interviews with Chinese and American media. But after landing in Shanghai late last night, he had another busy day scheduled for today - meetings with American Chamber of Commerce and Chinese Baseball Association officials and two more clinics. With four clinics already complete, some of the uncertainty that has marked each stop of his tour has lifted.

"I would imagine now we have a mini-model under our belt. Beijing is down, and we'll apply this in Shanghai and Guangzhou and just get better as we go," he said.

Ripken conducted two Quickball clinics - a truncated version of the game intended to introduce newcomers to the sport - and one skills clinic for young baseball players. Unlike most of the kids Ripken will come across on his China tour, the ballplayers Wednesday at Da Cheng School were already familiar with the sport and eager to improve. Ripken said they nailed the drills and most resembled players you might find on an instructional DVD. They were so good, in fact, Ripken said he's hopeful a group of Chinese players might be able to participate in the annual Cal Ripken World Series in Aberdeen.

"As for the Quickball, I didn't really have a real expectation other than it was going to be a little chaotic," Ripken said. "And that's been the case. Quickball demonstrations have been pretty much the most predictable because kids are kids. Put them out there and it's organized chaos. It's a safer way to learn baseball. I knew it would happen that way."

He said it was a session with aspiring coaches Wednesday at the Olympic softball fields, though, that particularly stuck out.

"The coaches clinic was different. ... The coaches were standoffish a little bit," he said. "Not standoffish in a bad way. They didn't have the confidence. When I asked for volunteers, they sent their best guys up there. I wanted to see more of a cooperative effort, them really embracing it as a learning exercise."

For Ripken and his entourage - which included his wife, Kelly, his father-in-law, Bob Geer, officials and coaches from Ripken Baseball, former Oriole B.J. Surhoff, state department officials and a four-man documentary crew from Renegade Productions - yesterday afternoon provided a much-needed break. Before returning to the United States on Tuesday, Ripken has seven more baseball clinics scheduled in Shanghai, Wuxi and Guangzhou.

Although he says the Great Wall visit offered a change to "recharge my batteries," his primary mission in China is to promote diplomacy and introduce baseball to a nation that prefers badminton and table tennis. "We're here to work and make the most of our time. I value that a little bit more than sightseeing," he said. "I'd have to come back maybe for a sightseeing tour."

Still, the serene sight of the Great Wall at Mutianyu, an expansive 56-mile stretch of stone wall and watchtowers, cutting through the trees and greenery of the Jundu Mountains, was a stark contrast from the noise and bustle of Beijing, a rapidly growing city cast under an umbrella of smog not too far away. (The entire wall, more a connected network than one structure, is estimated to be at least 1,500 miles long.)

After walking atop the wall and posing for several photographs, Ripken and most of his group rode makeshift toboggans down a smooth, metal chute to the base of the hill.

Surhoff said, "It's maybe the most amazing thing I've seen.

"To see where it actually goes and try to think of how they actually built it, it's mind-boggling. It was definitely worth the trip. Everything that goes into it, trying to figure it out, there's no way. ... I thought it was just spectacular."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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