Earlier, whisking nearly 600 mph thousands of feet above Siberia, an airline crew member recognized the flight's most famous passenger. He pulled Cal Ripken Jr. aside, into the service area of the plane and asked for an autograph.
But by the time the 13-hour flight had ended and Ripken had finally set foot on Chinese soil, he moved with ease through Beijing Capital International Airport, drawing no second looks, no autograph hounds and no curiosity. No, the Hall of Famer wasn't in Baltimore anymore.
Ripken arrived in Beijing yesterday to embark on a government-sponsored diplomacy mission, teaching baseball and shaking hands in three Chinese cities over the course of the next nine days. His duties began last night, as he and his wife, Kelly, had a dinner meeting with Clark Randt, the U.S. ambassador to China. His schedule really gets rolling today, with the first of several baseball clinics for Chinese youth.
While flashing that safe smile and teaching baseball to children have both been well-tread areas for Ripken since retiring from the Orioles in 2001, nothing about the next 1 1/2 weeks' agenda feels familiar. Ripken was appointed as a special envoy for the U.S. Department of State in August and this tour through China marks his first assignment.
"New experiences do bring a certain anxiety for me," Ripken said. "I like to know what I'm getting into, I like to ask a lot of questions, I like to sit back and watch other people do it first and gather a plan."
While the next 1 1/2 weeks will be sprinkled with diplomatic meetings like last night's dinner with the ambassador, apart from conversations with various baseball and government officials, Ripken's schedule will be guided by a 30-page binder that details his baseball itinerary - from batting practice this afternoon at Xidan Elementary School to taking grounders tomorrow at the Fengtai softball fields.
"I look at the itinerary, you try to prepare but there's nothing in my background that actually prepares for this," Ripken said. "I have a little fear about the teaching side because there is a communication issue."
Although Ripken will have translators nearby at all times, he says he's at least partially relieved because he and his small team of coaches have already had a crash course in teaching baseball to Chinese. In the summer, 12 coaches traveled from China to Aberdeen to take part in four weeks' worth of clinics and lessons. At least some of those coaches are expected at each stop here in China to assist Ripken, his former Orioles teammate B.J. Surhoff and Scott Lowe, the director of programming for Ripken Baseball.
Lowe started running Ripken's camps eight years ago, and he's the one who filled the binder with activities and drills. He explained that one of the biggest lessons the group picked up over the summer is that teaching in another language can be arduous and time-consuming.
Everything that Ripken, Surhoff or Lowe say in English must be translated for the young ballplayers, meaning that every drill will take twice as long as it might under normal conditions. And to make matters more difficult, not everything translates neatly into Chinese. Deciphering Yogi Berra is one thing, but these drills are going to take some patience.
"Baseball slang really doesn't translate," Lowe said. He recalled a moment over the summer, trying to explain to the Chinese coaches the concepts of the cut-off man and the relay throw. Several minutes passed and all Lowe saw was a series of confused looks. "So basically I took them, put them in positions [on the field] and walked them through it," he said. "And everyone was like, 'Oh yeah, of course.'"
In most of the clinics, Ripken will make opening and closing remarks, and during the drills he will roam from group to group, providing hands-on instruction and encouraging words.
"In some cases, it makes you really simplify your message and you become a better communicator," Ripken says. "I've done some interviews with the Japanese media, and I was very sensitive to how my words would translate. So I took more time in explaining it, and I thought I did a better job in explaining. Maybe that applies to teaching as well."