Chasing Cal Ripken in China is wearing me out!

October 31, 2007 | Nestor Aparicio

I thought the pacing of the first 48 hours of Cal Ripken’s itinerary here in Beijing was break-neck enough.

Then came his final day in Beijing!

Three schools, two meetings, bus rides from one end of Beijing to the other (and this is a city of more than 15 MILLION people). The “Iron Man” legend rolled on right through the part where he was almost taunting me at the elevator door last night, where I KNOW I went to bed BEFORE he did.

When it comes to keeping up with Cal Ripken, you just can’t win!

By chance, he was the first face I saw in the elevator at 7:10 a.m. (in a three-piece suit headed for a dignitary breakfast), and the last I saw on my way to a DEEP sleep around 10:15 last night. I don’t think I’ve ever been more physically challenged than in my first 72 hours of this trip. Between jet lag, baseball, writing blogs, shooting videos and being a goofy American tourist – it’s just unbelievably exhausting. And figuring I may not “pass this way again,” we’re trying to cram it all in.

Again, we have GOBS and GOBS of cool videos that it’s just going to take time to edit, assemble and platform on wnsTV. (I’m a one-man show here, led by my wife, the camerawoman!)

Because Cal’s schedule was such a challenge, if we had followed him everywhere, we never would have seen any of Beijing’s many tourist highlights and legendary places. He hasn’t seen much of anything other than meetings and baseball stuff, while Kelly Ripken has taken in much of the touristy stuff like us.

In a few hours, we will head to the Great Wall of China before departing Beijing at sunset.

So here’s how our day went on Wednesday (all of which will be coming on wnsTV in colorful glory and dorkiness very soon):

* We hired a non-English speaking taxi cab driver for about five hours to run us to virtually every temple, monument and cool place we could find in Beijing for a grand total of $42 US. For some reason, taxis are exceedingly cheap here!

      * We went from the Lama Temple (home of the Buddah) to the hutongs (the original old-school Chinese neighborhoods – think like the Fells Point of Beijing) to the Forbidden City (a lost city built by an emperor of the Ming Dynasty in the 15 century) to the Temple of Heaven (another mystical religious place where people worship day and night).

•    THEN, at 1 p.m., we caught up with Cal Ripken and company at his first youth school of the day on the southwest side of Beijing. He did a coaches clinic in the late morning that we skipped. We walked onto the field, which was bordered by a sea of cranes and high-rises, and Ripken was running a seamless camp for a local baseball academy of kids who could REALLY play some baseball.

B.J. Surhoff was working hits tips in the cage on one side. Rick Dell, who is the head of MLB’s Asia initiative, was giving pitching tips on the other. And in the middle was Ripken, on his hands and knees teaching kids the finer arts of fielding like a Hall of Famer.

Once again, seeing Ripken in his natural element of baseball and working with bright kids was a wonderful and refreshing sight to see, especially for a guy like me who has gone from loving baseball to becoming quite cynical because of what I’ve seen over my 16 years of covering Major League Baseball.

His enthusiasm for the game, and his ability to truly TEACH the game is something that in my mind now far surpasses even his gaudy stats of MLB accomplishment that led him to Cooperstown back in August. You just couldn’t stop smiling if you’re a baseball fan. And again, there were perhaps 20 witnesses to this camp and there was no security t speak of or autograph hounds at all. Here in China, Cal Ripken is virtually anonymous.

So, in a way I’m sure he really appreciates, it’s literally ALL about the baseball, not about the stats or the fame or the money.

The field was ice cold by the end of his two-hour session at Da Cheng School with these quality kids, who were all sporting RIPKEN 8 jerseys and cool Ripken Baseball Asia hats. It was hard to tell who was having more fun: Ripken or the kids themselves.

At the end of the camp, Ripken gathered his final group and made them all gather around.

“Sssssshh. I’ve got a secret,” he whispered to his group of 12 as his interpreter Mary echoed his every word in Mandarin Chinese. “None of the other kids got to do this drill but I think you can handle it. You’re the ONLY ones we’re going to do this with. It’s a reward!”

He then led a “barehanded, no-stop drill” where the kids fielded the ball ala Brooks Robinson at 3rd base in the 1960’s and fired to a “pretend” first basemen named Ripken who was waiting on the other end of a soccer goal for the relays. (BTW: These fields were artificial turf and were lined for soccer, not baseball!)

While the rest of us were frozen stiff in the swirling winds and mid-40’s temperature, Ripken jumped on yet another bus, where we caravaned another 25 miles to the northern fringes of Beijing to one of the poorest almost rural neighborhoods I’ve ever seen.

As chickens and geese and stray dogs ran through alleyways and dirt floors were the norm, Ripken entered a makeshift dirt lot at the Xiu Song En Hua School for a group of underprivileged (and that’s putting it mildly) and orphaned children to play “Quickball” with them.

Quickball is basically a hitting drill with wiffle bats and spongeballs, giving kids their first taste of what it’s like to swing at a moving baseball.

Ranging in ages from 5 to 15 and divided almost equally of boys and girls, these beautiful kids had an army of energy and the smiles brought most of us to near tears as they reveled in just “being kids and having fun.” They had NO idea who Cal Ripken was or probably why he was even there. All they knew: these nice men were there to play with them and chase them around this courtyard as the sun set over Beijing.

Being here the last three days has really been a special experience for me and my wife.

We’ve seen an amazing culture, done all of the cool touristy stuff that any American visitor would want to do, but I’ve been blown away by how much Ripken loves baseball and how good he is at making people feel comfortable and respected.

If you didn’t already know it (or if you only know it because of his 2,632-game streak), Cal Ripken is very special guy!

The fellows from Renegade video are shooting a high def documentary on this trip that will be “must see” TV for any fan of the Baltimore Orioles, Cal Ripken or baseball in general. Rick Maese of The Sun has done all of the background work on baseball in China, the economics of the situation and has followed Ripken diligently every step of the way through Beijing as a legitimate “journalist.”

And, honestly, I’ve just been a fly on the wall here, documenting the trip for wnsTV in my own unique and dorky way, and trying to have some fun (which is kinda my main goal in life!).

Today, after The Great Wall, we will depart for a Hong Kong vacation en route to Tokyo and hopefully, some more Asian adventures for wnsTV. Maese will stay here in Beijing and do pre-Olympic work for The Sun. And the Renegade guys will head to Shanghai and Guangzhow for more baseball clinics and goodwill work with Ripken.

It’s been a very memorable few days, and it feels like a lifetime ago that we checked in at Dulles Airport on Sunday afternoon for this journey.

More to come from Hong Kong…stay tuned!
 
And I SWEAR you will get to see all of this in living, breathing color on wnsTV sometime soon!

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