Ripken retakes the field - for White House T-ball

Ex-Oriole star looks on as league's commissioner

May 06, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Cal Ripken returned to an old ritual yesterday, taking the field on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon that was made for baseball. But things are not exactly what they used to be.

Ripken was sporting a white polo shirt and slacks. He took some practice swings -- off a stationary tee. And this was not Camden Yards, but the South Lawn of the White House.

The former Orioles star was attending his first game since being appointed commissioner of White House T-ball. Ripken's new post entails presiding over occasional games between first- and second-graders in the president's back yard.

Bush introduced Ripken as "one of the all-time great baseball players, and one of the all-time great men." That was a serious compliment, given that being called a "good man" by the president is usually considered the highest possible praise.

"This is the kind of job I would like," Ripken said, fielding questions about whether he would prefer being commissioner of Major League Baseball rather than head of White House T-ball.

"You get to come out and see smiling kids running around, and get a little teaching in there once in a while," he said. "This lets me celebrate baseball in the most fun way for me, and that's at the grass-roots level."

Yesterday's game involved teams of pint-sized players from Uniondale, N.Y., and Trenton, N.J. Under the rules of White House T-ball, there are no outs, nobody keeps score and only one inning is played. Every player on one team bats, then they take the field and the other team comes to the plate.

Ripken at first sat in the stands with the president, but then wandered down to the dugouts to chat with and offer advice to the children, ages 4 through 8.

After one young player was nicked in the head with a ball, Ripken said, he approached him and offered some encouragement. There was one day at Yankee Stadium, he told the child, when Yankee Derek Jeter hit a ball that whacked Ripken's arm, rolled up his arm and pelted him in the head.

"All those kids recognize Jeter's name," Ripken said. "Just by saying that, I thought it could coax him back out there on the field because it might have scared him."

The president started T-ball on the South Lawn last year, saying he wanted disadvantaged children from around the country to have a chance to play a game in such an august setting.

For the occasional games last fall -- and yesterday -- White House staff erected stands, put out bases and built an outfield fence. Hot dogs and hamburgers were served at picnic tables.

Yesterday's teams were scheduled to play Sept. 16, but their game was postponed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. No game has been played since.

Bush, a baseball fanatic who reportedly watches Baseball Tonight on ESPN as much as he can, called Ripken several weeks ago and asked if he would accept the White House post when the season resumed.

"I played around a little and said, `How can I be qualified?'" Ripken recalled. He said Bush told him the qualifications were "loving the game of baseball and having fun."

"You can do that, can't you?" asked the president.

"Absolutely," Ripken replied.

One of the stars yesterday was Uniondale slugger Dominic Torres, age 8.

Dominic drilled a base hit to the wall. And, playing at first base, he caught one throw after another from teammates trying to throw out runners. The public address announcers, who were borrowed from ESPN, announced when Dominic came to the plate that his favorite book is Captain Underpants and that his favorite food is macaroni and cheese.

After the game, Dominic described his day as "exciting." He was asked whether it was more exciting to meet Ripken or the president. Apparently schooled in the workings of Washington, Dominic had a diplomatic answer: "Both."

In his interview, Ripken was asked whether the picture-perfect afternoon made him long to be back in an Orioles uniform. He said no.

"I think I'm over the hump," he said. "In spring training, I thought that would be a tough time. I thought Opening Day for sure I'd have some small feelings come back that I wish I were still playing, but no. I played. I had my time. I'm looking to do other things."

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