An interview with the men behind Cal Ripken's 'A Shortstop in China'
On August 13, 2007, Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, announced that Cal Ripken Jr. had been named special sports envoy for the U.S. State Department. Two months later, he set off on his first assignment – a week-and-a-half in China, meeting with dignitaries and teaching Chinese children how to play baseball. Hunt Valley-based Renegade, a multi-service production company, was there for every twist and turn of the trip. Renegade returned home with nearly 30 hours of footage, from which they’ve produced “A Shortstop in China.” The one-hour documentary debuts Friday on MASN, immediately following the Orioles game. It replays several more times.
Renegade president Tim Watkins and VP of product Chris Beutler recently spoke with the Toy Department about “A Shortstop in China.”
Before we talk about the documentary, what did you guys expect and what were you anticipating when you took on the project?
Watkins: When [Ripken’s PR representative] John Maroon floated the idea, we jumped at it. It seemed exciting and exotic.
Beutler: I think we were pretty excited to have the opportunity to do it. I was immediately psyched with the idea because I’ve always been interested in the whole "ping-pong diplomacy" thing with Nixon. There was legacy to it that I thought was an interesting opportunity. We believed there was a good story there.
What did you think of your access? Were there any restrictions or did you feel you were able to roam around and tell the story however you wanted?
Watkins: There were definitely some limitations placed on us from the Chinese side. ... There was a very rigorous schedule, so we had to stick with that. We would’ve loved to have gotten more Chinese human interest, but obviously, between the schedule and what we were allowed to do ...
Beutler: I always had a feeling that really good documentary film making is about the ability to build a relationship of trust with whatever subject matter you’re shooting. Considering the demands of Cal’s schedule every day, it was interesting process and I thought we got closer and closer to him as the trip went on. I think he really saw that we were able to tell the story without getting in way. ... I think that’s what people want to see in the film, a chance to see Cal as they’ve never seen Cal. Cal has this reputation as a pretty guarded guy for all of his career. With the press, you always wonder if you’re getting the guarded Cal, am I getting close to the real Cal?
The Renegade crew with former Oriole B.J. Surhoff (far left) and Ripken.
We obviously grow up with baseball here, but the Chinese are mostly unfamiliar with the game. Did this surprise you at all?The Renegade crew with former Oriole B.J. Surhoff (far left) and Ripken (center).
Watkins: It’s kind of funny because [Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian and Pacific Affairs] Christopher Hill at one point mentioned how this stuff is made there -- someone there is making baseballs -- and they have no idea what it is. ... Their reactions when we went on streets with a baseball were priceless and funny. Some people knew what baseball was, but there was no one who knew who Cal Ripken was. There was one guy who thought he might’ve been Andre Agassi.
There were surely many different emotions, considering you have everything from ratty orphanages to laughing children. When people watch this documentary, are they going to laugh? Cry? Think?
Watkins: I think there’s definitely cute emotive points, some funny elements, I think. There’s a lot of intrigue. China is a bit of a mystery – maybe a bit less after the Olympics – but they’re kind of quietly out there. And for 1.3 billion people to be quietly out there, I think people will have a natural interest in seeing what they’re like and how they play.
Beutler: What we always wanted to do was a feel-good film. At the end of the day, we wanted it to be a film of hope. And it was. It was a film about diplomacy as much as it was about baseball. ... I think it’s an interesting celebration of a sports personality who’s carved himself a very unique post-sports career. If you’re a Cal fan -- a baseball fan -- it shows sport as a means to develop skills that will help in life later on. It shows that sports are not trivial ways to waste time. I think Cal believes that and it really comes out. I personally, think this is the ultimate dad-and-son film; it’s something for dads to watch with kids and see what sports mean. On the flip side, it’s also a great chick flick. You got Cal hanging with kids, you got those big blue eyes. … It’s an upbeat, fun movie.
Watkins: Kids are kids and inherently, they‘ll act like kids. I thought it was funny, we were in Shanghai and the kids were given baseball cards. Well, we were watching the coaches take their own clinic, and the kids were up in stands and were taking their duplicates and trading them with each other. What could be more fundamental than kids taking their baseball cards and swapping them with one another?
Question: You met with Cal just before he left the country. Did you feel like he knew what to expect?
Beutler: I think he had reservations about two things: One, the program itself -- Will he be able to translate the sport of baseball with the language barrier? Secondly, I think he had a real concern that culturally, he’d do the wrong thing, do something culturally acceptable in America that might be misinterpreted in China.
Obviously Cal is accustomed to having all eyes on him when he walks in a room. You guys have seen him since his playing days; what did you find most striking whenever Cal entered a room with Chinese business leaders, interacted with locals or met with schoolchildren? How did he react and how did people react to him?
Beutler: When you watch the footage, I think Cal was very much a listener. He was very conscientious to be respectful of the culture. I think the guy truly believes respect is an important thing in life. I don’t think most of the people in the envoy really had the opportunity to see much, though. Their schedules were so booked.
Did he accomplish his goals for the trip?
Watkins: I think from the perspective of baseball’s success in the future ... on some level they have some commitment. We drove through towns where you saw 40-foot banners of Yao Ming, though, and basketball hoops everywhere. Basketball has taken over much of the country. To me, one of the things in the story is this triangle of diplomacy, commerce and sport and how they interact on an international scene is so important. In order for [baseball] to be successful in China, there was to be some commercialism attached to it. If they can’t attach that, it will be difficult for them to make it grow.