Reality can be a cruel teammate.
Unfortunately, reality intruded on Doug Meekins' time at Cal Ripken's Minor League Experience Fantasy Camp.
``I was playing right field,'' he said. ``The batter hit a fly ball, I extended my arm to catch it, and I lost my balance and fell.'' The general manager of Brooks-Huff Tire & Auto Centers felt some pain then, but the arm didn't give out on him completely until his next time at bat, facing a 52-year-old pitcher with a 70-mph fastball.
Last month, on the day of his interview with Tire Business, Mr. Meekins wasn't set to tee-off against an opposing pitcher. Rather, he was facing an MRI to determine the extent of the damage to his bicep. Because of his injury, he was unable to accompany the team to its scheduled away game in Atlantic City. He did, however, pitch in the final game at Ripken Stadium at Aberdeen, Md., on May 14, the last event of the five-day camp.
Despite the pain, Mr. Meekins said he wouldn't have traded the experience for the world.
``I played in three games in Ripken Stadium,'' he said, the sense of amazement still coloring his voice. ``It's a real thrill to see your face up there on the board while they play the theme from `Field of Dreams' and `Take Me Out to the Ball Game.'''
Mr. Meekins has been a passionate sports fan all his life. To reward him for his 13 years of service with Brooks-Huff-a four-store tire and auto repair chain based in Hunt Valley-and give him a memorable 50th birthday present, Brooks-Huff President Jay Huff paid Mr. Meekins' way at baseball fantasy camp.
The Orioles have always been Mr. Meekins' team, so it was the thrill of a lifetime for him to actually share the field with Orioles greats such as Mr. Ripken, his brother Billy Ripken, Brooks Robinson and Mike Bordick.
The coach for Mr. Meekins' five-day camp was retired Orioles pitcher and Olympic gold medalist Ben McDonald, whom Mr. Meekins called ``a great guy.''
Mr. Meekins also has great admiration for the Ripken brothers, though he says they're a study in contrasts.
``Cal is kind of quiet and reserved, while Billy's louder and more outgoing-a real character,'' he said.
Mr. Meekins' love of sports-and particularly for the teams and players in his hometown-becomes obvious the second you walk into his office. Lining the walls are shelves devoted to sports memorabilia: a football autographed by Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas; a jersey autographed by Cal Ripken Jr.; and-his prize possessions-a jersey and baseball autographed by Mr. Robinson, as well as a picture of himself with Mr. Robinson.
``Brooks Robinson has always been my idol,'' he said. ``I say `idol,' because `hero' is so overused in talking about athletes.'' Cal Ripken Jr., of course, is another athlete he admires: ``Cal played 2,131 straight games, beating Lou Gehrig's record. His work ethic is second to none.''
Now, of course, he has added to his collection the jersey with ``Meekins'' across the back. Starting last year, when he joined a health club, Mr. Meekins has made a concerted effort to get in shape, and to date he's lost about 60 pounds. Still, he found his fellow teammates an inspiration, to say the least.
``The average age in the camp was about 40, but there were a lot of 40-to 50-year-olds there,'' he said. ``It was amazing to see how conditioned they were, and to see them throw the ball 70 mph.''
Mr. Meekins has been in the tire business 28 years, most of it in the Goodyear distribution family, including managing a Goodyear store in Baltimore. He considers his time with Brooks-Huff-a Goodyear Gemini retailer that does 70 percent of its business in auto service-as the happiest of his career. To see Mr. Meekins and Mr. Huff together is to witness the deep friendship between the two men.
``We're all part of the Brooks-Huff family,'' Mr. Meekins said. ``Jay has always overextended himself for his employees, and that's why we work as hard as we do for him.''
In an industry with tremendous changeover of personnel, Mr. Meekins said Brooks-Huff has workers who have stayed with the company for decades and even for their entire careers. The family aspect of the dealership is no mere metaphor: Mr. Meekins' son Michael is an auto technician at Brooks-Huff, and his other son David, a college student, works at the company part time.
Mr. Meekins and his wife Terri, who works at Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University, also have two daughters: Lauren, a registered nurse who also works at Johns Hopkins, and Emily, who begins high school next year.
The Huff family, needless to say, also is well represented at the company: Jay Huff's sons Todd and Trey and daughter-in-law Cheryl all work for the firm. Jay's father, John Huff Sr., founded the firm in 1943 with his partner Ben Brooks in the Pimlico area of Baltimore.
John Huff bought out Mr. Brooks in 1954, but refused to change the company's name, according to Jay Huff. ``Dad always said that `B' comes before `H' in the phone book, so why change the name?'' he said.
In 1960, John Huff moved the dealership to Maryland Avenue in Baltimore, where it remained until several years after his death in 1976. In 1980, Jay Huff moved the dealership to a state-of-the-art facility in the northern Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley, where it has had its headquarters ever since.
The business expanded to stores in Towson and Timonium, Md., and Shrewsbury, Pa., just across the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. The company plans soon to open a fifth store, according to Mr. Huff, but those plans are still on the drawing board.