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Phantasy Camp is like living a dream for Phils fans

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- With no local team to root for growing up in Australia, Darren Llewellyn became a Phillies fan as a teenager thanks to a Sports Illustrated cover featuring Mike Schmidt.

Nearly 30 years after adopting Philadelphia as his new favorite team, Llewellyn finally got to meet the man who sparked his interest in baseball at the organization's 13th annual Phantasy Camp in Clearwater, Fla.

Llewellyn was one of more than 130 fans to take the field at Bright House Field as players during the five-day Phantasy Camp, which featured a hitting clinic from the Hall of Fame third baseman and culminated in a day of baseball games that allowed the fans to take on former Phillies.

"I always had this affinity for [the Phillies] through Schmidt," said Llewellyn, who now lives in Singapore and came back for his second Phantasy Camp this year. "Seeing him and meeting him, I don't think I've ever been as awestruck."

For many of the participants, the highlight of the experience was the chance to meet the legendary third baseman, who made his first Phantasy Camp appearance.

Among the 23 former Phillies attending the camp, other first-timers included Chris Coste and Rheal Cormier, while players like Greg Luzinski and Dickie Noles were making their 13th straight appearance. Fan favorite Larry Andersen was in his 13th year as commissioner of the Phantasy Camp.

To many of the former Phils, the Phantasy camp is a chance to reconnect with past teammates and familiar faces from the Philadelphia organization.

"When I was a player, I hoped they would one day invite me to this, because I always heard about it," Coste said. "I've been out of the game for a few years, so it's a way to get back into the Philly environment."

As for a lot of the fans, it's their only opportunity to play organized baseball now that their high school playing days and Little League glories are well in the past. And many spend the year training just for the one week that includes a number of games each day after working with the legends, who act as managers.

"You do see some good plays," Luzinski said. "Some guys have athletic ability and I think they have a good time. Phantasy Camp has been good for the Phillies. It goes back to everything they do -- it's a first-class organization."

One fan, Darrin Sunday, told Schmidt he would hit a home run over the fence, which he said prompted the Hall of Famer to jokingly call him "Ryan Howard" the rest of the day.

Sunday, who eventually cleared a home run over the left-center field wall, was in his third year of Phantasy Camp, and he decided to bring his father, Jim, along after having such a great experience the year before.

On the flip side, Phil Steel, who, at 78, is one of the oldest participants, first experienced Phantasy Camp on his own in 2011, and he has since brought both of his sons to partake in what he calls a "dream experience."

The former Philadelphia pitcher Cormier said he couldn't help but get swept away with emotion when he watched Steel pitch six innings in one game. Like many of the fans and players, Cormier said he hopes to come back to Phantasy Camp in 2014.

"Mike Lieberthal was here last year, and he couldn't be back because his wife just delivered a baby, but he said if you have a chance to go, do it," Cormier said. "It ended up being even more than I thought it would be."

The experience ended on Sunday, with 10 games that allowed the participants who split into separate teams to face live pitching from Danny Jackson on the field in front of family and friends who also made the trip. One guy was robbed of a base hit by Mickey Morandini at third base. Another made a play to double off John Kruk at second base. And many -- in typical Philly fashion -- took advantage of the opportunity to trash talk their favorite players, who they spent the week getting to know.

For Jeff Ricardo, there was only one word to describe the experience.

"This place is infectious," said Ricardo, who first came to Phantasy camp last year thanks to a surprise 40th birthday present from his wife and eight kids.

"From the staff all the way to the legends, it is just five days of pure fun. They put you in their world for five days, and that is why they call it Phantasy Camp. You feel like you are a Major League ballplayer for five days."

Rheal Cormier, Chris Coste, Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt