For 9-year-olds Derek Laden and Michael Iantosca, the Fort Myers Miracle youth baseball camp proved to be a good place to find a new favorite player.
Derek and Michael were among about 70 youngsters who spent three days this week learning from — and mingling with — a half dozen Miracle players at Hammond Stadium.
Derek already has an all-time Miracle favorite. That distinction belongs to Doug Deeds, who now plays for the Twins AA affiliate in New Britain, Conn. The Fort Myers American Little Leaguer has been following the career of Deeds ever since receiving an autograph from him.
"He might play for the Twins next year in center field," said Derek.
With Deeds days done in Fort Myers, Derek discovered a new favorite at camp in Australian Josh Hill, a tall right-hander pitcher who is 5-2 this season. Derek — like so many of the wide-eyed youngsters — enjoyed the opportunity to spend a few summer mornings around the pros.
"It felt good because I don't get to meet a lot of baseball players," said Derek.
Hill's popularity extended well beyond Derek. At the end of Thursday's session, Hill received the loudest cheers from the group, edging out third baseman Steve Tolleson.
Meanwhile Michael, whose family moved to Southwest Florida a year ago from New Hampshire, proudly deemed catcher Caleb Moore as his new Miracle idol.
"He's always happy and he can hit the ball. He bonds with us more than any other player," said Michael, who played for the minor league Phillies in the South Fort Myers Little League this season.
Moore, a former standout at Eastern Tennessee State University, was promoted to the Miracle earlier this month.
The Iantoscas already had a favorable impression of the Miracle, stemming from a game earlier this season when Michael's mom, Kristen, said the opposing team ignored a group of youngsters seeking autographs. It was a different story when the boys went to the other side.
"The Miracle players were more than happy to talk to them and sign autographs," she said. "They're really a nice group of guys. I think the longer we live here, the more games we'll go to."
Perhaps equally as important as the baserunning, hitting and pitching skills taught at the Miracle's camp is the positive public relations factor that can last a childhood.
"You get a better fan base," said Miracle pitching coach Eric Rasmussen, coordinator at the camp. "You'll see these kids and they'll yell your name and they'll remember the players who worked with them. That's kind of neat. It's nice to see the kids having fun. That's what it's all about."