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Yanks help grant final wish to Korean War vet

Bird, teammates make surprise appearance at special FDNY reunion as part of HOPE Week
MLB.com

NEW YORK -- Imagine living over 1,100 miles away from the one place you call home. For 87-year-old Sal Reale, this has been a reality for over 40 years.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army as a radio operator in Germany during the Korean War, Reale was a New York firefighter at multiple firehouses throughout the city for more than 20 years. At the end of his service in 1977, Reale and his wife moved their family to the St. Petersburg, Fla., area, never coming back to visit his former firehouses.

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NEW YORK -- Imagine living over 1,100 miles away from the one place you call home. For 87-year-old Sal Reale, this has been a reality for over 40 years.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army as a radio operator in Germany during the Korean War, Reale was a New York firefighter at multiple firehouses throughout the city for more than 20 years. At the end of his service in 1977, Reale and his wife moved their family to the St. Petersburg, Fla., area, never coming back to visit his former firehouses.

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As Reale continued to age, the last wish on his bucket list was to come home to FDNY Ladder 136. Now living in a nursing home, he knew he did not have the funds to fulfill his wish.

Enter the Wish of a Lifetime organization.

Founded by former U.S. skier Jeremy Bloom in 2008, the Denver-based organization's mission is to shift the way society views and values our oldest generations by fulfilling seniors' dreams and sharing stories to inspire those of all ages.

Reale was selected to have his wish granted after filling out a questionnaire for Wish of a Lifetime that detailed his love for the Yankees and his dream to come back home one final time.

"Our program is open to anyone over the age of 65 in the U.S.," executive director of Wish of a Lifetime Tom Wagenlander said. "Once we get an application, we do a number of interviews to make sure this is something they can't do on their own and something that's going to be really life-enriching and fulfilling."

Reale knew that he was going to visit his old stomping grounds, but had no idea that Wish of a Lifetime had reached out to his favorite baseball team to make his afternoon one that he would never forget.

"The Yankees had become aware of us, I think, about a year ago and said, 'We'd love to work with you all. Let us know when there's a wish that fits,'" Wagenlander said. "Sal is just the perfect fit. He is the consummate New Yorker, a huge Yankees fan, a former firefighter. So we reached out to the Yankees earlier this year and they said, 'We want to feature you guys at HOPE Week,' and here we are. This is more than we could've ever imagined."

Video: TB@NYY: Yankees join FDNY reunion during HOPE Week

Reale arrived to the firehouse Thursday afternoon and was greeted by the current firemen of Ladder 136. As Reale stepped through the door, they said, "Welcome home." After looking around the room for a few minutes and partaking in the unit's traditional "roll call," Reale said, "I am home."

"I still feel like these guys are my brothers," Reale said of the firemen who were in attendance on Thursday.

Although it didn't seem like Reale's day could get any better, it was about to. As part of the Yankees' HOPE Week celebrations, Greg Bird, Chasen Shreve, Chad Green, Tyler Austin, Jonathan Holder and Adam Warren came out of the back room of the firehouse to surprise the former firefighter.

Tweet from @Yankees: #HOPEWeek Day 4: Today, the Yankees honored @wishofalifetime, which grants senior citizens dreams from their bucket lists. Earlier, we joined 87-year-old Sal Reale, in visiting his old firehouse where he shared stories with current @FDNY Ladder 136 members. pic.twitter.com/u6QuGhqUIs

"This is awesome," Reale said. "I figured I'd walk in with my son or something and have a meet and greet with the guys who were on duty. I was thinking of ordering sandwiches in if they would allow me to join them in the meal, but then the Yankees did it."

After shaking all of the players' hands, Reale dove right into storytelling, never afraid to say exactly what was on his mind.

"This is great. He's hilarious," Bird said prior to lunch. "I would love to pick his brain and get some stories. I'm sure he's got some good ones. I need to get him fired up more. I need to get him going. I've been trying to stir the pot a little bit more with him."

Getting Reale stirred up was not a difficult challenge. Bird sat down beside the former firefighter for lunch and remained there the rest of the afternoon, talking about his time watching Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio play baseball and old firehouse stories as each of the other players rotated in and out of the conversation.

"This guy's watched guys play baseball for the Yankees for 80-something years, man," Austin said. "He's seen a lot of stuff and hopefully we can bring another championship back for him this year. It's great to get a chance to talk to him and hear some of his stories."

The players walked with Reale and the current Ladder 136 firefighters around a fire truck, learning about each of its parts. With Austin clearly showing extreme interest in being a firefighter, he was the first to take the step of trading in the pinstripes for the fire gear.

The first baseman put on the pants and boots before receiving a jacket, helmet and gloves. The firemen then outfitted him with all of the required equipment.

Shreve, Green, Holder and Warren followed Austin's lead and put on fire suits of their own. Each of them took turns participating in practice drills like pulling another firefighter out of a building. With the players in the fire gear, they joined Sal for a few group photos before heading back to the Stadium.

"These guys are heroes," Austin said. "They save people's lives every single day. For me to be able to come in here and give them a break from having to work and to bring some joy to Sal and these guys, it truly brings joy to me to be able to come in here and be able to hang out with these guys. It's an honor to come in here."

Although the event was over, Reale's day was just beginning. His son, grandson and Wagenlander joined him at Yankee Stadium for a pregame tour that included a quick stop at manager Aaron Boone's news conference to fulfill a dream that Reale never thought would be possible.

"This has been amazing," Reale's son Nick said. "How could you ask for anything more?"

Mandy Bell is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York.

New York Yankees