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Yankees begin HOPE Week by playing ball with Special Athletes

Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova and members of Rockaway

Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova and members of Rockaway Special Athletes wave for the cameras during a visit Yankees' players made to St. Rose of Lima School as part of HOPE Week. (July 8, 2013) Credit: James Escher

Sweat dripped down Ivan Nova's forehead as he gripped the ball, stared intently at the plate and prepared to deliver his next pitch.

Terence Burke crouched into his batting stance, squeezed the handle of his bat and took a ferocious swing.

But this wasn't a major-league game, just a friendly game of Wiffle ball. It wasn't at Yankee Stadium, it was at a school gymnasium in Rockaway. And Burke isn't a professional baseball player, he's one of the Rockaway Special Athletes.

He still crushed a drive to deep right for a triple that, had it not hit the roof, would have been an inside-the-gym home run. "I knew I'd get a hit,'' Burke said.

The two met again, with Burke lining a double off Nova in kickball, as the Yankees opened HOPE Week 2013 yesterday by participating in athletic events with the Special Athletes -- a group of men, women and children with cognitive or physical disabilities.

"You've got to take the opportunities that you have to share these moments with these kids,'' Nova said. "They get real happy, real excited when they see athletes and baseball players. It means a lot to them. To be part of this makes me feel really happy.''

The Athletes meet every Monday night for recreational events. When their original gym at St. Camillus-St. Virgilus Parish in Rockaway Park was devastated by superstorm Sandy, St. Rose of Lima School opened its doors to the group.

On Monday they filled the gym to play Wiffle ball, basketball and kickball with Nova, Zoilo Almonte, David Adams, Adam Warren, Alberto Gonzalez and Preston Claiborne.

"In my 35 years of life, I never thought I'd be playing kickball or softball with the Yankees,'' said Patrick Tritschler of Rockaway. "It's totally, totally awesome . . . It's like better than my birthday.''

The Yankees, who made donations to the Athletes and both churches, honored the group before Monday night's game. They watched batting practice from the field and got autographs from Robinson Cano and Joe Girardi.

"Memorable is not enough of a word to describe this,'' said Joe Featherston, who started the program 17 years ago. "They feel so special that they had an opportunity to play with the Yankees.''

None more so than Burke, 30, who has been displaced from his Breezy Point home since Sandy in October and now is staying in Garden City.

He capped the day by tossing a strike to Austin Romine for the ceremonial first pitch. Burke, one of the first members of the Special Athletes, said he will never forget the day he got a hit off a Yankees pitcher.

"This was a thrill for these kids,'' said his father, Jay. "Terence isn't a Yankee fan. But now he said he will be for today.''

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