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New York Yankees visit fulfills 6-year-old boy's dream

At the tender age of 6, Andrew Stilo has already played for the Yankees. The Little League version, that is.

But today, he'll get a chance to meet the real New York Yankees _ Jeter, Clemens, Martinez, and the rest.

For Andrew, diagnosed with acute lymphoma leukemia in January, it's a wish made possible by the Suncoast Children's Dream Fund of St. Petersburg.

Andrew, his mom and dad and 1-year-old sister, Gabriella, will meet the players today at Yankee Stadium before their game against the Toronto Blue Jays. He'll go to their locker room, watch them warm up and talk to the players.

Then he'll watch the game with his family from seats provided by the Yankees.

"I want to meet Derek Jeter and Tino Martinez," Andrew said Thursday at Tampa International Airport, waiting to board the JetBlue plane that would take him to New York. "But I like Roger Clemens the best because he pitches so good."

Doctors at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital diagnosed Andrew with leukemia on Jan. 1 after he complained of a backache that wouldn't go away. But his leukemia is in remission, and his prognosis is good. He undergoes chemotherapy every three weeks and will do so for the next 2{ years.

Andrew calls his clinic visits, which leave him drowsy, "going to the sleep doctor."

"At the beginning, he was very vocal about the treatment _ I mean, he'd never taken a pill in his life," said Andrew's mother, Mary Lou Cuellar-Stilo. "But now, it's old hat to him. He's good about it."

Andrew has a thick shock of brown hair and a snaggletooth grin. He'll repeat the first grade this year, having missed more than a month of school battling his leukemia.

He also understands what chemotherapy is. He knows the "bad cells" he has already fought and knows he still has a long way to go.

"He's a competitor and a fighter," Cuellar-Stilo said. "He's always competed _ baseball, swimming, whatever. He wants to be the best."

He gets his loyalty to the team from his dad, Tampa police Officer Michael Stilo, and from his grandfather, who grew up in New Jersey. While on the trip he'll visit his New Jersey relatives, including his 4-year-old cousin, Nicholas.

The Dream Fund arranged the plane tickets, accommodations at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue and Andrew's visit with the Yankees. His journey includes a meal at Mickey Mantle's Restaurant, a trip to the Central Park Zoo and a little shopping at F.A.O. Schwartz.

The trip was paid for by donations through the Dream Fund's Share the Dream program and gifts from the Regency and other businesses. The Dream Fund is a non-profit organization that fulfills about 75 to 80 dreams a year, providing gifts like cruises and laptop computers for children with life-threatening illnesses. The foundation relies on donations, endowments and gifts from businesses.

Dream coordinator Joanne Lanning said the foundation heard about Andrew's wish through his clinic. Lanning came to the airport to see Andrew off, and she took him into the plane's cockpit so he could meet the pilots that would fly him to New York, the first time he has ever been to the Big Apple.

Andrew fielded questions from reporters like a pro, grinning for the cameras and showing off his Yankees T-shirt and new navy blue Yankees backpack given to him by the Dream Fund.

_ Cate Doty can be reached at (727) 893-8850.