Caravan makes stops at firehouse, hospital on final leg

Avila, Nathan compete in donning of fire gear before Tigers visit with children

Caravan makes stops at firehouse, hospital on final leg

NORTHVILLE, Mich. -- Alex Avila has had plenty of discussion about how much protection catchers need from foul tips and bats. As he donned a firefighter's suit Friday, it might have been a bit much.

"This is a little more gear than I'm used to," he said as he struggled to hoist the air tank over his back.

Avila wasn't readying for another season behind the plate. He was preparing to take on Joe Nathan to see who could throw on a suit more quickly.

It wasn't any easier for Nathan, who grew up wanting to be a firefighter.

"The pack on my back is what's really loading me up right now," the 6-foot-4 Nathan said. "It's pretty difficult to carry this around."

It was a Friday morning stop on the annual Tigers Winter Caravan, celebrating the 125th anniversary of Northville's Fire Department. It was also a reminder that there are more taxing jobs than catching.

Avila won the contest, thanks in large part to the savvy move of throwing the air tank over his head and onto his shoulders. Nathan needed help from his coach, Northville firefighter Chris Fey.

"Everybody growing up either wants to either play professional sports or do something else," said Fey, a Red Sox fan growing up in Boston before converting to the Tigers upon moving to Michigan 10 years ago. "To hear these guys say, 'Oh, I wanted to be a firefighter! That looks super cool,' that's very humbling to us. That's cool."

Avila donned his gear in 58.9 seconds.

"I got snagged a little bit," Avila said. "In practice rounds, I was smooth."

He was smoother than Justin Verlander, who sent half the fire station jumping when he honked the horn on one of the fire engines.

Verlander missed last year's Winter Caravan while recovering from core muscle surgery. Friday was a reminder why he and teammates enjoy it, despite the foray into Michigan's winter weather.

"There are a lot of cool things going on here," Verlander said. "It makes it fun for us. Everybody who works for the Tigers has done a great job over the years. When I first got here [in 2006], it was totally different. They make it fun for us and interactive."

Verlander, Ian Kinsler and others had a chance to brighten the day of patients at DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan on Friday afternoon. Verlander sat down with one quiet patient and his mother and chatted for a few minutes.

"They love it," hospital president Larry Gold said. "I got to talk to the guys before they went up to the [patient] floors and explained to them, 'All of our patients think you're the heroes.' The players come out of this experience understanding [the patients] are the heroes."

For Verlander, the opportunity to cap the Winter Caravan with a visit to the North American International Auto Show on Friday evening had him as bright-eyed as a kid. His affinity for cars is well-known, and he has had his eye on adding a classic muscle car to his collection. For Friday, though, he couldn't wait to see the new Ford GT on display.

"I like the classics," he said, "but I'm more [into] concepts. The new Ford GT -- I'm so excited."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.