January 24, 2009 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Men of honor: Tigers pay respects to the ultimate team -- Harris and Engine 23

Justin Verlander hands a firefighter's helmet autographed by the Tigers to James Harris and Syri Harris, the son and widow of Detroit firefighter Walter Harris. (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- Jim Leyland was going to say something but couldn't. Justin Verlander was going to say something but couldn't. The Tigers were in a red-brick firehouse, meeting one of the toughest teams around, and the somber exchange of respect needed few words.

This was where sports and reality collided, where the big-name team paid homage to the no-name team, and by the end of a teary morning, it was hard to tell who gained more.

The firefighters of Engine 23 on Detroit's rugged east side live and work here, in a building 110 years old, in a place where courage is displayed daily, and no one ever cheers. In a perfect world, this is where crowds would gather and people would clap, as they did Friday morning, as they honored someone few of us ever met, and told a story all of us should hear.

He was Walter Harris, 38, and he died Nov. 15 fighting a fire in another vacant house in another rough neighborhood. The call came at 5:07 that morning and Harris and his crew went racing over, aware shivering people find sanctuary in empty houses.

This isn't a story about the Tigers, although the two dozen players, coaches and front-office personnel delivered a nice tribute. General manager Dave Dombrowski and Leyland unveiled a framed Tigers jersey bearing Harris' name and the No. 23. Harris' widow, Syri, was invited to attend a game in a suite with her family, and one of Harris' six children, James, was presented an autographed firefighter's helmet.

Lieutenant Steve Kirschner, who was there that morning digging through rubble to unearth his friend, was presented a bat autographed by another famous No. 23, former Tiger Willie Horton. It bore the inscription, "Proud to share No. 23 with Detroit's bravest."

Kirschner held it up and tried to speak.

"We know these guys put it all out there on the field," he said, nodding toward the Tigers. "And we try to do the same thing here. And ..."

He stopped and his creased face shook, and the tears fell. Someone shouted encouragement. People clapped. And then Kirschner spoke again.

"We love our lost brother, we'll never forget him," he said. "He'll be in our hearts and in this firehouse until there is no more."

Passion and humor

A brother lost, a teammate lost. Harris worked 17 years as a firefighter, and Engine 23 is one of the busiest firehouses in the city. He was a gigantic complexity of a man, a 300-pound guy with a gentle laugh, an ordained pastor who loved to ride his Harley, someone who fought raging fires with passion and humor. He was so well-liked by fellow firefighters they could barely talk about him without smiling, then crying, then smiling again.

"My father took such joy in life, it was like he was living three or four lives at one time," said James, also a Detroit firefighter. "He was the kind of guy you definitely wanted to see if your house was on fire and you were trapped, because he'd carry you and your bed out."

James Harris forced a smile, but his eyes were far away.

"Now when I go up a flight of stairs in a smoke-filled house, it'll never be the same," he said. "For us, it's kind of a sport too, because it's us versus the situation, and it becomes normal. I know it's an unnatural thing to run into a burning building, but we come back out thousands of times. We take a beating, but we do it."

For men who literally risk their lives, the sports analogy works perhaps because it desensitizes them to the danger. Firefighters toil 24-hour shifts, so bonding is a must, all ages, all races. It's also an escape to sit in the firehouse lounge, watching the Tigers or other Detroit teams, waiting for the call they hope doesn't come.

The call always comes in Detroit, one of the nation's busiest firefighting cities, despite a dwindling population and dwindling resources. Arson often is the cause, as it was on that fateful November morning.

'Our Superman'

It was a relatively routine fire, and Harris and two others entered the abandoned house to make sure no one was inside. Suddenly, with Harris on the second floor, the roof collapsed. Outside, firefighters hurriedly took roll call, and when one name was shouted, no one answered. It was shouted again.

"I was just hoping he missed the rig, but Walt never missed the rig," Sgt. Mike Nevin said. "So we went back and started digging, and we found him. We used a saw to cut through and we picked him up and we carried him. What kills me is, he was still alive, and he was probably laying there thinking, my guys will get me."

It was quiet now, and more tears welled. Nevin and Kirschner stood by Walter's locker in the firehouse, and the door still bore his favorite sticker -- "Real Men Love Jesus" -- along with the program from the funeral service. The locker remains untouched and usually open, so no one forgets.

"When people get transferred here, they're gonna ask who this man was, and we're gonna tell 'em, and that's how tradition gets passed," Nevin said. "Walter was the guy that got us out of those situations. He was our Superman. He'd always say, 'I got ya, Bubba. I'm coming, Bubba.' "

"He was the calming voice," Kirschner said, shaking his head. "He was the one you wanted batting in the bottom of the ninth with two outs."

There are clutch situations, and then there are clutch situations. There are teams, and then there are teams.

It might be trite to tie firefighters who save lives with athletes who save games, but it's actually a connection the firefighters appreciate. They thanked the Tigers heartily, and for a day at least, the home team in the red house felt special, like people truly cared.

Fearless heroes

People should. In Detroit, the firehouse can become a neighborhood safe haven, a place to be a fan and a competitor all at once. Sgt. Jim Montgomery recalled a run during a historic night a few years ago, when they battled a blaze about a half-mile from Comerica Park. They heard a different roar, and as people streamed by, they asked what had happened, and learned of a particular World Series-clinching home run.

Magglio Ordonez was there Friday with most of his teammates, and they gathered in the lounge and stared at the photos, at shots of firefighters in front of infernos, including a few photos of a broad-smiling man named Walter.

Outside, Leyland paced, clutching a cigarette.

"They wanted me to say a couple of words," the manager said. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't handle it."

It was humbling in a way, to realize how often we cheer and honor frivolous things, and neglect to cheer and honor the important things.

This was a day to do just that, to reminisce. Finally, after the best stories were told, the firefighters recalled Walter Harris' final ride. The hoses were pulled out of the firetruck bed and the casket was slid in. And on a sub-zero day, they loaded up for the trip to the cemetery, except it didn't feel right.

"We all got out and jumped up on the truck and joined him," Kirschner said. "We couldn't let him ride alone."

And off they went to the worst possible place, a destination that can be dreaded but can't be feared, not by the toughest team around.

You can reach Bob Wojnowski at bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Harris, center, was a calming voice. "He was the one you wanted ... (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
The Tigers presented Engine 23 a jersey honoring the fallen Harris. It ... (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
Tigers Carlos Guillen, left, and Ramon Santiago enjoyed the time they ... (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
Tigers Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera talk with firefighters in the ... (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
More Bob Wojnowski