TAMPA, Fla. -- On a dank, wet afternoon that matched the mood of hundreds of mourners filing into St. Timothy Church, Paul C. Smith was remembered as a caring, gregarious man who put himself last.Smith, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' reporter since MLB.com's inception in 2001, was celebrated at a funeral Mass attended by family, friends and colleagues. The Rev. John Tapp, who presided over the memorial service, had been a lifelong friend of Smith and recalled that "it was always an adventure being with Paul." Tapp was only the first of numerous mourners to invoke a basic two-word characterization of Smith: "Simple kindness." Smith, 46, passed away unexpectedly Saturday night, shortly after being hospitalized for complications related to ankle surgery he had undergone in late January. To console each other over the incomprehensible loss, a who's who of Florida journalism turned out to pay their last respects to Smith and console his widow, Martha, and the couple's two teenaged children.
Martha sat in the first row of the sanctuary, between 15-year-old Dale and 13-year-old Kelsey, and listened as dear friends raised verbal toasts to her late husband -- when their lips stopped quivering long enough to allow words to come through.Whether they had known Smith for 33 years -- as did Tapp -- or for a relatively short time -- as did Jeff Canger -- all left the same impression of "Big Paul." "I loved being around Paul because of the way Paul loved life," said another friend, Robert Mashburn. "He always encouraged people to do their very best." Turning to Martha and the kids, Mashburn added, "Martha, he loved his family so much. You were his greatest joy." Tapp reflected on the dawn of Smith's journalistic career, when he authored a weekly column in the paper of the high school they both attended. He titled the column "Cruising With Pablo." "You longed to see your name in that column," Tapp said. "But," he added, "You prayed there wasn't too much detail." Sharing a laugh over that recollection was Seth McClung, the Devil Rays pitcher who represented his teammates, the rest of whom were playing the Reds in an exhibition game. General managing partner Vince Naimoli, general manager Chuck LaMar and vice president of public relations Rick Vaughn also represented the Tampa Bay organization. Retired Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen headlined the long list of journalism dignitaries who silently filed into St. Timothy's sanctuary to remember their former colleague. Raindrops pelted the church's glass walls. "People saw, but did not understand ..." Terry Turcotte read from Wisdom 4:7-15. As news of Smith's death spread last weekend, Tapp recalled getting untold phone calls from mutual friends unburdening themselves of their grief. One of the calls was from reporter Kevin Thomas, a Maine resident who covers the Boston Red Sox. "The highlight of my visits to Tampa Bay," Thomas told the priest, "was running across Paul. Our job is cutthroat, and not necessarily family-oriented. But we would talk of our greatest loves, our wives and children, and Paul would just beam." Tapp nodded toward Martha: "I hope you know God's peace at this incredibly trying time." "Paul had many great loves," said Mashburn. "He loved baseball, way beyond as a job. That's evidenced by the fact he named a son Dale Murphy, and he named one of his dogs Chris Chambliss. "Paul loved to laugh -- at himself as much as anything. Paul loved the camaraderie of a day at the racetrack." "We met six years ago, and our families quickly became tight friends. He used to get on me about my Jersey accent, and I'd say," said Jeff Canger, adding in his best Jersey-ese, "'What accent?' "Whenever I'd call, he'd pick up the phone with, 'Paul here' and I'd say, 'Hey, it's your homeboy.' Well, I'm calling him now. 'It's your homeboy. I'll be with you soon.'" Led by Lynn Shively, the congregation's collective voice raised with "Amazing Grace." Martha, showing amazing grace herself, draped one arm around Kelsey, and the other around Dale. The mourners arose and exited the way they had entered, in silent files. Outside, the icy rains pelted the pavement, mixing with tears.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.