By Tom Singer / MLB.comNational and international reporters are flocking to their new baseball mecca, St. Petersburg, in mushrooming numbers, turning the pressbox in Tropicana Field into an overcrowded beehive resembling the stock-market trading floor. But front and center in the daily chaos, one seat is always vacant -- or always occupied, depending on one's belief in the power of spirit and eternal soul. Paul C. Smith used to make his professional home there, until the mainstay of St. Petersburg sports coverage and the Rays' charter reporter on MLB.com was taken from us at the dawn of Spring Training '05, at 46, due to complications following ankle surgery. When that 2005 season began, the Rays dedicated a bronze plaque to mark Smith's press-box seat, which will never be filled, except by memories of him. Those memories washed over us like a flood, of course, with the grown-up Rays' World Series appearance. Funny, how the Internet connects not only places, but times. If you performed an MLB.com site search for some of Paul C.'s archived work during the 2008 postseason, his byline atop stories appeared alongside links to such news items as "Rays set rotation for World Series" and "Devil all fired up about Rays in Classic." Paul C. surely would have thought the Earth had spun off its axis. "I just think he should be here seeing this," said Martha Van Strander, his widow, at the time. "He loved all the players, just enjoyed them as individuals, and he would've loved seeing them do so well." Martha has seen most of it, from the Tropicana Field season-ticket seats she has filled for all but about five games, with the kids. Kelsey is now 17, a high school senior. She dutifully cut her 19-year-old brother, Dale, a Mohawk when that became the must-have hairstyle for Rays fans. "Even when they were losing, we kept going to all the games," Martha said. "We've just always done that." For Martha, the kids and the community, it hasn't been easy. Joy over the Rays has been tempered, sometimes painfully so, by the inability to share it with the one man who would most bask in it. The Rays, in their customary last place a week earlier, climbed atop the American League East standings with a 4-2 victory in Baltimore on May 1, an event observed by dramatic newspaper headlines the next morning. "May 2 ... our wedding anniversary," Martha said.
She paused to collect herself and continued, "He would've been so excited that morning. I think about what his reaction would have been every time they do well, every time they take the next step."The back cover of Tampa Bay's 2005 media guide was dedicated to Paul C.'s memory, with a portrait of him wearing his customary ear-to-ear grin above a testimonial: "Paul was a consummate professional, fun to be around, well respected. He was the kind of person you would seek out to have a baseball conversation with. He loved the game. His passing had an effect on all of us throughout the organization from our ownership to the front office to the clubhouse." That quote was attributed to Chuck LaMar -- then the Rays' general manager, now the advance scout for their World Series adversary, the Phillies. The dots always get connected ... Carlos Pena, the rock of the Rays batting order and the voice of their clubhouse, wasn't around to earn Paul C.'s friendship, but he earned the Paul C. Smith Champion Award, established by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America for someone who "exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field." As Paul C. did, always. "He loved his job," Martha said. "He loved doing his job. He would've considered being around a team that won consistently as an added bonus. He would've been really happy for them." Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.