Saturday, November 09, 2013

Here’s To You, Paulie

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 9, 2013—The phone rang at 9:01 a.m. It was Fran telling me that Paul had been taken to Saratoga Hospital Friday night and that the inevitable could be only hours away.

Not many people, if any, beat Stage 4 lung cancer--certainly Cary Fotias didn’t. But despite Paul Moran’s promise to me two years ago that “I will beat this thing,” the disease ultimately proved stronger than the flesh.

But never the spirit.

Mercifully the end came for Paul six hours later, my colleague at Newsday for 17 years and a man who I sat three feet away from in press boxes stretching from Aqueduct to Hollywood Park, with all the stops in between, for longer than that.

When I was writing a column as Newsday’s first public handicapper, the time had come for Ed Comerford to retire. “Whitey” was a former Newsday sports editor who spent the waning days of a distinguished newspaper career covering Thoroughbred racing.

It was a time when the New York tabs, and the Gray Lady, too, had two or three people on the racing beat. Newsday covered horse racing mostly because the Belmont Stakes is run on Long Island, and because there were drawing board plans to make an incursion into New York City.

Dick Sandler, the great Newsday Sports Editor, instructed me to go out and find a replacement for Comerford. A week or two later, Mark Berner, a friend and Newsday consensus box colleague, brought me a clip of a piece Paul had written on harness racing.

After serving his country in Vietnam, Moran went to work at the Buffalo News, his hometown paper, and eventually found his way to South Florida and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel where he covered Thoroughbreds and Pompano Park harness.

I took the clip into the Newsday office, gave it to Sandler who read it and gave it to Deputy Sports Editor Jeff Williams. They looked at each other, looked back at me, and Dick said “get in touch with Moran and have him call me.”

The rest is Eclipse Award history.

In many ways, Paul and I were polar opposites, especially politically. While we had many disagreements, somehow we managed never to go to bed angry, figuratively speaking, of course.

Even when we weren’t on the same page, my present duties require that I devour everything that’s written on racing and when I noticed one of Paul’s recent contributions to, his was the first story I opened.

There have been many great wordsmiths to labor as turf writers; Palmer, Smith, Hatton and all the rest.

But Bill Nack and Paul Moran were contemporaries, both at Newsday and in life, and were my literary turf heroes. I wish I had the proverbial dollar for each time I blurted out: “Hey, Toni, listen to this one… Wish I wrote that.”

Nack, of course, had the great mystical style of the old masters. Paul’s tomes were more adversarial, but could he ever turn a phrase. As he wrote his column, he sometimes would laugh at his own jokes. The next day, invariably, I laughed, too.

Paul not only was creative on the printed page but was inspired whenever he filled out a Newsday expense report on our return from Saratoga each summer.

One afternoon Sandler called Newsday’s private line in the Belmont press box. Moran answered it and was laughing when he hung up the phone.

I asked “what was that all about?” “Dick told me that he went over my expense report and said that ‘I assume you’re now the same size as Pricci’.”

In the tradition of the great wordsmiths who labored at their craft whatever their field, Paul often would unwind at night with a few pops at local watering holes wherever racing was conducted.

Back then it was Esposito’s Tavern across from Belmont Park downstate, and Lillian’s on Broadway in Saratoga.

One year Paul rented a house on East Avenue. He was ambling home about 3:30 a.m. when Mitch Levites of NYRA’s closed-circuit TV department rolled up on Paul and lowered his window.

“Give you a lift?” Paul walked over, got in and exchanged pleasantries as Levites put the car in gear and began to slowly roll forward. “Where to?” Levites asked. They went about 40 feet, two or three houses passed where Paul climbed into the car.

“Right here,” he said to Mitch. He got out, put the key in the lock, and disappeared into his Saratoga rental.

Paul won two Eclipse Awards, the Red Smith Award for outstanding coverage of the Kentucky Derby, one from the Associated Press Sports Editors, among others.

At that time Newsday had the best seats in the Belmont Park press box, closest to headstretch. Our perch provided a perfect view of the grotesque scene playing out in front of us, the tragic breakdown of Go for Wand in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

The late Willie Shofner, a.k.a “the Black Prince,” worked the press box lounge back then. He fed us on race days and kept some liquor behind the lunch counter in case one of the scribes had an “emergency.”

Grown men were crying everywhere in the press box and many of us took a time out and a couple of pops before regrouping to report on what had just transpired.

As we started writing, a reporter from another paper came into our office and made the mistake of asking who I liked in the next race. It was a good thing there were no open windows. Paul screamed the guy right out of the room, to say the least.

Then he sat down and wrote a stirring account of the breakdown on deadline, earning him the second of two Eclipse Awards.

Paul Moran was practiced in the art of the give-and-take, rarely without the perfect wisecrack suitable for any occasion.

The perception might have been of a man in conflict with himself, but this was also a man who had pictures of four poor children he helped support through charitable organizations on his refrigerator door. At the end, much of his money was willed to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

“I can understand my getting sick,” he told a friend after roaming the halls of Sloan Kettering one afternoon following surgery two years ago. “But what did these kids ever do to deserve this?”

Paul probably would be embarrassed to think people might learn about this quiet generosity--not the carefully crafted image of the curmudgeonly contrarian he worked so hard to perfect.

Befitting his half-Irish, half-Italian heritage, he went out as he lived. Paul Moran was a man’s man, right to the very end.

Written by John Pricci

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