It was a warm and sunny late spring afternoon in 1986, Ringgold High School's dream of a baseball state championship having once more fallen just short. From the open window of a school bus about to haul the Tigers home flew a blue wool baseball cap with a golden "R" stitched to its front.
"You're one of us now," shouted Ringgold coach Bill Womack to a young sports writer as the cap landed near his feet.
And from that moment on - even though I'd never played organized baseball and could barely keep a scorebook - I always felt like an honorary Tiger.
Whether I covered them or not, and I rarely did past 1988, I always secretly hoped (after all, we're supposed to be unbiased in this business) that the gentlemanly Womack would finally win the state title that always seemed to barely elude him.
Alas, 13 years after he retired from the dugout in 1998, nearly three years after cancer first kidnapped his body, Womack passed away on Monday at the ridiculously young age of 59. Funeral services will be held today at 4 p.m. at Parkway Baptist Temple.
"A jewel," said Steve McDaniel, his Ringgold baseball assistant for 13 years. "He was everybody's friend, and he tried to be everybody's friend."
Added Roger Hackett, who pitched for Womack as both a Ringgold junior schooler and Tigers varsity star, "Every memory I have of Socky is a warm one. He taught me how to play with a different attitude. He wanted you to be serious, but have fun, too."
Maybe it started with that nickname. How could a guy called Socky be a jerk?
"There were lots of stories about that name," said McDaniel, long one of this region's best wrestling coaches. "Some people said he got it for socking somebody. Some said he got it for socking a baseball over the fence.
"But he told me that the real story was that when he was a little boy he hated to wear shoes but he also hated to go barefoot, so his mom and other family members started calling him Socky. I don't know if that's true or not, but that's the story he told me."
His story always centered on his family - wife Bennette, son Tas, daughter Jamie and two grandchildren with a third on the way.
But it's doubtful that his biological family loved him an ounce more than the kids he coached for 24 years at Ringgold or the countless lives of others he touched through summer ball and such.
"He was more like a dad than a coach," said Marty Chandler, who was a four-year starter at catcher for the Tigers in the early 1980s. "He wanted to get the best out of you, but he did it in a loving way. He just instilled such leadership qualities in all of us. He gave us attributes to last our lifetimes."
Recalled current Tigers coach Brent Tucker, who played for Ringgold rival Lakeview-FO: "We'd just played them and he came up to me and asked if any colleges were looking at me. When I told him no, he said he'd make a call or two. Within a week or so I had three or four college coaches call me."
Jesse Cross remembers having a rare bad night on the pitcher's mound one year against rival Lakeview.
"I just couldn't find the strike zone," said Cross, who later pitched in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. "Socky came to the mound and tried to calm me down. When he left he said, 'When I get back to the dugout I don't want to see you hit somebody.'
"Well, I hit the next two batters. When the inning finally ended, I went to the dugout and he came up to me and said, 'I know you think I'm taking you out, but I'm not. If you have to throw 200 pitches you're finishing this game.' I settled down after that and we won."
Hackett recalls Womack visiting the mound with Ringgold catcher Terry Schley, who was Hackett's closest friend.
"Socky would never look at me," he said. "He'd look at Terry and ask how I was throwing. Terry would say, 'He's pitiful. Get him out.' Then Socky would leave the field figuring that he'd made me mad enough to pitch better and I did."
Steve McDaniel's son Derek - now a fifth-grade teacher at Chickamauga Elementary - says he only saw Womack angry one time.
"He told me to take a pitch and I swung at it and popped out," said Derek. "I was so mad I threw my batting helmet. Well, Socky's all over me, but not because I swung, but because I threw the helmet. I never threw one again."
Now we'll never see Socky again. But he'll be remembered each time someone passes Bill Womack (Baseball) Field at Ringgold High. Or we see a guy with bad knees awkwardly attempt to pull a big-mouthed bass into a boat. Or we watch a manager be seen rather than heard, a sight far too rare at all levels of sport.
"He just knew how to handle people," said Cross. "Every conversation always ended with a smile or a laugh and a smiling face."
Jewels don't come any brighter than that.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.