When minor league baseball returned to Columbia in 1983 after a 21-year hiatus, it didn't take Bill Blackwell long to spot David Williams as a regular fan.
But Blackwell, the Columbia Mets general manager, also noticed that Williams was entering the team's games each night by exchanging a foul ball for a free ticket, an incentive Blackwell used to get baseballs returned.
He suspected former USC outfielder Paul Hollins, who knew Williams from his days as a Gamecock, was giving Williams baseballs before the game. Eventually, Blackwell called a halt to the nightly ritual.
"We said, 'The heck with it, he's going to get in free anyway, we'll just let him in.'"
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By then, Blackwell, who is now the general manager for the Class AAA Charlotte Knights, also had recognized something unique about Williams.
"He started showing up every night and going through the stands leading the cheers," Blackwell said. "He was friendly to everybody. He was always trying to get the crowd involved. Every ballpark needs a character, and he was ours."
Twenty seasons later, the Columbia Mets have become the Capital City Bombers, but Williams remains a big part of the act.
The high point of many hot summer nights at Capital City Stadium is Williams' seventh-inning rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," followed by a song of his choice, sung from atop the Bombers dugout.
The Bombers will pay homage to Williams tonight when they hold David Williams Bobblehead Night.
The first 1,000 fans through the gates will receive a noggin-rockin' likeness of the local legend. The 7-inch ceramic figurines will salute the cheerleader's iconic status.
Current general manager Tim Swain notes that many major league players have passed through town wearing the home team uniform over the years, but David Williams is more identifiable to fans than any of them.
"If you say 'Bombers' to people in the community, he's the one person they'll tell you about," Swain said.
Williams' enduring popularity would have been hard to imagine in 1983. He began simply enough as the guy who walked around the old wooden bleachers chanting, "Let's go, Mets!" and cajoling fans to spell out the team name along with him. But his role soon evolved into an official capacity.
"There was never a conscious decision - yeah, we've got to add him," said Blackwell, who ran the club from 1983-87. "All of a sudden, he was just part of the act."
The 72-year-old Williams is happy how it's all turned out.
"I love the Bombers so much because they've been good to me. If I say I needed something, they'd do it for me," he said. "I think they feel real good about me."
"As long as I'm here, he has a job and a lifetime pass," Swain said. "I'm sure that'll be the case no matter who's running the club."
'LOVING AND CARING'
There's something about David Williams that brings out the paternal instincts in people.
Columbia Police Chief Charles Austin met Williams 13 years ago.
"He's very special to me," Austin said. "He's a person of great compassion. He's a very loving and caring person. He's never met anybody who's a stranger to him."
Austin played a role in getting Williams into his current home, a house in West Columbia that's run by the Babcock Center.
The Babcock Center is a private, nonprofit organization based in Richland and Lexington counties that serves people with a variety of lifelong disabilities.
Williams lives at the residence, which has an office and is staffed with around-the-clock caretakers, with three other men.
Elaine James-Brown, the supervisor at this home, has developed a strong relationship with Williams, as well. "David's a sweetheart," she said. "He'll do anything for you. We like having him here. He's a joy."
James-Brown smiles when she discusses his celebrity.
"You'd think Dave was Elvis Presley," she said. "When we go to the mall, people come up and say, 'Is that David Williams?' Everybody knows him."
The walls of his room - which is equipped with a bed, lounge chair, television, dresser, nightstand and telephone - are adorned with autographed posters of some of his favorites, including Lou and Skip Holtz.
"I like this place. It's real nice," Williams said.
Over the years, Austin said Williams' trusting nature has made him vulnerable to people who want to separate him from his money. That's why Austin worked to get him in a secure environment.
"I tend to watch people around him so they won't try to take advantage of him," Austin said. "If I find any evidence of that wherever he goes, then they've got to deal with me."
Biographical details on Williams are sketchy. He was born in Georgia, but moved to the Columbia area as a youngster. He has two sisters who live in the area: Maude Smith, 59, and Lillie Mae Williams, 60. Two other siblings are deceased.
Over the years, he has worked a variety of odd jobs. His favorite is yard work.
"I love to do that in the summer," he said.
Williams has had to deal with various health issues over the years. In 1994, he had surgery to remove a tumor near his heart. He still goes to rehabilitation exercises at the Heart Center. But he finds a way to bounce back every time.
"Being a part of the Bombers is what keeps him going. He lives for the Bombers," James-Brown said.
Having support from people like Austin, Swain and USC women's basketball coach Susan Walvius helps, too. They do things like attend assessment meetings and award ceremonies at Babcock that involve Williams.
In 1999, he received an award trophy with this inscription: "Presented to David Williams, A Builder of Bridges, For Outstanding Contributions Toward Improving The Lives Of Persons With Disabilities, Sept. 16, 1999."
"I want to do everything I can to help him succeed. I want to be a part of his life," Walvius said.
Austin, who transports Williams to many USC events, feels the same way. He can still remember the first time he saw Williams perform.
"He was unabashed and fun-loving and didn't mind sharing that with other people. I remember sitting there and thinking that was so amazing," Austin said. "The guy loves life. He doesn't sit around and sulk about how things are or how they could be."
A HIT WITH THE FANS
Williams has seen his share of changes at Capital City Stadium, but he has become the constant. He has worked his way through seven general managers.
Bill Shanahan, who ran the club for five years (1992-96), was the one who got Williams leading the nightly singalong during the seventh-inning stretch. Shanahan, who now is the general manager of the Class AA Mobile BayBears, had an idea that it might click with his audience.
"David brought enjoyment to the fans," Shanahan said. "David always loved the spotlight. And David was someone that everybody knew already."
When he first began singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," he had a little trouble with one line, singing "it's a shame if they don't win" instead of "if they don't win, it's a shame."
Marlin McPhail, a Columbia-based New York Mets scout who was a coach in that 1992 season, believes that only added to the song's appeal.
"Because it was David, it was cool," McPhail said.
Even cooler was Williams' expansion of his seventh-inning show. First he sang a soulful snippet of "Blueberry Hill" after finishing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Along the way, he began to add more songs, from "Mustang Sally" to "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" to "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay."
People loved it. Even after hearing it over and over, the act never gets stale.
"Most nights the players will still stick their heads out of the dugout each night to watch him sing," Swain said.
McPhail, who first met Williams as a Columbia Mets player in 1983, knows why people naturally like him.
"He's always given me a smile from the first time I met him. It's nice to see Dave every time," said McPhail, who now returns to the ballpark in a scouting capacity.
Tony Tijerina, a Bombers player in 1993 before returning as this season's field manager, says the players have always viewed Williams warmly.
"It was really nice coming back and seeing David's still here. He's a part of the team. The players know about him before they ever play in Columbia. They hear the stories about him," Tijerina said.
It's Williams' upbeat attitude that is most infectious.
"He always pulls for the guys - win or lose," Tijerina said. "He always tells them on their way out of the ballpark that we'll get them tomorrow. He's a positive fixture out here. The guys enjoy having a fan like him."
Swain has direct evidence of that. When the 2000 team pooled its money from fines at the end of the season, the players didn't decide to spend it on a party like they typically do. Instead, they gave the money - about $250 - to Williams.
The 2001 team followed suit.
"The players have been real nice to me," Williams said.
BIG USC SUPPORTER
David Williams was a Columbia fixture long before he became associated with the baseball team. Any USC fan can tell you that.
"Dave was always around. I remember him being at every game. Everywhere you turned at any Carolina event, he was there," said Florida Marlins mascot John Routh, who served as the original Cocky from 1980-82.
Williams continues to make his presence known at USC athletic events. He has developed an especially close association with the women's basketball program. The team reserves him a seat on the first row directly behind Walvius.
"I don't think you can be involved with Gamecock athletics without knowing David Williams. He's the biggest supporter we have," junior guard Kelly Morrone said. "When he gets on the refs, it's awesome."
Williams is well-known for his vocal razzing of Southeastern Conference officials, as well as South Atlantic League umpires. If you listen to Williams, the home team has never gotten a favorable call.
Walvius said it's hard not to hear Williams during games.
"He does his part to support the program by getting on the officials. And he always has a few pointers for me, too," she said.
But Walvius appreciates the unconditional love Williams has for the program.
"David has the biggest heart and he's the most loyal fan we have," Walvius said. "If the whole world had his heart, we wouldn't have any problems."
Said Williams of Walvius: "She loves me to death."
Morrone said the players feel the same way.
"After the game, he's the first to congratulate you or pick you up if it hasn't gone well," said Morrone, who got to know Williams better when she served an internship with the Bombers in the 2001 season. "He's a real gentle, caring soul. He's genuine. He means every word he says."
It's that quality that has led USC fans to adopt Williams, as well. Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, first remembers meeting Williams at the airport in the late 1970s, when both were part of a group of fans to greet the football team after a big win.
By 1980, the two spoke often at USC games. One time Williams told McLeese he had a hotel room and tickets for the Gator Bowl, but no way to get there.
McLeese offered to take him along, and Williams readily accepted. When the time came, Williams stuffed himself in the back seat of McLeese's small BMW.
"It was a laugh a minute all the way to Jacksonville and all the way back," McLeese said. "He didn't stop talking. Every time we passed somebody, he'd say, 'I talked to that man in that car right there.'"
THRILLED BY TRIBUTE
Williams has looked forward all season to his special night. He can't wait to see one of the bobbleheads.
"I think it's going to look like me. I definitely do," Williams said.
He expects a big crowd.
"People have been asking me to get them tickets so they can get one. Everybody's been saying they want one," he said.
Tonight, he'll still be doing business as usual: greeting fans, leading cheers, singing during the stretch and making people feel good about their trip to the ballpark. He'll get there courtesy of Bombers staffer Pete Ehmke, who calls his trips to pick up Williams "the best 15 minutes of my day."
"He loves to be included. He loves the attention," Swain said. "He still asks me every night if I think he's doing a good job."
Throughout the years, whenever he missed a game, fans would invariably ask, "Where's Dave?" Williams, of course, is impossible to miss in his "00" Bombers uniform, which has become an important part of his identity.
Blackwell likes to tell the story about how Williams got his first team uniform. It seems Williams spent much of one of the 1983 games in the ear of New York Mets minor league director Steve Schryver, talking about how much he needed a real Mets uniform.
A few weeks later, a package arrived in the mail from New York with a Mets jersey (No. 9) and pants. Because of Williams' size at the time, the Mets sent the pants of coach Frank "Hondo" Howard, a great home run hitter and one of the largest men ever to put on a big league uniform.
Williams' popularity can best be judged by the number of folks who attempt to impersonate his inimitable, gravelly voice when they hear his name.
"Everybody does Dave," said Mark Bryant, Bombers public relations man.
Yet there's only one true David Williams, something the people running the team always have understood. And the various general managers always have looked out for David, such as raising money for him to take trips to big Gamecock games on the road.
They're also there whenever Williams has told them he "needs a little something for my pocket."
"They've been real good to me. Tim Swain has been so nice to me. I love Tim Swain," Williams said.
And a mention of Blackwell, the man who got it all going, draws the same reaction.
"I love Bill Blackwell. I love (his wife) Judy, too," he said. The Blackwells feel the same way. "Judy wanted to claim him on our taxes," a chuckling Blackwell said.
Williams is hopeful new owner Frank Burke and new president Rich Mozingo, who take over the team at season's end, agree. Mozingo likes what Williams brings to the club. "I told him there would always be a place for him with the Bombers," Mozingo said.
He realizes what everyone who has run the team has learned.
"There's been a sincere appreciation for David from all of us," Shanahan said. "He's something special."
Neil White's favorite seventh-inning stretch song is "Blueberry Hill." Reach him at (803) 771-8643 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Where: Capital City Stadium
Gates open: 5 p.m. today
First pitch: 6:05 p.m.
Teams: Capital City Bombers vs. Columbus RedStixx, doubleheader
Bobbleheads: First 1,000 fans receive 7-inch David Williams doll.
Playoffs: First-half champion Capital City opens the South Atlantic League playoffs on Sept. 4.