Ernie Townsend and Doug Wald come from different backgrounds.
Ernie, 68, grew up on his parents’ farm in Kingsport, Tenn. He recalls walking over a half-mile to school when he was a kid and singing from the top of his lungs while driving his daddy’s plow. Doug, 49, is a Queens native whose father owned a car dealership. When the family moved out to Riverhead and Doug attended Bishop McGann-Mercy High School, there was very little, if any, walking to school or driving a plow.
Despite where the two came from, how old they are or which school they went to, they share a pair of very strong common bonds: music and sports. Specifically, karaoke and baseball. Even more specifically, karaoke at Outerbanks and the New York Yankees.
Now, as a devout Red Sox fan, I had to pause for a second when Doug recently told me he was bringing a longtime Yankees fan into Yankee Stadium for his first game.
“Do I really want to write about this Yankee fan’s trip?” I thought. “Wait, two Yankee fans trips?”
I actually did. And, after getting over it pretty quickly, I couldn’t wait to hear the story.
Doug is a pure baseball fan. Not the kind who knows the big players on the team or does the typical reminiscing on Facebook when legendary players retire. The guy is a serious, serious student of the game — like, he’ll rip off without a hitch what years the Yankees were subpar in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when he was just a kid. Then he’ll tell you why they were no good.
Ernie grew up in eastern Tennessee, a part of the country that didn’t have much of a professional baseball culture. Or much of a professional sports culture at all, and is more dominated by amateur sports to this day. So while some of his friends rooted for the Cardinals or Braves or Reds, Ernie rooted for the team he heard on the radio the most — or saw on TV after his family got one — simply due to their repeated success and nationwide reach: the New York Yankees. The same goes for football and basketball; the man loves the Packers and Celtics.
So what brought these two together? I was curious, so I recently met them at the Lobster Roll on Sound Avenue to find out for myself. Turns out that a karaoke group formed at the Lobster Roll around 2010 and, not long after, made its way over to Outerbanks. Both Doug and Ernie have regularly attended since. This isn’t just your drunk uncle’s karaoke group, mind you. They’re not singing “American Pie” and calling for “Freebird” halfway through the night. In fact, they’re not calling for it at all.
“I try to sing six new songs each week,” Ernie says.
“If I can get that guy in the back of the bar to look up and say ‘Nice job,’ then I’ve done my job. ‘Right on!’ Doug adds, shaking his fist and smiling.
As one might be able to predict, the kind of music they enjoy singing is a little different as well.
For Doug, it might be more Foo Fighters or, on an angry night, System of a Down. Ernie prefers classic country: Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones. But even those tastes intersect: On one recent night when Doug was feeling down, Ernie pulled out “Man of Constant Sorrow” off the “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack to help lift up his spirits. And, you bet — it worked.
A few weeks back at Outerbanks, Doug and Ernie got off the topic of music and switched to sports. Doug realized that the longtime Yankees fan had never entered the hallowed halls of Yankee Stadium (even if it isn’t the original).
So now it was time for Doug to lift up Ernie. And just like how Ernie was proud to shine some light into Doug’s day with a tune from the Soggy Bottom Boys, his friend was proud to do the same with a trip to the Bronx.
“Being a huge fan, this struck a chord,” Doug said. “We had to get into a game.”
And guess what? It keeps getting better.
Of course they had to sit first row, next to the dugout. Like, literally, the seats Spike Lee sits in. Doug knows a guy.
And Ernie soaked in every second of it.
“I was like a kid on Christmas,” he recalled.
Seeing a game at Yankee Stadium was one of the things on Ernie’s bucket list. Whether he’ll get to the frozen tundra up at Lambeau or the new “Gahden” in Boston remains to be seen, but for the rest of his life, the boy from Tennessee who now lives part-time in Riverhead will be able to say he sat a few feet away from the turf at Yankee Stadium and watched Joe Girardi’s wheels spinning in person as Michael Pineda’s slider just wasn’t breaking that night.
“The only thing is, when it’s over, you start getting withdrawals,” he said.
Was he talking about his and Doug’s trip to Yankee Stadium or their weekly trip to the karaoke bar?
I’ll leave that up for you to guess. Both are shared experiences two former strangers now look back and smile on — and wait until the next one comes.