It’s fair to say Ernie Johnson is best-known for his role as the exasperated-but-actually-in-on-the-joke host of TNT’s celebrated studio program, “Inside the NBA.’’
The host since 1990, he has been the perfect ringmaster for Kenny Smith (joined the show in 1998), Charles Barkley (2001), and Shaquille O’Neal (2011) as “Inside The NBA’’ turned into the quintessential sports studio program. It has won nine Sports Emmy awards, while Johnson has collected three as Best Studio Host.
While his studio work in basketball will be his broadcasting legacy, baseball is in his blood. Johnson, who will call Sunday’s Red Sox-Rays game in St. Petersburg, Fla., along with analyst Ron Darling on TBS, is the son of former Boston and Milwaukee Braves pitcher Ernie Johnson Sr.
He followed in his father’s footsteps not as a big-league pitcher, but as a big-league baseball broadcaster. Ernie Sr., who died in 2011, was a beloved Braves broadcaster for years on “superstation’’ TBS, and Ernie Jr. has a long history with the Braves himself, including calling their games with his father from 1993-96.
Johnson’s camaraderie and chemistry with his “Inside The NBA’’ cohorts is legendary, to the point that I couldn’t resist asking him what sort of antics would happen if they somehow ended up alongside him in the baseball broadcast booth.
“For shame. Shame on you for even considering that,’’ he deadpanned. “We did Minnesota and the Lakers on Christmas night in LA this past year [as the broadcast team] and this was living proof that four guys at an announce table was too many.
“Everybody is trying to be heard, and I’m trying to do some semblance of play-by-play that sounds like an NBA game. Meanwhile, Shaq’s insulting Chuck about something, then Kenny chimes in, and I’m saying, ‘The last eight trips down the floor, here’s what’s happened.’
“So I don’t know what would happen in the course of a baseball game. Although, if the game lasted long enough, one of those 3½-hour jobs, Shaq would probably go find something else to do, Kenny might leave also.
“Those guys are so much fun, and they’re perfect for a studio setting, where we’re allowed to let it rip and have conversations. And besides, there’s no way they’d fit all four of us in a broadcast booth at Fenway. I’m not sure we could get Shaq in one of those tiny things by himself.’’
Fortunately for Johnson, he’ll be working Sunday on a conventional baseball broadcast with a conventionally sized baseball broadcaster. Darling, the acclaimed Mets analyst and former pitcher, will serve as the color man.
“I love working with Ron,’’ said Johnson. “No. 1, he’s a gentleman. No. 2, he’s a great analyst with wonderful use of the language. And No. 3, he respects the game of baseball as much as you can respect something. He’s a delight to work with. He takes this very serious.
“Look,’’ he jokes, “he’s a Yale guy, he could be condescending, but he doesn’t have that in him. He’s a fun guy to play off of.”
The NBA consumes Johnson’s time during the season, and he’s also prominent in Turner’s March Madness coverage. But it’s not as if he dives headlong into baseball the instant TBS’s coverage begins after the All-Star break.
It’s a year-long process. He’ll have a few nights in the middle of basketball season, in December or perhaps January, when he catches up with baseball’s hot stove and updates his files, which he keeps for each team, player by player. That ramps up as the season grows closer.
“There’s a lot of cutting and pasting on my laptop as I update all of those things during the offseason,’’ he said. “But it’s never a situation where I’d go, ‘Hey, it’s August, who’s playing baseball?’ ’’
Johnson, presumably like anyone else who has followed the 2018 Red Sox from near or far, has been impressed by their season-long excellence.
“It doesn’t happen that often that you have so many guys having special years at the same time,’’ he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to sit back and enjoy what you’re doing while it’s happening.
“The postseason is so unpredictable. I can’t just draw the line and say, unless you make it to the ALCS it’s a failure, or unless you make it to the World Series. This is a remarkable season right now.’’
Sunday’s game is at Tropicana Field. But whenever he’s involved in a Red Sox broadcast, no matter the venue, Johnson inevitably thinks back to a cherished story his dad once told him about his pitching days at Fenway.
“We were calling the Sox-Rays ALCS [in 2008], and I called my dad one of those days and said, ‘Dad, I’m at Fenway.’ He said, ‘Do me a favor. Look over the bullpen out into the seats.’ I said, ‘OK, yeah, I see it.’
“He said, ‘One day in the City Series [charity exhibitions the Red Sox and Braves played in the ’50s], I gave up a home run to Ted Williams that landed in those seats.’
“I said, ‘Wow, that was a poke.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, my manager Billy Southwick, he came to the mound and said, ‘Don’t worry about it kid. He’s hit ’em off better pitchers than you.’
“My dad, he didn’t quite know how to take that. I think it was supposed to be encouraging, but it came out a little funny.
“But it was always so cool to be in that ballpark and think about my dad walking out there and pitching and giving up a jack to Ted Williams. Not many people have a story like that.’’