Ernie Johnson on sportscasting: 'Don't call it work'

Ernie Johnson is seen in the TBS broadcast booth at Oriole Park at Camden Yards prior to game two of the ALCS playoff series against the Kansas City Royals.

Whether it's hosting "Inside the NBA" or calling a Major League Baseball playoff series, Ernie Johnson makes sports broadcasting seem easy.

There has not been much joy for Orioles fans with the Birds losing the first two games of the American League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals, and TBS delivering lackluster telecasts.


The delay of the first pitch on opening night in Baltimore because super-bright TV lights on the set of the TBS pre-game show in center field were left on was an unforgivable gaffe. And Cal Ripken's lifeless analysis during both games has been almost as depressing as the Orioles' play.

But as the series resumes tonight in Kansas City with Game 3, one of the few bright spots has been Johnson's easygoing but animated play-by-play. The Turner Sports broadcaster never seems to be forcing himself on the action. Instead, he lets the game come to him at its own speed, especially in a playoff series.


"Less is always more in a playoff game," Johnson said in an interview at Camden Yards before the start of Game 2 on Saturday. "Sometimes, you go to a regular season baseball game and you're in Game 110 of 162, and there's nothing riding on the game, well, you lay out [say nothing at the microphone] and you can hear a popcorn vendor. But here in a playoff game, it lends itself to saying less."

Johnson said he tries to put himself "in the position of a fan at home" watching the game on TBS.

"I've done this as a baseball fan all my life watching a game on TV, and I'm saying [to the announcer], 'Hey, take breath. You don't need to talk all the time. I don't need to hear you.'" Johnson said. "I want fans to live this game through the TV set. If that requires me setting the stage at certain points and re-setting it for people who are just joining us, fine.

"But when you've got 48,000 fans waving towels and screaming, and the graphic on the screen says, 'Three balls and two strikes,' you don't have to say a lot. The pictures and the sound tell the story."

Johnson says he learned that approach to broadcasting from his father, Ernie, a pitcher for the Boston and Milwaukee Braves and then the Baltimore Orioles from 1950 to 1959.  After his major league playing career, the senior Johnson did color and play-by-play on radio and TV for the Atlanta Braves for 37 years starting in 1962, a remarkable run.

Johnson's father died in 2011. But indicative of the bond that remains between father and son, Johnson was wearing his father's 1957 World Series ring and 1958 National League Championship cuff links from the Milwaukee Braves on Saturday.

"I had the world's greatest childhood. I used to hang around by the batting cage and have Hank Aaron ask me how my Little League team was doing," Johnson said of his years growing up in Milwaukee where his father's team -- led by Aaron, the home run king -- won the World Series over the New York Yankees in 1957.

"I sat in the back of the broadcast booth for ages watching my dad do his job. And not just watching how he did his job, but how he interacted with people and how he regarded his job. He felt very blessed, very lucky to be doing this. And he always told me, 'Ernie, this game's not about me. It's about the people on the field. Don't ever let the game be about you," Johnson said.


"And that's what I've always tried to do.  I try to stay out of the way unless I'm really needed. I don't need to be yapping over pictures that are conveying the electricity at Camden Yards. I don't have to say, 'Boy listen to this crowd.' You're listening to it."

Johnson said his respect for those who play the games also shapes his relationship with the former athletes who are now his analysts -- Ron Darling and Ripken in the TBS booth at baseball playoff games and Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith in the TNT studio for "Inside the NBA," one of the liveliest sports shows on television.

"Some people say doing a studio show and doing play by play are two totally different animals," Johnson said. "And to an extent, that's true. But in my role, I'm still trying to engage the guys who played the game. Whether I'm in the studio or in the booth doing this, I'm trying to get Cal and Ron where they're at their best, and I'm trying to get Kenny, Shaq and Charles where they're at their best. And that involves asking questions on and off the air."

Johnson said that after seeing the O's struggle at the plate against the Royals' bullpen Friday night, he asked Darling how he would be approaching the O's lineup if he were still pitching.

"I was talking to Ronnie today, and I said, 'Hey, you're in a playoff game here and you're looking at an Orioles' roster that doesn't have [Manny] Machado, doesn't have [Matt] Wieters, doesn't have Chris Davis. Are you looking down that lineup card [with their replacements] and saying, 'That an out, that's an out, that's an out?

"And he said, 'That's exactly what you do. You go down the lineup and you're looking here, you're looking here, and you're looking here. And this guy's got to be oh-for-four, this guy's got to be oh-for-three, this guy has to be hitless, too. But if I get to this guy with a base open, I'd much rather not face him.' That's the kind of stuff you can only get from a former pitcher like Ron Darling. And it's my job to try and get it."


The truth is, however, that you can only go so far in trying to get it, and then it's up to the analysts to start delivering. That has not happened so much in the ALCS with Ripken, at least.

Even though Johnson's been working as a professional sportscaster since his junior year at the University of Georgia in 1977, the 58-year-old announcer insisted the job still excites him.

"Don't call it work – it's not," he said. "There's something very special at this point in my life in being able to do something that my dad did for so long. It's still very cool to be able to do this."