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Fresh Looks at the Ol’ Ball Game

After 36 years in sports television, John Filippelli is still experimenting with the next new thing. Last weekend, his team at YES Network broadcast the first Major League Baseball games in stereoscopic 3D with two games between the New York Yankees and the Seattle Mariners.

A lifelong baseball fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, Filippelli says that 3D is “still a work in progress.” He views it as the latest step in technology that has changed a “thousandfold” across his career, including the conversion to high-definition and dramatic improvements in replay systems, graphics and slo-mo cameras.

“Storytelling is still the most important aspect, and that hasn’t changed,” says Filippelli, who is known as “Flip” to both friends and colleagues. “It’s been like that since the advent of baseball on radio.”

Filippelli has produced a variety of sports across his career, including college and professional football, hockey, basketball, golf, the Indianapolis 500 and the Olympics. But his true love has always been baseball. When Filippelli was growing up in Brooklyn, his father owned a bar across from Ebbets Field that was frequented by Dodgers stars such as Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. He played as a catcher in Little League and high school, and as a teenager worked as a vendor at Yankee Stadium.

“It’s always been a great passion of mine,” Filippelli says. “You think you grip a baseball, but actually, baseball ends up gripping you.”

A picture of a young Filippelli standing in his father’s bar hangs in his New York office, alongside abundant Yankees memorabilia and more Emmy Awards than one can count. Between both national and local Emmys, Filippelli has received 56 statuettes. He is proud of the awards, but quick to credit the networks and production teams he’s worked with across the years. “This is the most collaborative business there is,” he says.

Filippelli got his start in 1974 at NBC, landing a job as a copy boy by taking a network tour and poking his head into people’s offices asking for a job. His baseball knowledge brought him to the sports division, though he sat in on news specials and Saturday Night Live rehearsals, trying to learn as much as he could. By 1976, he was promoted to associate director and began working in mobile trucks, where his natural talent for producing was evident and he began serving as a “surrogate producer” on major events.

In the 1980s, he was the lead producer on multiple World Series, MLB League Championship Series and All-Star Games, as well as the 1988 Seoul Olympics. After leaving NBC for a stint at the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE), Filippelli helped launch The Baseball Network, a joint cable venture of MLB, NBC and ABC, in 1993. There, he had to assemble staff to produce a whopping 14 games one night each week. The 1994 MLB strike eventually led to the network’s demise in 1995, but by then Filippelli knew just about everyone in baseball production.

He brought those contacts to Fox in 1995, where he launched the network’s MLB coverage. As a producer who favored the unconventional over the traditional, he loved Fox’s push to reinvigorate broadcasts with new camera positions and mics mounted underneath bases. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” he says.

But Filippelli longed to spend more time at home. He joined ABC Sports in 1999 in more of a management role, as senior VP of production, but he missed baseball, and leaped at the opportunity when YES came calling in 2001 with the aim of bringing big-network production values to regional sports coverage.

The commitment to quality shown by late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was a major draw. “One of the reasons I came here was Mr. Steinbrenner,” Filippelli says.

YES CEO Tracy Dolgin, who worked previously with Filippelli when Dolgin was executive VP of Fox Sports, notes that Filippelli was “always known as the best baseball producer around.” But he thinks his long rooting interest in the Yankees also helped make him the perfect fit for YES and its devoted audience of Yankees fans.

“He wasn’t a programmer by trade, but he’s a fan by trade,” Dolgin says. “And he understood the sports fan better than anybody.”

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