The Phillies’ ‘Video Dan’ Stephenson is the man who’s seen it all
While data, technology and a 162-game TV schedule afford Phillies fans unprecedented knowledge about their team, Stephenson provides a more intimate connection. With his camera and access, he has opened a window onto a baseball world generations of Philadelphians otherwise might never have seen.
Unkempt, unassuming, and usually unnoticed, Dan Stephenson is the Phillies' Zelig. Concealed by familiarity, this chameleon with a camera has witnessed and recorded the momentous and the mundane throughout 36 years of team history.
Since 1982, the Phillies' manager of video productions has been a ubiquitous team presence, chronicling nearly every public and private moment from pregame cow- milking contests to postgame championship celebrations.
He and his camera were there when a chorus of champagne-soaked '93 Phillies joined Harry Kalas in singing "High Hopes" after clinching the National League East title. He was in a Citizens Bank Park runway when Jimmy Rollins confronted Pat Burrell before Game 5 of the 2008 World Series.
When Kalas delivered a moving eulogy at Richie Ashburn's 1996 funeral, Stephenson was squatting beneath the pulpit, a teary eye pressed to his Sony-D600.
While data, technology, and a 162-game TV schedule afford Phillies fans unprecedented knowledge about their team, Stephenson provides a more intimate connection. With his camera and access, he has opened a window onto a baseball world generations of Philadelphians otherwise might never have seen.
In what amounts to a vast video diary, he has captured Phillies history in closed clubhouses, in dank runways and batting cages, in cars and buses, in Colorado woods and Nebraska kitchens, on parade floats, in celebratory heaps, and in silent dugouts. The footage yielded videos, scoreboard productions, team-produced commercials, and segments for shows like Beyond the Pinstripes.
"I always looked forward to Dan's presentations," said Chris Wheeler, the former Phillies broadcaster. "You knew he would capture the moment visually and with the appropriate music. He could make you laugh and cry."
Stephenson's secret is his near-invisibility. He's around players but rarely among them. He keeps quiet and respects an unwritten agreement between them, one that's rarely had to be enforced: If players don't want it made public, it won't be.
"There's never been something I really wanted to show that they said I couldn't," Stephenson said during a recent interview not long after the Business Association of West Parkside honored him for his 1999 video on Philadelphia's Negro league history.
"Sometimes there's cursing, but we can bleep it," he said. "And sometimes guys rub you the wrong way. But in all my years I really haven't had any problems."
Stephenson initially taped only player performance. In 1987, he was permitted to enter the clubhouse. By the early 2000s, he was practically in the dugout, stationed behind Phillies managers at game's end.
"I wasn't supposed to be there, but nobody cared because they knew I wouldn't show something I shouldn't. It worked great with Larry Bowa because he'd go insane," said Stephenson. "But Charlie Manuel was like a statue."
That's where Stephenson was when the Phillies won the 2008 Series. As Game 5 neared its end, he lined up a shot where the scoreboard would be visible over Manuel's shoulder when the manager raced out of the dugout.
"Fireworks were supposed to come out the top of the coreboard. Sounded like a great shot," he said. "When they won, Charlie just kept looking straight ahead, didn't move. The fireworks weren't great either. Never used it."
Before that memorably bifurcated game's conclusion, Stephenson happened to be in a runway when he witnessed Rollins jawing at Burrell, then 0-for-13 in the Series. Though MLB Productions had postseason rights, Stevenson carried his camera.
"Jimmy was yelling, "C'mon, No. 5! I want to see the real No. 5. You're better than this.' I reached down and switched on my camera. I gave the tape to MLB and it was in their World Series video," he said. "When I apologized to Jimmy for interrupting him, he said, `That's OK. I was putting on a show for you.' "
Burrell doubled in his next at-bat. Two days later came Stephenson's career highlight, the victory parade. He'd hoped to get the day off, but when that didn't happen, he reluctantly grabbed his camera and climbed atop a players' float.
"It was the greatest day I've ever had," he said. "It was the most spectacular thing to be on top of that float and roll through the city. I don't think I stopped taping or smiling."
Though he works with a casual confidence, able to go anywhere and shoot almost anything, Stephenson, a passionate Phils fan growing up in South Jersey, admits that initially it was intimidating to be so near his idols
"I was scared to death," said Stephenson, who lives with his wife and two 20-something sons in Estell Manor, N.J. "There were Hall of Famers on that team. But I wasn't pushy, and the first guy to be friendly with me was Steve Carlton. [Mike] Schmidt was fine. Once I got those guys, the rest were like, `OK, you work here, you're one of us.' I never felt uncomfortable."
He was hired a few months after Wheeler, despondent over the '81 Phils' postseason elimination, walked into Downey's, the now-defunct Front Street tavern where he was tending bar.
When Wheeler learned Stephenson was a Phillies fan who also ran a small video business, he told him the team was looking for a videographer.
"But I didn't do anything about it. I was such a huge fan that the thought of me working for the Phillies seemed absurd," he said.
Not too long afterward, Stephenson was bartending at a Phillies party at Downey's when Larry Shenk, the team's public-relations executive, told him Wheeler had mentioned their conversation. Later that night, Shenk and managing partner Bill Giles bellied up to his bar.
"Larry says, `Bill, this is our new video guy,'" Stephenson recalled. "Then Bill says, `Welcome aboard.' And that was it. No interview. No background check. They could have been hiring a mass murderer."
His job then was part-time and far less complex – film hitters at the plate and pitchers on the mound. Stephenson didn't even travel. When the Phils were away, TV footage was used.
Those early videos got mixed player reviews. Joe Morgan studied every at-bat. Schmidt brought them home when he was slumping. Carlton and Pete Rose never looked at them..
"Then I started shooting stuff on the side for fun," he said. "I'd show that to players and they loved it so I'd make them tapes."
In 1987, when the Phils hired local filmmaker Mike Tollin to produce something on Schmidt's quest for 500 home runs, Stephenson was asked to record clubhouse scenes.
"Until then we weren't allowed in," he said. "Tollin said if there's something on there that shouldn't be on there, I expect you won't give it to me. I followed Schmitty everywhere and the players were fine with it."
Few teams then produced annual highlight videos. Those that did rarely went beyond game footage and interviews. Tollin asked the Phils if he could do one with Stephenson as his shooter. Their goal was something more cinematic.
"They were a hit, so after a few years, I went to David Montgomery and said, `You know, I think I can edit and write these things too,' " Stephenson said. "Dave said, `Give it a shot.' So I did one in '91 ["What a Ride"] and Kruk narrated."
He's done one every year since except for two dismal -seasons – 1996 and 2000. He has also created full-length videos commemorating among other things the Negro leagues, Ashburn's career, and the '93 Phillies' 10th anniversary.
Until going digital in 2010, Stephenson recorded exclusively with videotape. Perhaps two-thirds of the thousands of cassettes he filled were discarded during the move from Veterans Stadium. The rest are stacked high in a ballpark storage closet or strewn around his messy work space.
Now, at 64, he hopes to archive it all before retirement.
"I'll be here a couple more years full time and that's how I want to end this," said Stephenson. "I'm the only one who knows where this stuff is and I want to make sure it's preserved."
One thing he'd like to find and maybe feature is footage from the last day of the '94 season, when a strike shut down the game.
"That day we won on a Ricky Jordan walk-off hit," he recalled. "They told the players to bring their cars down the ramp and onto the field so they could pack their stuff. They figured fans would be yelling and screaming at them in the lots. Only half the Vet's lights were on, there were 25 cars lined up, and guys were dumping stuff into them and driving away. It was an eerie scene."
In 1996, the Phils gave Stephenson an assistant, Kevin Camiscioli, to handle performance-related videotaping. Now videographers are ubiquitous, traveling with the team, and most ballparks include video rooms in both clubhouses. But the Phils were pioneers.
"Other teams have called me and asked how we do things," Stephenson said. "The year the Nationals made the playoffs they wanted to do a highlight video. I told them it helps to have a guy that's been there and has a relationship with the players. You can't do it from scratch. But they did, and when I asked later how it turned out, they said horribly."
These days, Stephenson doesn't know the players as well as he once did. Sometimes one will eye him suspiciously, wondering why a man with a camera is following him.
"But usually," he said, "someone else will take him aside and say, `He's OK. He's been around forever.'"