Had Steve Wulf '72 never climbed in his car after graduation and begun the career road trip that would take him eventually to Florida, Sports Illustrated and Time; had he not then helped establish ESPN The Magazine as the hip, smartmouthed challenger to the more staid SI's sports-mag dominance; had he not crafted one of sportswriting's most distinctive writing voices along the way; no, had Wulf, say, never even escaped the local sports beat at the Norwich, N.Y., Evening Sun, where he landed his first job, he'd still warrant a neon footnote in the annals of fandom.
That's because he was a fantasy-sports pioneer, arriving right after the Big Bang of the ur-fantasy league, Rotisserie League Baseball, founded in New York City in 1980 by editor and writer Daniel Okrent. "I did help to promulgate it, through Sports Illustrated and by writing the original Rotisserie League book," Wulf says. "I think we knew we had something special."
By then, barely 30, Wulf was already what scribes once called a "grizzled veteran" of what-if baseball, having done hard time in his youth as a Philadelphia Phillies fan — a parable of woe equal to anything that Cubs or Bosox partisans can summon up. He'd honed his imaginary baseball skills right on the Hill, he says, attempting to re-script his beloved Phils' legendary 1964 collapse with "late-night games of Strat-O-Matic up in ELS," where he washed dishes. A 10-game tailspin at season's end had cost the Phils a sure pennant, and, years after the fact, "we would waste away the hours we should be studying replaying the '64 season to see if we could bring the Phillies home."
That drama has stayed with Wulf for the long run; a feature he wrote for Sports Illustrated about a Phillies reunion on the 25th anniversary of the collapse remains a personal favorite. That rich sense of sports history — and a willingness to play with it — in fact drives much of Wulf's prose. And since he serves as executive editor of ESPN The Magazine as well as feature writer and columnist, it shapes the magazine as well. "From the beginning, we didn't want to be the corporate voice of ESPN, even though we have that in our name and we owe our success to those four letters," he says of the magazine's 1998 origins. "We wanted to bring a different perspective than you might see on Sportscenter…. We wanted to be able to laugh at the world of sports and glory in it at the same time. We knew that sports was fun."
That attitude has made ESPNTM a little dicier and a lot more ironic than your father's sports magazine. It's the mag that titles an online column "The world + sports = hours of lost productivity" and invites six-word stories from readers. (A submission on last year's NBA Playoffs: "Spurs! Pistons! America stabs eyeballs out.") Why, Wulf himself once referred to retired Mets catcher Mike Piazza as "a living E-Z Pass to second base." But Wulf's own prose is often the ballast in that lighter-than-air mix. His distinctive style melds the magazine's penchant for postmodern patter with a traditionalist's emotional generosity toward athletes and sports traditions. When those two voices sing together — and they usually do under Wulf's direction — the harmony can turn your head.
Take a recent feature, "330 Strong," about the regrouping and rededication of Virginia Tech's marching band in the wake of the April 2007 campus massacre that took 32 lives, including that of a band member. Wulf's take manages to be at once deeply moving and LOL funny. "Let's stop for just a moment to consider the college marching band," he writes:
"There are those who would dismiss it as an anachronism, a bunch of dorks who play dress-up and sousaphones and music not normally found on an iPod. Forget and forgive such cynics, because chances are they have never been to a big college football game and seen how much a band means to school spirit. They've never marveled at the formations or heard the fanfare or felt the rumble beneath their feet." Like a great marching band, Wulf's prose marries a measure of fanfare to a bucket of swing, along with a relentless narrative rhythm. It lets you know you're being taken somewhere worth going.
What he does: As executive editor, columnist and feature writer at ESPN The Magazine, “I’m both a writer and a editor, and as a writer I bring an editor’s sensibility to it,” Wulf says. “By the same token, when I’m editing a story, I try not to forget that the writer has really poured himself into the story and that my job as editor is to protect his voice and the story itself.”