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Star-crossed Cubs, pumpkin giants, steroid pirates

The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball
By Glenn Stout Houghton Mifflin, 480 pp., illustrated, $40

Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey
By S. L. Price Lyons, 256 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever
By Susan Warren Bloomsbury, 256 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-Aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School - The Secret History of America's True Drug Addiction
By Shaun Assael
ESPN, 368 pp., $24.95

As the 2007 Major League Baseball post-season began, I spoke with Glenn Stout about his most recent book, "The Cubs: The Complete Story of Chicago Cubs Baseball." The Chicago team had qualified for October play, and Stout maintained that it would be great for his book if the Cubs won the World Series - evidence that even a thoughtful and articulate man can say foolish things. If the Cubs had won the World Series, they would have stopped being the Cubs. There would have been no reason to buy even an excellent book about their history, because the ball club would have turned a corner that rendered that history quaint rather than poignant.

Of course the Cubs were eliminated early in the tournament, so "The Cubs" remains current. Stout's lively history of the team is brilliantly complemented by essays from William Nack, Mike Royko, and John Schulian, among others. Schulian's hilarious tale of his encounters with former Chicago manager Herman Franks is worth the price of admission.

In "Far Afield," S. L. Price recounts the story of a sports-afflicted innocent abroad. Raised on American games, Price prevailed on his longtime employer, Sports Illustrated, to send him and his family to France for a year. "France," he writes, would be "perfect. France had disowned Bush's Iraq adventure; France, by all accounts, had no use for Americans anymore."

From his base, a farmhouse in the French countryside, Price ranges around Europe, writing about sports such as soccer and skiing and musing on the nature of his craft. He concludes that you can take pride in such work, particularly on those occasions when "you captured time. You bottled passion. It will be gone the next morning, but you saw it, you got it, you wrote it in a way that sounds close to true."

Price writes about cricket matches between India and Pakistan, matches with political implications inspiring passions that make the rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees seem superficial. He writes about horse racing and the Olympics as well, and no matter what the subject, his eye is clear and his voice is powerful. And always his sense of humor informs the ambitious project "Far Afield" became and punctures what might have become pretentious in a lesser writer's hands.

Susan Warren has a fine sense of humor, too. This is a good thing, since she has written a book, "Backyard Giants," about the cultivation of pumpkins that weigh between 1,100 and 1,500 pounds. Most of these no longer look like pumpkins at all; they look like "alien pods in the cargo bay of a spaceship." "Gravity pulls on these behemoths as they grow," Warren writes, "shaping them into lopsided lumps." These pumpkins are, in short, hideous, but the people who cultivate them make full-time jobs of their passion and count on the monstrous results for validation. Says one aspirant to horticultural immortality, "I know that sometime before I take that big dirt nap, I'll be a world champion."

Even more disturbing and a lot less amusing is Shaun Assael's "Steroid Nation." This chronicle of pharmacologically fueled triumphs and disasters gives us not only the stories of many of the athletes who have turned to performance-enhancing drugs to pump up and prolong their career, but also the tales of people who just want to look better at the beach, and people determined to thumb their nose at the gravity that pulls on their body parts just as it tugs at giant pumpkins, and people who want to live forever.

Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all make appearances in "Steroid Nation," as do the various scientists and bureaucrats who have made careers of catching cheaters in the Olympics, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and elsewhere. But perhaps the most fascinating character to surface in the book is Dan Duchaine, whose exploration and explanation of the spectacular properties of steroids in a 1981 pamphlet, "Underground Steroid Handbook for Men and Women," began the most recent popularization of what, according to Assael, has become a full-fledged cultural addiction. To some extent, Duchaine's life provides Assael with a cautionary tale. This champion of better performances through chemistry and of life extension via steroid injection died young of a kidney disease exacerbated by his abuse of the various substances he advocated. But neither the marketers nor the customers in the sports/chemistry business seem to have paid much attention to the caution, and if Assael is right, that buff state of unconsciousness is not limited to athletes and their designers.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio's "Only a Game." His most recent book is also titled "Only a Game."

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