THE CURSE OF OL' DIZ When spring training opened in February, the St. Louis Cardinals had the kind of starting pitching that was the envy of every other team in the National League . . . including the hurling gold standard of the last decade, the Atlanta Braves. Seven St. Louis starters -- a nice blend of veterans and youth -- were vying for Tony LaRussas five-man rotation, the kind of excess rare in this era of expansion-driven pitching dilution. But then by the end of April, that seven-armed beast had been reduced to a two-armed wounded animal, pushed along by stopgap support from our Triple-A Redbirds. How do you explain the black cloud hovering over the mound at Busch Stadium? Youve got to go back . . . way back. We all know about the Boston Red Sox and the Curse of the Bambino. The Bosox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 and havent won the World Series since. While the Cardinals have enjoyed far more success than Boston over the last eight decades, the franchise has suffered a history of pitching ills that is straight out of Ripleys. And it all began at the 1937 All-Star game. The finest pitcher of the Depression era -- Dizzy Dean -- was on the hill that day representing the Cardinals and the National League. He was doing fine until a line drive off the bat of Clevelands Earl Averill hit him directly on the big toe, breaking the digit and later forcing Ol Diz to alter his pitching mechanics . . . which damaged his flame-throwing arm and ended his career all too early. Quite a sacrifice for an exhibition game. Thirty years later, the legendary Bob Gibson suffered an eerily similar injury, as a line drIve broke one of his legs just below the knee. Considering Gibson was tougher than Gorilla Monsoon on a bad hair day, the St. Louis ace returned to action later that fall and led the Cardinals to a World Series victory . . . over the Red Sox. Its been over the last 20 years that this pitching phantom has really haunted St. Louis arms (and other anatomical parts). Danny Cox, an 18-game winner for the 1985 National League champions, broke his foot jumping off a seawall during a spring training fishing excursion. The Cards finest pitcher of the Eighties -- John Tudor -- broke a leg in 1987 bracing an opposing catchers fall into the Cardinals dugout! Over the course of the Nineties, several young St. Louis pitchers acquainted themselves more with surgical knives than resin bags. Donovan Osborne was a first-round draft pick who never got anywhere near his projected level of dominance because of one injury after another. Alan Benes broke out with 13 wins in 1996 and was near the top of the National League in strikeouts and ERA a year later when shoulder damage shut him down. He was last seen being released out of spring training by the Chicago Cubs. Ouch. Which brings us to the current Cardinal pitching crisis. Rick Ankiel -- not so long ago, the next Koufax -- never left Florida, as elbow trouble was added to his paralyzing control problems. Next to go down was Woody Williams, unable to make it even five innings in his first start of the season (pulled abdominal muscle . . . huh?). Garrett Stephensons remarkable recovery from Tommy John surgery to repair his damaged right elbow was interruped by back spasms, landing him on the disabled list next to Williams. Poor Andy Benes could no longer get big league hitters out, partly due to a debilitating knee injury, and retired after three starts. Finally, former Redbird Bud Smith -- he of no hitter fame last season -- was placed on the DL with shoulder pain in late April. The result of this fallout was a Cardinal rotation with two legitimate big-league arms: Matt Morris (another Tommy John survivor) and Darryl Kile. And the trickle-down effect hit the Memphis Redbirds rather hard. Instead of serving as linchpins in the Memphis rotation, Josh Pearce, Travis Smith, and Jason Simontacchi have been forced into duty for the Cardinals well before they are entirely prepared. Which means the youngsters development is curtailed, and our Triple-A outfit is not as competitive as it might be. Just last week, Stephenson and Williams returned to the Cards rotation and a degree of normalcy was felt both in St. Louis and Memphis (where the Redbirds welcomed both Smiths back with open arms). Theres a lot of baseball season left to play . . . and a lot of innings left for -- cross your fingers here -- healthy arms. Somewhere in baseball heaven, Dizzy Dean is wincing.