BACK ON THE HILL Finding it hard to root for baseball players these days, what with all the discussion of steroids and strikes? Well, Ive got a diamond in the rough for you. Andy Benes is a St. Louis Cardinal pitcher with more than 150 wins but with more recent heartache than any opera would dare present. The big righthander -- who turned 35 last Tuesday -- suffered a career implosion halfway through the 2001 season when he essentially became a batting-practice pitcher . . . for Cardinal opponents. His ERA ballooned to 7.38 and St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa shut him down for the last two months of the season as his club roared toward the playoffs. Benes appeared to have regained an edge last spring and earned a spot in the St. Louis rotation as the season opened in April. But once the lights were turned on, he reverted to his 2001 form, shelled for 12 earned runs in only 10 innings pitched before announcing his intention to retire (due ostensibly to an arthritic right knee). Benes was a key player in this space several weeks ago as I examined The Curse of Ol Diz, the inexplicable history of woes and ailments suffered by St. Louis pitchers, from Dizzy Dean to Rick Ankiel. (Ace Matt Morris is on the disabled list now, having strained a hamstring running out a ground ball, for crying out loud.) And that was before June 22nd, when the leader of the Cardinal staff, Darryl Kile, was found dead in a Chicago hotel room. As the fates would so randomly have it, that dark weekend was almost precisely when Andy Benes found his pitching life. The day after Kiles death, Benes took the mound for the Redbirds here in Memphis. With his heart in Chicago -- and Kiles number 57 on his back -- Benes pitched four solid innings in sweltering heat against the Tucson Sidewinders. Right after that Sunday afternoon game, Benes drove up I-55 to join his Cardinal teammates in time for Kiles memorial service at Busch Stadium June 26th. He rejoined the Redbirds for two more starts -- including a win over brother Alan and the Iowa Cubs on July 3rd -- before finally being promoted to St. Louis when LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan simply ran out of arms. It should be remembered that there was a time Andy Benes was the lead dog in the Cardinal rotation. He won 18 games for the 1996 division champions, another 10 in 97. When contract negotiations exceeded a signing deadline before the 1998 season, Benes was forced out of town. After two years in Arizona, though, he happily re signed with St. Louis, claiming it had felt like home all along. He was the only Cardinal hurler to hold his own in the 2000 National League Championship Series, beating the Mets in Game 3 of a series St. Louis would drop in five games. Beyond his accomplishments on the mound, Benes is by all accounts one of the truly good guys in professional sports. Hes active in the St. Louis community, an articulate, willing interview, and a guy who never made excuses, even when he was doing a rather nice bobblehead imitation in following the flight of countless gopher balls. Which makes his comeback all the more pleasing to fans soured on the spoiled-rotten culture of Major League Baseball. Benes opened eyes August 4th, when he held the world-beating Atlanta Braves to one run over seven innings. He won three games over the next three weeks, including seven innings of shutout ball against Pittsburgh the day before his birthday. LaRussa has gone so far as to say the Cardinals would not be a first-place team without one Andrew Charles Benes. And to think four months ago he was being fitted for a gold watch. Considering Kiles tragic fate, its inappropriate and borderline offensive to speak of Benes as a baseball Lazarus as some scribes have. He has merely found a way to pitch -- successfully, and differently -- instead of calling it quits. He has put together the biggest singLe-season turnaround in recent Cardinal history, and one would have to presume Darryl Kile is part of his inspiration. Andy Benes is a 66, 245-pound reminder that nice guys dont finish last after all. They just finish what they started.