THROWN A CURVE Its been just over a week, now, since St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead in his Chicago hotel room, the victim, apparently, of cardiac arrest. And I just cant seem to get over it. Time for sportswriters confession: Im a third generation Cardinals fan. A devoted member of Cardinal Nation who bleeds the Cardinals, sweats the Cardinals . . . and cries the Cardinals. Twelve months a year. I was born into this affection and have proudly carried it inside my chest for as long as I can remember. And I simply cant seem to get over Darryl Kiles death. Ive tried to find a rational explanation for a 33-year-old athlete expiring in his sleep. Say all you want about hardening of the arteries, coronary blockage, whatever. This was a man who -- irony of ironies -- never went on the disabled list in 12 years as a big-league pitcher. He seized his starts like a hungry lion would a lamb. Took the mound with a Bob Gibson-sized chip on his shoulder . . . probably with half the God-given talent with which Gibson was blessed. The only thing that made him angrier than giving up a hit was having the ball taken from him by his manager. A competitor, a warrior, a fighter. Dead at 33? Ive tried to measure my relationship to Darryl in rational terms. After all, this was no member of my family, no personal friend. Trouble is, the more I think about Darryl now, the more he seems like both. The fact Is, for two-and-a-half years --during baseball season -- Darryl Kile and I had a date every fifth day. Same time, via my radio. Same place, via our hearts. Ive got personal friends Ive known 20 years with whom I spend less time over the course of a baseball season. From their bright uniforms to their glossy bubble gum cards, major league baseball players are the closest example of living, breathing super-heroes we are apt to find before shuffling off this mortal coil. They perform feats the rest of us cannot. Their victories are epic, their defeats agonizing. They do not all become champions. But they are not supposed to die. Not as active super-heroes. When Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck died after a long illness June 18th, I felt like I had lost an uncle, an old friend whose voice had been my companion through countless innings of Cardinals baseball. I took some solace the next day in knowing the Cardinals had won the last game Buck heard -- against the Angels, no less -- to move into first place in the National Leagues Central Division. Darryl Kile pitched St. Louis to victory that night. If Bucks passing was the loss of an uncle, Kiles, I suppose, feels like the death of a cousin. My extended family, to say the least, is far from whole these days. Im determined to find a way of remembering number 57 with a smile instead of tears. Im determined to find a place in my mind where I can care about baseball standings again. Havent found that destination,yet, but Im determined. I had the pleasure of seeing Kile pitch his second game as a Cardinal -- April 8, 2000 -- at Busch Stadium on a bright Saturday afternoon, the day before St. Louis honored an old hero on Willie McGee Day. Kile beat Milwaukee that afternoon and, until June 22nd, my fondest memory of that game was Mark McGwire hitting a home run in front of my 11-month-old daughter on her very first visit to Busch. Now I can brag to Sofia that she got to see Darryl Kile pitch. I drove up to St. Louis for Kiles memorial service last Wednesday, and being in Busch Stadium was at least a reminder of why Darryl meant so much to me, why Im so devoted to Cardinals baseball. The best curveball in the major leagues died with Kile in that Chicago hotel room. How sad that the last curve Darryl threw us . . . will be the hardest to handle of them all.