One can only be grateful that the Reds' Lou Piniella became a baseball manager instead of a judge.

After Cincinnati pitcher Rob Dibble was hit with a four-game suspension for bouncing a ball off a female fan's arm last week, Piniella openly wondered if Pittsburgh outfielder Andy Van Slyke would receive similar punishment. Van Slyke's crime? Being nice enough to toss a ball to a 53-year-old man who, in leaning over the railing to catch it, tumbled over the railing and to the ground, eight feet below. On his head. He was not seriously injured, although he was hospitalized overnight for observation."I think the league's got a little bit of a predicament," Piniella said. "A precedent's been set and I'm just curious to see how they're going to handle that situation - whether he (Van Slyke) will be reprimanded, fined, suspended or what.

"I don't want to see Van Slyke unjustly penalized. But at the same time, a rule is a rule. It was just an innocent flip (by Van Slyke), but somebody did fall out of the stands and hold up the ballgame for 15 minutes."

Equating what Dibble did with what Van Slyke did - and what other ballplayers do routinely - is like equating a guy making a withdrawal from his bank account to a guy holding up the bank at gunpoint. Comments like these make us wonder if it wasn't Lou that fell on his gourd.

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EXCEPTION TO THE RULE? According to the stat freaks at Elias Sports Bureau, big improvement can be expected from two American League teams this season: Cleveland and New York. The evidence? According to Elias, teams can be expected to make substantial improvement if: 1. In the previous season, they played at least five games below .500 in one-run games, and 2. They compiled a spring-training winning percentage at least 100 points higher than its regular-season record the previous year.

Since 1981, 22 teams have met these criteria, and all 22 have won more games than the previous season, by an average of more than 15 victories.

The guess here is that the Indians and Yankees will give this theory its toughest test yet.

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MORE DIBBLE: In case you're wondering if Dibble's tantrum and ball-chucking exhibition was an isolated incident, it wasn't. Here's the rest of his rap sheet:

- After giving up a meaningless spring-training homer in 1989, he attacked benches outside the Reds' clubhouse with a bat and threw folding chairs into a nearby pond.

- That same season, he drew a suspension for heaving Terry Pendleton's bat against the backstop at Riverfront Stadium after giving up an RBI single to him.

- Again that season, he hit Tim Teufel with a pitch, touching off a brawl with the New York Mets and bringing another suspension.

- And, still in 1989, he ended the season with a suspension from the team for refusing a coach's instruction to take a pitch.

- After a relatively quiet 1990, it took Dibble two appearances this season to draw his latest punishment. He was suspended for three days for throwing a fastball behind the head of Houston's Eric Yelding on April 11 after giving up an RBI single to pitcher Curt Schilling. Yelding was also suspended - for one day - for charging the mound and throwing his batting helmet at Dibble.

And it is just a rumor that Yelding wouldn't have been suspended if he'd hit Dibble with the helmet.

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BAD TIMING: OK, Van Slyke doesn't deserve a suspension for throwing the ball to the fan, but he at least should be fined for making an inappropriate quip. Commenting on the fan's dive, Van Slyke said: "He caught the ball but forgot his ripcord."

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SHORT STUFF: A strained right hamstring has kept Provo's Vance Law out of the A's lineup recently . . . Minnesota's Jack Morris (BYU) got his 200th career win last Sunday despite being sick and having to leave the game in the sixth inning. He also passed the 2,000-strikeout mark recently. "That puts me 3,000 or so behind Nolan Ryan, but 1,000 or so ahead of a lot of other guys," Morris said . . . Philadelphia's Dale Murphy is tied for 26th place on the all-time homer list with L.A.'s Eddie Murray and retirees Jim Rice, Frank Howard . . . Best substitution of the week: Wally Backman pinch-hitting for Joe Boever. That's right, Wally in for the Beaver.