* THE DIAGNOSIS: How relieved was Philadelphia Phillie first baseman John Kruk to learn that those abdominal lumps stemmed from a muscle strain and didn’t represent a cancer recurrence? It went beyond the obvious, the pot-bellied Kruk said, adding: “At least, now I know I have a muscle in my stomach. A lot of people didn’t think I did.”

* REHAB: Fed up with Rob Dibble’s incessant bugging that he is ready to pitch after spring shoulder surgery, the disbelieving Cincinnati Reds have sent their one-time closer to Indianapolis on a 30-day rehabilitation assignment. The Reds let Dibble throw batting practice before leaving, and he almost beheaded Jerome Walton and Deion Sanders before Manager Davey Johnson called the 25-pitch workout over after 15 pitches.

“Right now, Dibble can’t even spell location,” Johnson said. “That’s it. He isn’t going to maim my hitters. If he wants to pitch under game situations, he can go to the minors, where those kids are used to dodging bullets. In fact, I’ll escort him to the border to make sure he crosses it.”

Said Dibble: “I can’t spell location? L-o-c-a-t-i-o-n. My wife told me how. I can count to three too.”


* ADD REDS: Although first in the National League Central after finishing fifth in the West last year, attendance is down 52,000, which owner Marge Schott blames on the Riverfront Stadium smoking ban, while others cite the attraction of new Jacobs Field in Cleveland, only 250 miles away. Schott is fighting the ban in City Council; says the poor crowds are an embarrassment to her players and will serve as grand marshal of a tobacco festival parade in Ripley, Ohio, next month. “I’m doing it for the economy,” she said, lighting up. “Lots of people in that industry are losing their jobs.”

* CHOP TALK: The Atlanta Braves began the weekend with a 60-41 record, 2 1/2 games behind the Montreal Expos in the NL East. Last season at this stage, en route to 104 victories, they were 59-42, seven games behind the San Francisco Giants. Nevertheless, the impression is that the Braves have regressed, with inconsistent pitching from their vaunted rotation aside from Greg Maddux, chronically spotty relief again and a station-to-station offense devoid of the speed of Sanders and Otis Nixon.

Expo General Manager Kevin Malone said: “The Braves have more power, but bullpen and speed are our big advantages. We steal bases. Our outfielders get to more balls in the gap.”

Montreal reliever Mel Rojas added: “They’re like an American League team now. They sit back and wait for the home run.”


* BRONX BOMBERS? The New York Yankees are patiently putting away the American League East. They began a weekend series against the Cleveland Indians leading the league in runs, but it’s more the result of discipline than power. They also were leading the league in walks and on-base percentage while a modest fifth in home runs. Hitting coach Rick Down said: “My philosophy is you’re only as good as the pitch you swing at.”