Wherever retired Navy captain James J. Ridge goes, his hosts can't do too much for him. He has been welcomed by high school bands, wooed by mayors and entreated by school children.

At least 35 port cities for almost two years have been courting Ridge, bidding to become new home ports for Navy ships.

Ridge, who works at the Navy's Atlantic Fleet headquarters here, heads a team of consultants who will recommend to the Navy where it should base its ships. The decisions likely will reduce the Navy's presence in cities such as Norfolk and San Diego; they probably will be highly political decisions made by Defense Department officials in Washington.

"That's why they like me here in Norfolk and not in Washington," Ridge said in an interview. "I'm fenced in from that here. Somebody else can handle the politics of the matter."

Ridge, who commanded three ships and the Little Creek Amphibious Base in Norfolk, spent 17 of his 20 years in the Navy at sea. He retired from the Navy in July.

Now Ridge works for the office of the secretary of the Navy, which makes the decisions about where future Navy bases will be.

The Navy's intent to find homes for a fleet that is expected to grow to 600 ships by 1989 began three years ago. The chief of naval operations, Adm. James D. Watkins, then commander of the Pacific Fleet, felt a need to disperse the Navy's growing number of ships to less concentrated ports.

The idea, supported by Navy Secretary John Lehman, is intended to offer the enemy fewer juicy targets. Right now the Navy is concentrated in Norfolk, its largest port, and San Diego and Pearl Harbor.

"If we're going to fight all the wars out of Norfolk or San Diego, maybe that is not the best way to do things," Ridge said.

So in 1982, the Navy decided to disperse some of its ships -- particularly its reactivated battleships and their escorts -- to the Northeast, the Northwest and the Gulf Coast. In addition, the Navy decided to remove a carrier battle group from the concentration of ships in California.

Lobbying for Navy vessels and the income they generate is intense. Fourth-graders in Lake Charles, La., recently sent Ridge drawings of happy citizens welcoming sailors with open arms. "They were just really exceptional," Ridge said.

Last summer in Brownsville, Tex., almost 50 billboards proclaiming "We want the Navy" greeted Ridge's selection team during a visit. City officials took the visitors to lunch at the Marine Military Academy, a private school.

The Gulf Coast is awaiting Ridge's decision -- probably in April -- on which of 17 cities he will recommend as the home port of the battleship Wisconsin and six other ships. With the selection goes a $100 million construction project, a $50 million annual military payroll, $9 million yearly in housing allowances and up to 3,500 civilian jobs.