There was a time when they played football in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. But since the Colts, the city's NFL franchise, left for Indianapolis last year, they have been playing football with Memorial Stadium.

That political gridiron game intensified here today, as a large roster of players -- including three likely gubernatorial contenders, Gov. Harry Hughes and members of a state sports commission -- scrambled for position on the question of how to proceed toward construction of a stadium that would be more attractive to professional teams than Memorial Stadium.

By the end of the day, Hughes had agreed to call a meeting of key players to put an end to the bickering and develop a common strategy, but not before Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs had characterized Baltimore Mayor William D. Schaefer, his potential gubernatorial rival, as "parochial and petulant."

"It's not just a Baltimore issue, it's a Maryland issue," said Sachs, arguing that the stadium debate should be as broad and public as possible. Sachs said "preconceptions" about the stadium's location inside the city, as opposed to somewhere near the city but closer to Washington, could stir up "regional animosities" between the city and other areas.

Today's activity capped a week of maneuvering that began Jan. 16 when a task force appointed by Schaefer recommended construction of a new $80 million baseball and football stadium in Baltimore and vowed to lobby the legislature for state funds to build it. The task force, headed by Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone executive J. Henry Butta and composed of Baltimore business leaders, was privately funded, held no public meetings, and has so far refused to release copies of its study to the public.

Though House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg subsequently said they would support the expenditure of state funds to begin planning a new facility, provided the Baltimore Orioles agree to a long-term lease, other legislators have complained that they are being stampeded by the Butta group.

Those grumblings spread today to a state sports commission appointed last year by Hughes that has begun studying the economic impact of professional sports and plans to conduct its own inquiry into the question of building a new stadium. Hughes included in his budget $200,000 to fund such a study, and has maintained that the commission should take the lead on the stadium issue.

Several members of the state commission chaired by Baltimore businessman Bernard Manekin openly complained today that their own efforts were being undermined by the Butta group, arguing that it would be premature for the legislature to authorize planning money for a stadium before their own consultant's study is completed.

"If they think they're going to come down here and get money without working with this commission, it just isn't going to happen," said state Sen. Thomas Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), one of 13 members of the sports panel.

Sachs brought the political undercurrents of the debate out in the open -- and perhaps kicked off the 1986 governor's race -- by criticizing Schaefer in his harshest attack to date on the man many observers expect to be his main rival for the State House.

"I don't want to be confrontational -- yet," said Sachs, "but to date he [Schaefer] appears to have been parochial and petulant," on the stadium issue. "Most disquieting of all, there has been an abandonment of public policy to private decision."

Sachs, who staked out his position in September with an op-ed article in The Baltimore Sun that argued for a new stadium or complex more accessible to Washington than Memorial Stadium, criticized the Butta inquiry as "a case study in how not to conduct public policy."

Arguing that the Manekin commission was the proper forum to debate the use of state money for a stadium, Sachs said that the Butta task force appointed by Schaefer had operated out of the public view and from a "preconception" that a new stadium should be located in Baltimore.

"There is a whiff of arrogance there that ought to be resented," said Sachs of the Butta task force's intention to ask for state funds without involving the public in its deliberations.

"All those judgments were made privately and presented to the city as public policy and to the state with a price tag," said Sachs. "That's not involvement of the private sector, it's delegation to the private sector."

House Speaker Cardin, who is also running for governor, argued in turn that the $200,000 appropriation for the Manekin commission "shouldn't be used for a consultant's study" of a new stadium. "We have enough information now, we'd just be spinning our wheels," he said, adding that the proper focus should be on getting a long-term commitment from the Orioles to play in a new stadium.

Meanwhile Schaefer, speaking at a Baltimore news conference, dismissed the work of the Manekin commission as he edged closer to an endorsement of the Butta recommendations. "I really don't know the purpose of that commission," said Schaefer of the Manekin group, adding that the Butta task force "has clearly in perspective the way to go."

Schaefer had previously kept his distance from the Butta recommendations, which conflicted with his long-held view that renovations to Memorial Stadium, rather than replacement, would be sufficient.