The issue of whether to build a ballpark to replace Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, and if so, how to go about it, may give Gov. Harry Hughes the next best thing to a constitutionally prohibited third term: the chance to affect the outcome of the 1986 gubernatorial election.

Hughes will have much to say about how the legislature deals with the increasingly politicized issue of a new stadium. It was Hughes who put $200,000 in his budget to fund the state's advisory commission on professional sports, a large share of which will go towards a consultant's study on the adequacy of the stadium and whether to construct a new one.

And it is Hughes' belief that the commission headed by Bernard Manekin is the proper forum for the debate, rather than the task force headed by Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. Vice President J. Henry Butta and appointed by Baltimore Mayor William D. Schaefer.

The fear that he might be losing control of the issue to the Manekin group brought Schaefer to Annapolis last week for an unscheduled meeting with the governor. Hearing that Hughes had complained at his Thursday news conference that he had not yet received a copy of the Butta report recommending a new $80 million stadium in Baltimore, Schaefer rushed to Hughes' office to kiss and make up and promise to deliver a copy.

But Schaefer was a few days late. Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, a candidate for governor whom the mayor may challenge, had already been to Annapolis, promoting his vision of a statewide professional sports strategy that would include a new stadium or complex more accessible to the Washington area.

Sachs, who staked out his ground in September and painted Schaefer into a corner in the process, made the kind of argument that appeals to Hughes. The Butta group, said Sachs, was privately funded, met in private and had yet to make its report public.

In short, Sachs was talking process to a man who understands the language. Far better, goes Sachs' argument, for the Manekin commission -- created by the legislature, and meeting in full public view -- to take the lead on the stadium question.

Until Sachs went public last week with some strong criticism of Schaefer, calling him "petulant and parochial" on the stadium issue, the mayor's gambit of keeping distance between himself and the Butta stadium plan seemed to be paying off.

Schaefer, who has bled and bled over previous efforts to improve Memorial Stadium, was not about to take the lead in asking the legislature for $80 million. Butta would do his work for him, Schaefer would avoid the "city of greed" tag that has occasionally haunted him, and if the whole thing went down the tubes, there would be no Schaefer fingerprints on the wreckage.

So there was Schaefer last Thursday, emerging from Hughes' office after 40 minutes of who knows what, insisting to the media that he was still taking no position on the Butta stadium recommendations and telling the governor only that he would get him a copy of the report.

Would Schaefer take the same hands-off approach to the question of where the stadium should go, he was asked? "No, no, no," he replied.

What would he say to the people of Baltimore on the status of a new stadium? "I would say," said Schaefer, " 'Friends, I've been interviewed by the press today, and on the stadium issue I don't have a comment yet, because I have to get the governor a copy of the report.' "

But earlier, the mayor gave his real response. "If the business community and Hank Butta and the Manekin commission come to the legislature and get the money to build a new stadium in the city, I'm all for it," Schaefer said.

For Schaefer in particular, the stadium issue is loaded with political pitfalls. For 13 years as mayor, Schaefer has been aggressively wringing money from the legislature for his financially strapped city. Yet as a putative gubernatorial candidate, he has been traveling around the state for many months talking cooperation with other jurisdictions.

How do you persuade the voters that you are a fiscal bully when your hand-picked commission is about to hold up the legislature for $80 million? By insisting that you're neutral on the plan.

But Sachs' public criticisms, which came after a lengthy internal debate among his supporters and members of his campaign staff, seems to have smoked the mayor out.

The stadium issue goes well beyond the obvious questions of whether and where to build one. It is really about the shift in political power in Maryland away from Baltimore and into the suburbs. You don't have to be a political genius to read the 1984 presidential election results and realize that Baltimore no longer controls the state.

The stadium is also an apt symbol of the differences between Schaefer and Sachs, which is why the attorney general jumped on the issue as he did. If the two men are gubernatorial contenders, Sachs will no doubt use the stadium question as the quintessential argument against what he likes to call the "privatization" of government under Schaefer.

In the coming weeks, as the legislature deals with the issue, Hughes is likely to tilt toward the Manekin commission, and thus to Sachs.

Hughes, concluded one legislator, "is in the catbird's seat." Which is an interesting place for him to be 21 months before the electorate chooses his successor.