IN 1971 an itinerant owner took Washington's baseball team off to Texas. He had charged some of the highest ticket prices in either league while fielding a perennial second-division team, but even so, attendance was respectable here -- in the middle range of clubs. In those days, though, owners were free to move around pretty much as they pleased. In the 28 years since, things have changed. Not one baseball team has moved, primarily because the game's top officials began acting to discourage franchises from doing so. Washington's primary role during this period seems to have been to loom menacingly on the horizon as the place where some other city's team would go unless that city came up with a new stadium to placate the ownership.

Now, however, the Montreal Expos, playing in a dismal stadium before tiny crowds, may actually be on the verge of a move; their future is likely to be decided sometime soon. Three ownership groups have been formed in the Washington area to seek a team; one would have it play in Northern Virginia, the others in the District. Their rivalry is a complication, perhaps one they can work on resolving. But the presence of so many people capable of playing in the financial big leagues is also a sign of how much the Washington area has grown and prospered since it lost its Senators. And the potential role envisioned for racial minorities in local ownership is a factor that the owners ought to give careful consideration.

The question is whether Commissioner Bud Selig and others in baseball's high command fully comprehend all this, and whether they will in any event allow a team to come here. Despite the fact that the Washington area as a media market ranks ahead of about two-thirds of the cities in the majors -- and is leagues ahead of any other current aspirant in terms of market potential -- there has been strong resistance to allowing another team here. The largest obstacle is the proximity of the Baltimore Orioles, who say that 20 to 25 percent of their fans come from the Washington area. Mr. Selig has made it clear he does not wish to see the Baltimore franchise harmed.

Washington's would-be owners are gathering evidence to show that the Orioles aren't likely to be damaged by the presence of a Washington team. Given the team's nearly full houses for just about every game, even in a bad season, that shouldn't be a hard case to make. But another point needs to be stressed also: that it is absurd for baseball to treat a large metropolitan area such as this one as nothing more than an adjunct -- the source of a marginal addition to the Orioles' fan base -- when it could be a place where literally millions of people were developing the baseball habit. And make no mistake: You don't develop the baseball habit by making once-or-twice-a-year treks to Camden Yards. That's a major production, not a night at the ballpark, and a huge segment of the Washington area's burgeoning population just isn't up to it.

There are far more potential customers to be gained here than to be lost to Baltimore. The Washington metropolitan area's population of 4.6 million is more than three times that of the other leading candidate for a team. A ball club for the Washington area would be not just in this city's but in baseball's best interest. It's difficult to see how another arbitrary denial of baseball to the national capital area, with its long attachment to the game, could be justified or even explained.