WHAT MUST Major League Baseball think about the District of Columbia? More specifically, what does it mean when members of the D.C. Council, including chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), stand before the cameras singing at the top of their lungs "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and hail the return of baseball to Washington on terms negotiated by the mayor -- only to have the council chairman reverse course at the last minute and propose a stadium plan of her own? Does it mean that Washington isn't ready for prime time? Will the council chairman's alternative "blow the thing up," as an angry Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) alleged Friday, and flush 30 years of effort to bring the national pastime back to the District? Or is the council chairman's 11th-hour plan designed to avoid further divisiveness in the city and to substantially cut the cost of stadium financing, as she maintains? Those questions are now where they belong: in the laps of city legislators.

Mrs. Cropp correctly notes that the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium site has always been her first preference for a new stadium. But she also endorsed the mayor's proposed South Capitol Street site, touting its potential to serve as a catalyst for economic development of a now blighted area, as MCI Center did for part of downtown. So what happened? She cites higher land acquisition and parking facility costs, as well as high gross receipts fees on businesses, as prime reasons for her bailout. Another unstated reason may be the community opposition that she encountered during her recent visits to neighborhood associations across the city. The city is indeed divided over public financing of a baseball stadium. But the mayor, Mrs. Cropp and baseball supporters on the council knew it at the time they were wooing the owners. If they failed to listen to their constituents or to try to bring them along, perhaps blame should be cast on their failure of political nerve rather than the deal that was negotiated.

That said, the council has every right -- in fact it has a duty -- to examine the Williams and Cropp stadium plans from the standpoint of the relative benefits, costs and risks that each brings to the District. We join with many residents in welcoming baseball back to the nation's capital and hope that Major League Baseball continues to believe that the affluent and baseball-loving Washington region is a market simply too good to pass up. A stadium proposal that all sides can accept will produce a win for baseball and a win for the city. It falls to the mayor, council members and baseball owners, even at this late stage, to make that happen.