WE ARE going to be fair about this -- at last -- even big about it. It is not as if Washington had never had a baseball team pirated from its turf and experienced the terrible feelings that follow. So we sympathize: the Baltimore Orioles belong in Baltimore.

The current controversy over whether the team draws large enough attendance to merit remaining in Baltimore is pure theater. It is Washington's desire for a baseball team being played against Baltimore's middle-of-the-night dread that those government types in Washington are going to steal its team. But that tug-of-war is more imaginary than real. It may inspire Baltimoreans to build their Birds a new stadium and to go to the ballpark in record numbers as an act of civic duty, but beyond that, there is no real threat that Washington is about to grab the O's.

This is not to say that Washington does not want a baseball team. This city will take a team anytime. And for the moment, the Baltimore Orioles have claimed Washington's loyalties by playing championship baseball. But the suggestion that the Orioles move south -- we now think -- is a mistake, one we ourselves made, in our youth, last year. Moving the Orioles between Baltimore and Washington, for example, could make for a team that draws fewer people than a team in either Baltimore or Washington. The Columbia Orioles just doesn't sound big-league. A team in Columbia would only leave both Washington and Baltimore yearning for teams of their own.Moving the Orioles to Washington would also be a mistake. The Orioles have come to be part of Baltimore's character. Maryland baseball fans would be alienated if the Orioles moved to Washington. Alienated people don't pay to watch a ball game in Washington or any other city.

Complaints about attendance at baseball games in Baltimore this year no longer hold up. The fans are now turning out in record numbers, outdistancing even last year's all-time-high attendance. The low attendance at the start of the year was due to the mediocre, unexciting play by the team. Bad baseball, like a bad play on Broadway, doesn't draw a crowd. But that bad team in Baltimore, it must be noted, was on track to drawing over a million people even with its low-life performance. That million-fan figure would have put Baltimore in the middle of attendance figures for most major league franchises. Some day Baltimore will have a bad team all year long and attendance will fall, but the evidence provided early this year indicates that the fall will not be so steep: Baltimoreans seem to like the team well enough, win or lose.

With Baltimore keeping its Orioles, efforts to get Washington a team should pick up full speed now. It would be great if Washington were able to attract a National League team. That way, teams and players from both leagues would be on display in the area. tThe different teams, as well as the growing population of Northern Virginia, could mean solid attendance for a good Washington team with reasonable ticket prices.