WHAT IS IT about the John Elway affair that elevates it from the by now boring routine of the young athlete extracting from some corporation trading as a football (or basketball or baseball) team guarantees of enough money to support him and all his descendants until the year an ice hockey franchise is established on the planet Mars?

Possibly it is this: Mr. Elway, the reportedly stupendous quarterback from Stanford University, is not just refusing to talk with a bunch of corporate types who fill the front office of the Baltimore Colts; he is saying no to an entire city. Never, he says, will he play in Baltimore; won't even consider it.

And Baltimore, despite its gruff protestations to the contrary, is hurt. It does not quite know what to make of this rude lad who will play his home football games only in the western sun, or--should the Colts fail to trade their rights to him--will play baseball instead. The sportswriters suggest he be taken on a tour of the city, but he rejects the idea. The man on the street, with a bitterness born as much of wounded pride as real antipathy, suggests Mr. Elway can jump in a bay. The city's misery is compounded by the fact that the Colts did not win a single game last year, which entitled them to choose Mr. Elway--and look what they got for their trouble.

The answer may be for the Baltimore football club to strike this deal with Mr. Elway: we will give you your freedom, but first let us stand you in the center of Memorial Stadium when it is filled with 50,000 people in full throat, and listen to the noise they can make when you please them. It's an article of faith among sports fans in the eastern industrial cities that California may have the beaches (what's left of them), the beauties and the sun, but we, by God, have character. And if character is measured by insane bellowing at sporting events, they are right. The noise in Baltimore's stadium is at times sufficient to inspire an athlete to superhuman feats, such as attempting to jump over the upper deck.

If this vision of glory doesn't quite sell Mr. Elway, there is one more trick. Let the 50,000 loose a hideous round of boos as an example of what he is likely to hear whenever he chances to visit Baltimore with whatever other team he chooses. That could be the clincher.