In this city, as around the nation, the question is no longer what can professional sports do for the area. Instead, the cities are asking what they can do for professional sports.

Baltimore has an answer.

"We'll bust our backs for them," says Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who doesn't mind using hard-sell tactics to buy his city a permanent place in the owners' sometimes fickle hearts. His actions back up his words.

When the Orioles wanted to stop paying the city rent and enter instead into a revenue-sharing agreement, the mayor said great. Today, the unique one-year experiment is under way.

When Colts owner Robert Irsay balked at signing a 15-year lease required to get $22 million in renovations at Memorial Stadium, Schaefer took another look at the deal--from Irsay's point of view. Now, Schaefer says, "He's the only one asked to guarantee the lease. It's not fair in a way." Because "the present terms of the lease are never going to work," Schaefer stands ready to help renegotiate, tying Irsay to the city for a much shorter period of time.

When the Blast, the city's Major Indoor Soccer League franchise and arguably the hottest team in town, decided the Orioles' deal sounded pretty good, the city said it was willing to discuss the possibility of such an arrangement for the Blast. The team is losing money, so revenue-sharing "would be good from our point of view," says General Manager Mitch Burke.

"We ought to take a certain risk," says Schaefer. He is talking specifically about the Orioles' new lease, but readily admits the implications are wide-ranging. This is a city that hates to lose and what it would hate to lose most is a professional sports team.

Other cities feel the same way. New York City, for example, recently negotiated a new 10-year contract with the Rangers and Knicks that gives the teams a "total city tax abatement" in exchange for their agreeing not to move. New York also spent millions to renovate Yankee Stadium, at no cost to George Steinbrenner, who bought the baseball team five months after the agreement was signed. Los Angeles has done likewise with the Coliseum in its attempt to lure Al Davis' Raiders from Oakland.

And if it takes new deals to allay the old fears here, so be it.

"The (Orioles') new lease . . . is a way for the city to have real participation from a fiscal standpoint," says Hyman Pressman, the city's comptroller, who concedes that "in some cases it will benefit the city and in some cases it would benefit the Orioles." But always it would be "an incentive toward their staying here."

That incentive means a lot more here than the $259,573.88 the Orioles paid in rent to the city last year or the $143,880.37 the Colts paid. Those figures reflect only rent and not concessions, parking and incidentals, which auditor Stanley Greenberg says can push the city's take upward another $200,000 to $300,000, "depending on how good a year it was."

It was not a good year for the Orioles because of the players strike, so if the revenue-sharing deal had been in effect then, Baltimore would have collected a total of $48,824 instead of the $405,358 (incidentals included) it got under the old formula.

That doesn't worry city officials. "We are interested in the good years," says George Piendak, the city's budget director.

The strike may have had its beneficial effects, according to Schaefer. He thinks it may have shown Baltimoreans in a dramatic way just how valuable a team can be to a city. "That was the first time people saw what I'd been talking about . . . an industry that employs people and has spinoff effects," says Schaefer.

Many of the concessions in the Inner Harbor already have revenue-sharing arrangements with the city. Still, Schaefer admits that in the Orioles' case the idea was not his but that of team owner Edward Bennett Williams. "I want him to get the credit if it works," says Schaefer. "If not, it's my fault."

Says Williams, "I've always felt that teams are held in trust for the city in which they function." The experimental lease simply seemed "like a fair way to proceed" with that assumption.

Trust is not a word that comes readily when discussing the Colts, whose owner has been called the Marco Polo of the National Football League for his travels around the country in search of a possible new home for his team. He was given a royal welcome in places like Memphis and Jacksonville, where city officials crave an NFL franchise.

Irsay recently told the Baltimore Sun he is "happy in Baltimore" despite the recent court ruling in Los Angeles that the NFL's restrictions on teams' movement are a violation of federal antitrust legislation. But not everyone is so sure; although the team's lease goes through 1985, the years after 1982 are option years.

If Irsay is so happy here, why does he mind guaranteeing the proposed new lease for 15 years? "You'll have to ask Mr. Irsay that," says General Manager Ernie Accorsi. Mr. Irsay, however, wasn't answering calls from The Washington Post.

No one will say they expect the Colts to move, but Pressman somewhat wistfully reminds that years ago he proposed that Baltimore buy both the Orioles and the Colts. "I wish we had done that. Think how much safer we would feel about having them here."

The city has been working hard at making both the Colts and the Orioles happy. It was behind the formation in 1979 of the Designated Hitters and the Touchdowners, whose aims were to sell the Orioles and Colts, respectively, to the community at large and the business community in particular.

The Designated Hitters, modeled after a group in Kansas City called the Royal Lancers, have been a big success, say Chris Hartman, one of the founding members, and other civic leaders. "The city and mayor have considered it in their best interest to work with the teams," says Hartman, a former aide to Schaefer and now employed by RM and D Associates, a public relations firm. When the group was formed, there was great uncertainty as to whether Williams would move the team, either to Washington or a suburban location.

Now the partnership seems to be working smoothly. Orioles' season tickets this year, for example, are up slightly (from 5,215 to 5,377) despite the strike. Attendance through May is averaging 17,499, down from last year's overall 19,325, but is no cause for concern at this stage.

The Colts have sold more than 25,000 season tickets for '82 and are hoping to edge near 30,000, which would surpass last year's 28,000. The Touchdowners aren't pushing the tickets this year, though, says Dick Hug, the group's leader and president of Environmental Elements Corp. "The spirit of the Touchdowners has been, not broken, but diminished," says Hug. Although the group will continue to offer Irsay advice, Hug feels the next move is up to the Colts.

"We're willing and able to help . . . but they have to be willing to help themselves," says Hug. By helping themselves, Hug says he means an increased involvement by Colt players, management and ownership in community and charitable affairs and increased visibility on Irsay's part. "Bob Irsay could get the community to like him," says Hug, who does like Irsay. "He could enhance his own position by getting involved."

That is beginning to happen, says Accorsi, a man viewed by many as capable of restoring the Colts to their glory days of past decades.

At one time, there seemed no need to worry about the team's standing. This was a Colts town, period. From 1956 through '63 the team had 50 straight sellouts. In 1981, it ranked last in the NFL in paid and total attendance, averaging 35,807 through the turnstiles and 40,816 paying customers per game. The league average for paying customers was 60,745.

"How can you blame them?" Accorsi says of the no-shows. "We haven't done our job and that is to provide this town with good, competitive football."

Accorsi admits that the Colts have slipped in another area: community relations. "I truly believe that the key in this town is identity with the players," he says, and the Colts have had "no continuity of players."

That, too, is changing, as more players choose to make Baltimore their home year-round. Accorsi said in the good old days as many as 30 players lived here; that figure had dropped as low as 12 recently but is back to about 24.

Those 24 will be in evidence at civic and charity functions frequently, Accorsi says. "We have to do that," he says. "Maybe they can't carry you if you lose, but they make it easier."

The city, too, wants to make things easier for the Colts, and Schaefer doesn't believe the fans will stay away from Memorial Stadium much longer. "You know what's going to happen?" Schaefer asks. "As soon as they win about three games the place will be filled again." Then, he says with a touch of satisfaction in his voice, "We'll have those wild, idiotic Baltimore Colts fans back."

Johnny Unitas, a genuine sporting hero in this city, isn't so sure. Unitas was traded shortly after Irsay took over the Colts and Hug, among others, says the way the team "cut loose" its 39-year-old quarterback was a turning point in the community's relationship with the team.

Sipping a beer in his Golden Arm restaurant to the north of town, Unitas says that although a winning team will bring out the fans, it won't be enough to re-create the spirit that once existed here. "How many times can you slap people in the face and get away with it?" he says.

What would Baltimore be like without the Colts? Unitas doesn't hesitate: "Baltimore would be better off without the management. It would be a shame to lose the team, though."

The Colts, "haven't done anything for the community," Unitas says. "They took a franchise from the peak to, basically, the outhouse."

In the team's dealings with the players and fans alike, the organization has shown "a lack of class," he says. "If you can't learn from your mistakes, I say shame on you."

Schaefer feels the Colts have learned and he doesn't think fans will hold Irsay's past unfaithfulness against him. "He recognized . . . that the fans got turned off and he hasn't done that in quite some time," the mayor says of Irsay's threats to move the team. Schaefer, too, is a fan, and he bases much of his optimism on the presence of new Coach Frank Kush, whom he calls "one tough boy."

Schaefer is also cheering for the Blast, although he says when the team came to Baltimore two years ago "I didn't think this was a soccer town." Now, he says, "I like the way they've come in here and promoted themselves."

Hartman says the Blast "came in here as the best-organized, best-run sports team I'd ever seen." Even the city comptroller says the team is "very popular here."

So popular that eight of its 22 games at the Civic Center last year were sellouts and the Blast finished third in the MISL in attendance, averaging 9,560 in the league's third-smallest arena.

No MISL team has shown a profit yet, says Burke. "We are projecting a profit in two to three years," he says.

The team has one year left on its lease with the city. Later this month, it will begin talking about a new lease, hoping for a revenue-sharing deal. "It would make sense for a team . . . really starting to develop a base of fans," says Burke. "It could not have to worry about rent while working on building up the base of support."

Later, he says, ancillary income from things like cable TV contracts would make the lease worth more to the city.

And, as civic leaders never tire of pointing out, the worth of a team can't be calculated on the basis of the rent it pays. Paul Goldberg, chairman of the stadium committee, says this is basic to understanding the city's relationship with its teams and even more basic to the Orioles' new lease. "The basic reason (for the lease) was we consider the Orioles to be quite an asset," says Goldberg. "They produce tangible yet uncountable benefits to our economy."

A count of the benefits was attempted in 1979 at the state's request. That study estimated the Orioles' financial impact on the state of Maryland for one year at between $18.7 and $27 million. Thus, the new lease is a "beautiful way of participating in the team's success," says Goldberg.

What if, as some critics have suggested, that participation includes the city's picking up the tab for increased spending by the team? City officials admit they have no control over team spending under the new contract, which takes into consideration the team's profits and expenses and then splits the difference between Baltimore and the Orioles (with the city continuing to get 10 percent of the gross ticket revenue even if the team loses money).

Pressman, Piendak and Schaefer aren't worried. "I trust him," Schaefer says of Williams. "I wouldn't expect him to go out and spend like a wild man just because he has a good new contract."

Does this good new contract mean the Orioles are unquestionably a permanent part of the city? "It means we've signed a new lease that's innovative. That's all," says Williams.

Still, Schaefer allows himself to think of what might be if the Colts and Orioles were committed to the city for more than just one season, what it would be like to not have to run hard to stay in one place. "Would I like to have a long-term contract? Yeah," he says.

But in the meantime, he'll keep running and keep espousing his belief that team owners owe the city an attempt at a winning team and that the city owes the teams support. "I happen to believe that fans have a duty to support a major league club . . . If a team doesn't win, they should still come out," he says.

"If you lose an industry you have to replace it with another industry," Schaefer says. "So obviously it's better not to lose one."