"The stadium will house pro, college and high school football plus bowl games already lined up, baseball, boxing, wrestling, circuses, music and folk festivals, civic and national affairs, religious functions and other events." --Newspaper clipping, Sept. 10, 1961

Hard as it may be to fathom 22 years later, this matter-of-fact bit of reportage appeared less than a month before what now is known as RFK Stadium was dedicated. Perhaps you've forgotten what a futuristic pleasure palace it could have been.

"It is my hope," President Kennedy wrote, "that this stadium will become an enduring symbol of the American belief in the importance of physical fitness and of the contribution which athletic competition can make to our way of life . . ."

Columnist Shirley Povich called it "the breath-taking miracle on East Capitol Street" and added, "Conceivably, the boastful can regard the full sweep of its structural beauty and challenge the rest of the world (to) match it."

Much of America did. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Atlanta, San Diego and so many others kind of copied the design for--and the enthusiasm about--D.C. Stadium.

Their arenas flourish; ours flounders. Their dreams soar every trip inside an energized arena nearly full; our bitterness builds with every glance at a usually empty shell. Their arenas generate money and goodwill; ours has had debts lateraled from local to national governments.

Meaning that you and I and Aunt Harriet in Helena have helped underwrite not a celebration of endless inspiration but a civic calamity. The enduring symbol, it turns out, is a white elephant.

Baseball: gone.

George Washington University football: gone.

Bowl games: gone.

Pro soccer: almost gone.

Boxing: gone.

Wrestling: gone.

Circuses: gone.

Civic and national affairs: gone.

Other events: almost gone.

In all of 1982, winter and spring, summer and fall, RFK Stadium was used 16 times. Sixteen. XVI. Nineteen out of every 20 days the place was as idle as a drifter's mind. It has been better this year, but not much. So far, RFK has hosted 40 events, with nine more scheduled. Now for the bad news: Team America, which accounted for about a third of those dates, very likely won't be back.

If that doesn't get our collective conscience stirring, nothing will. The RFK box score reads: 22 years, two names, not a penny ever paid on the $24 million in principal. It has been, for the most part, a burden and a blight. Downright depressing more often than not.

Probably, it's time to give Jack Kent Cooke a whack.

For a price, he'd like to try.

Within the week, Cooke has admitted negotiating with Mayor Marion Barry a deal that would give him operating control of the stadium for $500,000 a year in rent, installation of additional seats and the latest rage among athletic entrepreneurs, skyboxes.

And hope for baseball.

That's the honest-to-goodness national pastime, 81 games a year by real players as opposed, or perhaps in addition, to one-night stands by legends past their prime and past priming. Snaps your head back, doesn't it?

Four months ago, Cooke promised to work on that.

"I am going to get one," he said of a baseball franchise. "It is as inevitable as tomorrow, though not so imminent."

Without being privy to whatever grand thoughts dance about his mind, it is possible to imagine Cooke believing that baseball failed in Washington because the teams were poorly run, not because the area won't support it. Cooke may have mismanaged parts of his personal life, but his sporting investments have been overwhelming.

He built the Forum in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood.

He copromoted the first Ali-Frazier fight.

His Lakers were NBA champions in 1971-72, once winning 33 games in a row.

Three years later he traded for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Slightly more than three years after he assumed day to day control, the Redskins won the Super Bowl.

All of this was after Cooke got out of baseball, and Toronto, where he was minor league executive of the year in 1952.

Some have criticized Barry for being cozy with Cooke. Anyone in our condition who doesn't listen to Cooke is foolish. We know Washington won't buy bad baseball; we can't imagine Cooke offering it.

Naturally, his price is stiff. What it apparently amounts to is eliminating nearly 40 percent of the rent for his football team and providing posh shelter from the masses where the elite can preen. In sports these days, skyboxes are the closest thing to printing money.

In addition to money and brains, Cooke also has the area over an enlarging barrel. The Redskins' lease is up in 1990. He has both the means and the will to join Edward Bennett Williams of the Orioles in building a stadium somewhere between Baltimore and Washington.

Cooke also realizes he has a city panting for baseball, a stadium that could be made ready for it in days, instead of years, and a Metro stop that could accommodate both.

Berl Bernhard of the Federals, of course, views Cooke running the stadium "with alarm." Indeed, it is like hiring a mouse to guard the cheese. But the stadium contract Bernhard agreed to before Cooke began talking with Barry gave any baseball team that came here massive leverage.

It's impossible to believe that Cooke would regard running the Federals out of business as his primary mission for gaining control of the stadium. By not going after any of Cooke's Redskins, the Federals are moving in that direction on their own.

A Congressional official has said that legislation approved by the House of Representatives transferring RFK from the federal government back to the District was not intended to allow the city to lease it to a private operator. RFK wasn't meant to rot, either. And some sort of private-public partnership very likely is necessary to keep franchises planted.

Popular wisdom insists the Orioles winning the World Series makes them more appealing to Washingtonians. And in nearly every way imaginable, they are the most attractive team in baseball. But Washington's own? Nah. All the Orioles have done is make lots of us regret the absence of baseball here even more. Baltimore only has a temporary corner on organizational brilliance, not the patent.