The place to be tonight at baseball's winter meetings was -- hold on to your old Nats batting helmets -- the reception thrown by the D.C. Baseball Commission and Jack Kent Cooke.

For the first time in years, people long associated with baseball -- but not specifically allied with Washington -- were talking seriously about the possibility of major league baseball's returning to the nation's capital.

When Cooke wasn't grabbing the stomach of Hank Aaron or telling Billy Martin he'd hire him, then fire him three months later, he was gabbing in a corner with George Steinbrenner or courting Boston Red Sox owner Haywood Sullivan, who sits on the expansion committee.

When Cooke wasn't swapping lies with Tommy Lasorda about his dozen years as owner of the baseball Toronto Maple Leafs, a Class AAA team, then he was forcing himself to be cordial to the man who first took baseball away from Washington, Calvin Griffith.

This was Cooke's night to spread himself thick, just as he loves to do at Super Bowl bashes with his Redskins. But this also was the day and night when the D.C. Commission could begin to do its job of handshaking and hard selling. The commission's president, D.C. Councilman Frank Smith, sat at a table chatting with San Diego's general manager, Jack McKeon, and its manager, Dick Williams.

The new general manager of RFK Stadium, Jim Dalrymple, was rubbing elbows with Yogi Berra and former pitcher Jim (Mudcat) Grant while consultant Morris Siegel was talking to National League President Chub Feeney.

On short notice this evening, the commission threw a first-night party for "the formal launching of the nation's capital's efforts for a Washington franchise."

Prospective owner Cooke wrung his hands minutes before the first cork popped. "Maybe we shouldn't have had it the first night. Everybody's not here yet," he said worriedly, looking at an almost empty room.

But dozens of baseball people came, to his enormous relief.

"Everyone here is going about it the right way," said Sullivan of the expansion committee after looking over the commission's latest brochures, which showed how Washington's demographics and media punch easily overshadow those of any other contending city. "I don't think that a man of Jack Kent Cooke's stature would come all the way here unless he undoubtedly understood this is part of what you have to go through.

"Washington's got a big-league facility (RFK), a lot of people and an owner with the means. When you've got that, things can happen," continued Sullivan. "The factions that used to be negative about Washington, talk about it losing two teams, seem to have gone away -- died out. That era is gone.

"But the other side is that every city makes a helluva case for itself. Vancouver -- great town, lotta money. Indianapolis -- money to burn and they say that half of the population of the U.S. is within a day's ride of Indianapolis. Of course, I don't know what they're riding.

"If somebody said, 'You have to decide tomorrow where you're going to expand in three years,' it would be one helluva close decision. I'm glad that decision is still a ways off."

This was a good day for baseball in Washington on several fronts. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth commented at a luncheon that "seven teams" were up for sale at one time or another this year. Many, including some owners, consider this a very high estimate, but two NL teams -- San Francisco and Pittsburgh -- have been on thin ice for some time.

Cooke already has been in touch with San Francisco owner Bob Lurie, who is determined to find an owner from that city.

Ueberroth also said he felt the major problem facing baseball is the proliferation of superstations. He said their territorial infringement on local television markets was "tearing baseball apart" and that they hurt attendance "on all levels." He said saturation of markets will severely restrict the value of baseball with the major networks.

And the feeling here is any fight against superstations could aid Washington's campaign. If it came to matter of legislation or court battles, baseball would want to have Washington on its side.

The commission's business here started on a sad note with word that commission member Joseph McLaughlin, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, died last weekend of a heart attack, a day before he planned to come here.

Despite that, commission members were decked out in yellow jackets (with D.C. Baseball Commission on the back) in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency today, giving interviews and hobnobbing with baseball folk. "For the first time, the city government is saying that it's willing to get in the middle of the fight," said Smith. "I don't know why they never tried in the past."

After the positive start, the commission is pressing its advantage. "We've asked Commissioner Ueberroth for a meeting," said Smith, "and if we can get one, Mayor (Marion) Barry is on call and may be able to get here. Hey, the mayor of Buffalo is here standing at their booth."