If you have to make a bet on it, make this one.

In April 1987, President Ronald Reagan will throw out the first ball of major league baseball's opening day in Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

The home team will be the Washington Senators of the National League. The new expansion team's owner will probably be Jack Kent Cooke.

Some of this scenario may not be precise. The season in question might be 1988, or even 1986. The Washington team might conceivably be a bought-and-moved version of the San Francisco Giants or Pittsburgh Pirates. And the man in the owner's box might, although this seems remote, be someone other than Cooke.

Whatever, the basic outlines of this plot are a strong probability. Just as, for the past decade, it would have seemed extremely surprising if Washington did get refranchised by the big leagues, now it would be a real surprise if it didn't get a team in the foreseeable future.

That's how much the D.C. picture has changed in just a few months.

The reason Washington has gone without a team for 13 years is that the city didn't deserve one.

Washington has gone without a team for 13 years because the national capital area didn't earn one the old-fashioned way. Even after all the rationalizing and moaning about Griffith and Short is done, the fact remains that when a city twice loses clubs it has to prove it merits another chance.

Now, finally, tens of thousands of baseball fans in Greater Washington can say we're doing plenty to get a team back.

Instead of saying, "Give us a team out of pity," or "Give us a team because two were snatched from us," we can say, "Baseball ought to give Washington a team because it'd be crazy not to."

Baseball chooses its expansion teams on three criteria: the area, the owner and the stadium.

At present, no other potential expansion city can come close to Washington in these bedrock bases.

By any demographic comparison, there isn't any comparison.

In population, consumer spending per household and households reached by television, Washington rates seventh, first and eighth in the United States.

Denver is 27th, 20th and 19th; Tampa (and St. Petersburg combined) is 21st, 149th and 17th; Miami is 22nd, 41st and 13th. None of the other cities usually mentioned -- Buffalo, Vancouver, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Phoenix -- even makes it on the radar screen.

As for available owners, Cooke puts any of his potential rivals in the shade. He has prospered with the Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Kings (for whom he built the Forum) and his Washington Redskins have been to the Super Bowl the past two years. But baseball has always been his first sports love.

Cooke not only has the huge wealth to shell out $35 million for a team, but he probably isn't exaggerating when he says he'll spend $15 million to renovate and improve RFK Stadium if he is given a master lease.

Most important to baseball, which has plenty of financial troubles, Cooke never operates on a shoestring. He doesn't care if he loses money for years, as long as he gets the "action" of owning.

"If the Washington Senators lose money for the rest of my life, the rest of my son's life and the rest of my grandson's life, who cares," said Cooke this week. "The Cooke family has staying power. We're not getting in to get out. We're not even getting in to try to make money. I already have money," said the man who owns the Chrysler Building.

"What I don't have is a major league baseball team. And I want one badly. I have wanted one most of my life. I've been trying to get one, off and on, for 30 years.

"I could not possibly be more serious about getting a team."

None of the other towns in the expansion derby has a prospective owner who can approach Cooke for the combination of wealth, experience, willingness to spend, on-field success, proven staying power and colorful exuberance.

If Cooke himself has a knack at times for rubbing people the wrong way with his enormous broad-brush personality, the people he chooses to run his teams, like Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs of the Redskins, are seen by their peers as enormously popular and competent.

Once, RFK Stadium may have been a minor liability for Washington. Not anymore. If Cooke gets his lease and makes his renovations, the joint should be clean, efficient and, as far as saucer-style modern parks go, fairly pretty. Also, it has grass and doesn't have a dome -- two big pluses.

The subway and highway system feeding RFK are well above average for big league parks and nobody knows how much Metro will jack up attendance.

From demographics to ownership to ballpark, Washington leaves towns like Denver and Tampa so far behind that, in retrospect, it's practically a joke that this needs to be discussed.

In addition, Washington politicians (including the mayor) and civic boosters have now lined up -- belatedly but enthusiastically -- to push for a team. The D.C. Commission seems adequate to its task.

This week in Houston, Washington began making its case once more. And, brother, is it a case that needed making. For many owners, the word "Washington" hadn't crossed their minds in 13 years, since Bob Short let out his last wails about crime and nonsupport. Most of them just want to be convinced they should give the Nation's Capital its third strike.

New Commissioner Peter Ueberroth is a potential friend, too. He is image-conscious and wants a team in such an international glamor locale. He also wants to have a pipeline to national legislators if he ever needs one. When Ueberroth's aide, Sandy Hadden, said, "Washington's chances have increased dramatically this week," he was speaking for the boss.

What Washington needs to do now is simple. Keep pushing, keep talking, keep selling.

"Do the economics," was Ueberroth's public advice to all competing cities.

"Show a little humility," was Ueberroth's private advice specifically to Washington. Baseball doesn't like to be threatened about its antitrust exemption; that's a sore point. And the game gets tired of being chastised for moving teams out of a town that wasn't exactly setting attendance records.

Some hard work. Some humility.

Never bad advice.