Bob Howsam, Jr., vice president for marketing of the Cincinnati Reds, recently was asked how he felt about Indianapolis perhaps getting an expansion baseball team someday. Indianapolis is more than 100 miles from Riverfront Stadium, yet Howsam said, "I don't think you need to be a brain surgeon to figure out how we feel about this.

"Naturally, we want to maintain the loyalties of the Reds fans in Indiana. They've been Reds fans since the beginning of time." Although only 3 or 4 percent of the Reds' attendance comes from Greater Indianapolis, Howsam said, "Three or 4 percent adds up."

You don't even have to be a tree surgeon to guess how the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Edward Bennett Williams, feels about a baseball team in Washington.

The U.S. Capitol building is only 40 miles from Memorial Stadium and about 20 percent of Orioles attendance comes from the Washington market. If 3 or 4 percent adds up in Cincinnati, then what does 20 percent do in Baltimore?

It could be the difference between profit and loss, between rich winning tradition and poor second division.

For comments or even clues, don't call the Orioles owner. He doesn't want to talk about it, other than to say he does not oppose baseball for Washington.

What he really thinks and plans, nobody knows. Even Jack Kent Cooke can't get a fix on him. It's a joke around Washington that Cooke has asked everybody except the Orioles' bat boy about Williams' intentions. Does Williams want to block Cooke from buying a National League team? Would he try? Could he get the necessary majority vote of American League owners?

If Cooke doesn't know, then not many do. Maybe even Williams doesn't know. Right now, he has no decisions to make, so he's not making any. Silence even can be profitable. Not long ago, Cooke bought back nearly $10 million worth of Washington Redskins stock from Williams -- stock he needed about as much as another fox hound.

A goodwill gesture? A down payment on a plea of "nolo contendere" by Williams if baseball for Washington ever has its back-room day in court?

Anybody with enough business sense to balance a checkbook can see how justifiably Williams should fear a Washington franchise. Williams, as a Washingtonian, can empathize with this city's teamlessness, but his self-interest always will lie in Baltimore.

When the Washington Senators existed, the Orioles never drew more than 1.2 million fans. Now, they're over 2 million. The Orioles' studies say that half the difference (400,000) comes from Washington. Some suspect it's more.

If the Orioles lost even 250,000 fans a year, could they afford to pay $6.8 million to a free agent, as they did this year to Fred Lynn? Or $2 million to 36-year-old Lee Lacy?

Or offer Cal Ripken $4 million for four years after he'd been in the majors only two years? Or, as they are doing right now, offer Eddie Murray an astronomical deal that will make Lynn's five-year package seem small?

The Orioles are a healthy franchise at the moment -- one that can look forward to the rest of this decade with high hopes -- because the club has decided, quite properly, to pay prevailing rates to top stars.

But what if Washington diminishes the Orioles' financial formula? Then the whole shape of their future could change. By perhaps $4 million or $5 million a year when you guesstimate every ancillary cent that the Washington market produces.

For a quarter-century, the Orioles have been the American League's model franchise, blending traditional values with progressive techniques and flexible management attitudes.

So, faced with the probability of a Washington team in the '80s that could drain hundreds of thousands of fans from their attendance, what smart move can the Orioles make to keep their financial bottom line stable?

The answer is as close as this week's headlines.

Try to get a new stadium.

On Monday, Bob Aylward, the Orioles' director of business affairs, directed a tour of Memorial Stadium for members of Maryland's pro sports commission, which is studying whether a new park is needed in Baltimore. The 32-year-old stadium, Aylward told them, had inadequate parking, too few quality seats and a cramped press box, and is poorly designed for crowd movement.

Ever since the Colts moved to Indianapolis, both city and state politicians -- caught napping when the football team left -- have been in a tizzy, forming commissions, doing studies, testing the waters to see if there is any face to be saved or any votes to be gained by spending a few tens of millions of public money on a flashy new ballpark.

Behind the scenes, you can bet Williams is telling them they better.

Some little Birdie is going to whisper the following scenario into plenty of powerful ears. Washington gets a team but Baltimore doesn't get a new stadium. Five years from now, the Orioles' attendance is down, the team is losing and the Colts syndrome repeats itself. This time, it's the Orioles who skip.

It could happen.

If Baltimore considers the Orioles a serious city priority, then it ought to build them the stadium Williams has wanted since the day he arrived.

Not because Memorial Stadium isn't adequate. It is. Though just barely.

Balance the bad parking and traffic jams, the obstructed views and exposed remote seats against the innate charms of a quaint old-fashioned ballpark and you arrive at one truth.

Memorial Stadium is a great park -- for a crowd of 15,000. When 30,000 are on hand, it's no fun, and for 40,000, it's a nightmare.

What would a new stadium mean to the Orioles? Probably at least 250,000 more fans a year. In the short run, more. People love new parks; they're guaranteed gate. What the Orioles would lose in attendance if Washington gets a team they could gain back -- and perhaps more -- if they had a new playpen comparable to Royals Stadium in Kansas City or Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Right now, an adequate old stadium isn't what Baltimore needs. A baseball-only park -- one located so that it would cut an hour off the round-trip drive from Washington and keep some of the 400,000 -- is the correct prescription.

The solution to Washington's problem is a new team. The city seems on its way to making that a reality.

When Washington's problem is solved, Baltimore's problem will begin.

One amelioration of that long-range attendance dilemma, perhaps the only one, is a new stadium in Baltimore.