So maybe they have no place to put a trophy, and a ticker tape parade would have to be held on an interstate or beltway.

Nevertheless, the startling truth about the Baltimore Stars is that this reluctantly well-traveled team that was given only an improbable chance of making the playoffs will play in the U.S. Football League championship game against Oakland at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. Perhaps that explains the uncharacteristically frantic state of affairs at the Stars' temporary quarters in the ROTC offices at University of Pennsylvania.

"It's crazy around here, but we're enjoying this," Stars President Carl Peterson said. "We're getting a lot of calls from people we haven't heard from in a long time."

The Stars' regular-season record of 10-7-1 won't rank too highly on the defending champions' list of accomplishments. It is either a story of disaster or one of hard knocks, depending on whether you focus on the team opening 1-3-1 or on it getting sued and evicted from its Veterans Stadium offices by the city of Philadelphia. The Stars prefer to focus on their ending, when they won five of their last six regular-season games, then beat the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions in the playoffs.

How the Stars turned such a season into such a success is something of a mystery even to them.

"I don't even want to try to say," Coach Jim Mora said. "It's probably different for everybody. My hair got grayer, but my attitude didn't change. We felt like we were doing everything we were supposed to, and if we didn't panic, things would work out. I had my doubts, believe me I did. But things worked out for the best."

It surely has at least something to do with their brief but strong history. Sunday's 28-14 victory over the Birmingham Stallions assured them of their third straight appearance in the championship, and they are the only team in the league to make the playoffs in all three years of its existence. That's a rare feat in any league. In the NFL, only the Miami Dolphins accomplished three in a row, going to the Super Bowl after the 1971, '72 and '73 seasons, losing only the first.

But the Stars, who perhaps had been spoiled by going 35-6 in their first two seasons, almost would put Sunday's semifinal game above last year's championship, which they won over the Arizona Wranglers.

"I don't want to take anything away from last year," Mora said. "We had some exciting times. But we overcame more to get here, and that makes it sweeter."

The Stars never have lost two games in a row, and that statistic is perhaps most responsible for their resurgence this strange season.

After their eviction in early June in a rent dispute with Philadelphia over Veterans Stadium, the Stars moved to a fifth-floor walkup at Penn. They made a 2 1/2-hour drive to their temporary field in College Park's Byrd Stadium every week and attendance there dropped steadily so the season average was just over 14,000 for nine games. Baltimore, their theoretical home, won't be really home until next season when they move to Memorial Stadium in the fall.

Under those circumstances, it took the Stars until the 14th game of the season to get over .500. In all that time, they had alternated each victory with a loss, and the ball-control offense led by halfback Kelvin Bryant and quarterback Chuck Fusina wasn't scoring. That brought speculation that the Stars needed to do something about the offense, possibly even change quarterbacks. Peterson had doubts about the Stars' decison not to sign more talent in the previous offseason, with 27 players (well over half) left from their first season and no new big-money signees. Instead, they stayed with what they had.

"If we knew we were a 5-6-1 team, it might have been different," tackle Irv Eatman said. "But we knew we were a championship team. It's not important what we did wrong. What's important is that we're getting it right."

Most of the Stars mention their second game with New Jersey as the turning point. They seemed out of contention when they lost a 10-3 decision to the Generals on May 12 that made them 5-6-1. After the game, some Generals were quoted as saying the Stars probably wouldn't make the playoffs.

"The low point was probably the second New Jersey game," safety Mike Lush said. "We didn't come together until after that. People said we were out of it. We had a team meeting to try to get back some of that character kind of play that we used to have. We realized that, because we won the championship, maybe we were taking things for granted, and we realized that we might not make it to the playoffs."

The Stars next played the Orlando Renegades, and fell behind by 21-10 at the half. But the offense that was ranked only eighth in the league outscored the Renegades by 24-0 in the second half to win, 34-21. That made them 6-6-1, and, from there, they went 4-1.

"There were three or four low points," Mora said. "If I had to pick a game or a time for a turnaround, that would be it. We got behind at the half and came back and won, and I sensed something different from there on; a 'we've-got-to-get-there' type of attitude."