When a frog wakes up one day and discovers that he's suddenly become a handsome prince, it takes a while to get used to the idea.

That's how it is today with Washington and baseball. Suddenly the nation's capital finds itself the fair-haired, front-running royalty in the sport's expansion team derby.

For 14 years, this town has had to chew on the question, "How can Washington get a baseball team?"

Now, the question has changed. What would have to happen to keep Washington from getting another team?

Twice deserted by the Senators, once jilted by the Padres and spurned too many other times to count, Washington has endured a baseball inferiority complex for more than a generation.

That's why it may be tough for lifelong Washingtonians to believe what happened here Thursday. Baseball's expansion committee began its two-day, 12-city beauty pageant. And guess which town looked the handsomest by far? Well, it wasn't Vancouver.

What's going right for ol' D.C. these days? Hold onto your Senators caps.

First, the president of the United States writes a letter to the commissioner of baseball in the town's behalf.

Next, the richest imaginable group of local businessmen get into an arm-wrestling match with an equally rich individual to see which will have the honor of landing a team for the home town.

Then, the D.C. city government, stagnant on the issue for a decade, comes alive. If the Senate, as the House has done, votes a transfer of ownership of RFK Stadium from the Department of the Interior to the District, the city fathers will come up with $13.7 million in bonds (that don't have to be repaid) to refurbish RFK Stadium. And if that happens, you can count on a sweetheart lease for a new team.

Finally, the D.C. Baseball Commission shows up with a 55-page Hurray- For-Washington brochure so stunningly slick, factual and persuasive that you not only wish you could buy a piece of a new team, you wish you could buy stock in the city.

How good are Washington's chances for a team? So good that nobody is even certain whether Bowie Kuhn's good offices will be needed, or wanted, to help get a club.

Once, baseball people wondered if Washington could put together any kind of ownership syndicate.

Thursday afternoon, Oliver T. Carr and James Clark stood before a committee of team owners, league presidents and Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and were asked, point blank, if they had the bucks to join such a ritzy fraternity.

Carr calmly pointed out that The Washington Group already had eight investors with a total worth of "more than half a billion dollars."

"You could just see the owners glance at each other as if to say, 'Who are these guys?' " said a grinning Robert Pincus of the D.C. Baseball Commission. "(After that) they took our presentation very seriously."

Washington may not have captains of commerce who run heavy industry, but, over the past 15 years, this area has proved it can build shopping malls with anybody. The Group basically comprises men who've gone around the Beltway like modern Johnny Appleseeds, planting Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's.

So powerful is The Group that it has Jack Kent Cooke on the ropes and Bowie Kuhn on the spot.

Cooke started the baseball-for-D.C. bandwagon two years ago. But now the parade seems about to leave him behind. The D.C. Baseball Commission openly calls the Carr-Clark group "the leader" in the fight to buy a team.

Baseball is afraid of men such as Cooke -- outspoken, unpredictable, willful and prone to make an occasional enemy. Does Cooke bear a resemblance to gentlemen named Steinbrenner, Turner and Finley? All things being equal, the owners may not want to find out.

The Group is baseball's idea of a perfect ownership gang: filthy rich, civic-minded, committed to staying in Washington forever and tiny of ego. "We will be passive owners," said Carr. "We will let the baseball people run the team." Cooke sent a letter to the expansion committee Thursday, noting pointedly that he'd written to National League President Chub Feeney two years ago and still hadn't gotten an answer to his questions. Cooke must see the writing on the wall. Stuffy old baseball seems to have decided he's not their kind of guy.

At this point, Cooke's best, and perhaps only, chance for a team is to find a way to buy the San Francisco Giants -- and do it quickly.

A more curious case is that of Kuhn. For months it has been assumed that he was a linchpin in any Washington syndicate. He could call in favors from his 15 years as commissioner. He would know the inside baseball personnel who could help nurture a young franchise. He'd be the perfect team spokesman and perhaps president. He might corral vital votes among owners, especially if Baltimore Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams tried to gather the American League votes (seven) necessary to block an expansion team in Washington.

According to sources, however, Kuhn has not fared too well in recent months. First, he indicated he thought he could deliver an existing franchise to a D.C. group, but couldn't. Next, he changed course and advocated that an expansion team would be D.C.'s best chance. Finally, Kuhn suggested that his name and assistance might entitle him to a piece of the new team for little or no money of his own.

Thursday afternoon, Carr said, "We and Bowie Kuhn have agreed to try to work together. We will negotiate with Bowie."

Advice is cheap. But here's some.

Kuhn better not get too royal. The Group could go off without him. If, hypothetically, he might relish the thought of 10 percent of a new, $40 million team for a nice round sum such as $0.00, he should think again.

But The Group had better not get cocky. Without an old buddy like Kuhn in the picture, baseball might decide not to expand at all right away. What's the rush? And, a couple of years hence, other towns might look almost as ready to go as Washington.

Kuhn's value may be intangible, but it's significant. He's a world-class insurance policy. Perhaps gentlemen worth "more than half a billion dollars" could offer an impoverished former commissioner a seemly little chunk of their action at, say, half the going price.

So many things have gone right for Washington in its recent baseball hunt that perhaps this obstacle will fall, too.

As Clark said, "If the members of that committee thought that Washington was the same city in 1985 as it was in 1971, or even 1980 for that matter, then they knew better by the time we left.

"It's a changed place. I see it and it's hard to believe. There's no reason whatsoever for Washington not to have a team. And if it isn't successful, it'll be our fault."

Start breaking out the Opening Day bunting. Ronald Reagan should be throwing out the first pitch of the 1987 season in exactly 17 months.

That doesn't sound very long. If you've already waited 14 years.