Washingtonians who crave baseball learned today that Edward Bennett Williams is not their enemy.

It's the other 25 major league owners who may be the problem.

Long term, Washington got good news today: Williams has made up his mind not to fight a new team in Washington.

Short term, the city got another dose of galling frustration: the other owners can't make up their minds when, or if, the sport should expand.

Williams, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, was decisive and eloquent this afternoon in stating he never would in any way obstruct Washington from getting a National League expansion team.

For two years, everybody concerned with getting a team for Washington, from prospective owners such as Jack Kent Cooke to D.C. Baseball Commission Chairman Frank Smith, has been obsessed with Williams' backroom power, asking, "After we do all this work, will Williams have the votes to block us at the last minute?"

Now, that specter has disappeared.

"I'm not ever going to do anything to prevent baseball from expanding into Washington," said Williams today. "I have a deep affection for Washington. I've lived on the periphery (of the city) for years. Whether it helps me or hurts me financially, Que sera, sera. I'll do nothing hostile or adversarial to Washington's interests . . .

"I just am me. I act and think like me. It's not me or my lifestyle to stand in the way of a town that I'm so closely identified with and which has been so good to me."

In the past, Williams always has said the same seven clipped words: "I do not oppose baseball for Washington." No emotion. No conviction. He's ducked the subject like a dentist's appointment.

You can't say it stronger or clearer than he did Tuesday. Believe him.

In the long run, Williams' good grace in this matter may be the real gist of these winter meetings. Sooner or later, baseball is going to expand; no one disputes that. When it does, it'll have a tough time not coming to Washington. D.C.'s demographics have become that compelling in recent years.

That, however, may not be enough to keep thousands of Washingtonians from kicking the dog and writing outraged letters to Commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth (350 Park Ave., New York, N.Y., 10022).

If baseball doesn't watch out, it's going to get a fat lip this week. It's a bad idea to get 11 large cities -- with a 10th of the nation's population -- angry at you at the same time.

Alienation of affection. False advertising. Breach of promise. Indecent conduct. Those are the charges to which baseball is perilously close to laying itself open.

Two years ago at the winter meetings in Nashville, commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced that baseball's long-range planning committee had recommended that the sport expand -- probably by six teams within 10 years.

All over America, cities began redoubling efforts to build new stadia or refurbish old ones, start ticket drives or draw up sweetheart leases.

Last spring, new commissioner Ueberroth made a tour of America, reiterating at each stop his set of civic criteria for any city coveting a new franchise. Towns, including Washington, turned themselves inside out to meet the standards. The nation's capital, for example, sold 15,000 season tickets to a nonexistent team, getting citizens to put $9 million in special baseball bank accounts.

Finally, last month, 11 cities were invited to send representatives to New York City to make formal presentations of their cases. The theme of the day: Why We Deserve A Major League Team (in one hour or less).

The big day upon which suitors in every city were allowed to focus their fervor was Dec. 11 -- the date when baseball's expansion committee would give its report and recommendations to all the owners. This committee, which includes the commissioner, both league presidents and a dozen owners, has enormous clout. What it says goes.

So, the winter meetings opened.


Who said anything about expansion?

Not us.

After playing the coquette for two years, baseball now would like to pretend that it has no obligations to the towns that it has enticed.

That won't wash. And some owners have enough conscience to know it.

"In the next six to eight months, we should come to a determination of whether we're going to expand and when. It's not fair to lead on so many cities if we aren't serious about it . . . Denver and Washington have been led on pretty regularly," Philadelphia Phillies President Bill Giles, a member of the expansion committee, said today.

" 'Tease' is a good word for what we could be accused of doing if we don't make some decisions," said Giles. "It's time to get on with it."

A perfectly sensible argument can be made against any expansion. You can claim, as some do, that baseball should stabilize its weak franchises in San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland and Pittsburgh before creating any more bad teams. You can say that hot issues, such as drug testing, should get front-burner attention. You can decry dilution of talent, as many general managers do.

But these are not the signals that baseball has been giving for two years. From the day Kuhn speculated about 32 teams by 1992, baseball has been stirring the expansion pot to a boil.

Now, the game's procrastinating owners, who need six months to tie their shoes and never make any decision until a gun is at their heads, want everybody to cool off and act like no one's chain has been jerked.

Well, it's not so.