Peter Ueberroth has the reputation for being a master of public relations and quick can-do management.

Baseball's owners gave their commissioner a black eye in those areas this week. And they couldn't have cared less. In fact, they probably loved it.

Since the day he took office, Ueberroth has enjoyed getting involved in the baseball expansion issue. He's a natural politician who loves to city-hop, hob-nob with business moguls and do the wheeler-dealer number with mayors and governors.

Maybe he wants to be a senator (or president) and maybe -- as he insists -- he doesn't. That's not the point. He enjoys making the Tampa to Phoenix to Denver to Washington to Indianapolis trip. Laying down criteria, setting timetables, studying the nuances of complicated situations -- it's his style.

Where Ueberroth miscalculated was in assuming that the logic of expansion was as clear to the owners as it was to him. He sees a billion-dollar TV contract that runs out in 1988. Gotta get more money, fast. Expansion, natch.

More teams also means -- probably -- new league alignments. That's exciting to Ueberroth. Leave the face of the game changed forever, and for the better. By the time Ueberroth's five-year term runs out, it's a good bet that plans for a 30-team sport -- maybe even 32 teams, eventually -- will have been finalized.

That raises lots of lucrative, though dangerous, possibilities. Will the Mets and Yankees, Cubs and White Sox, Angels and Dodgers end up in the same divisions along with other natural rivals like the Royals and Cardinals, Expos and Blue Jays, Rangers and Astros? What about wild cards and an expanded postseason?

Commissioners are paid to think along these lines. But individual owners, each in his own little world, find such notions an unnecessary pain.

So, Ueberroth's enthusiasm ("Expansion is a front-burner issue": December '84) got him out on the limb. That 11-city meeting in New York last month was his extravaganza.

We can only imagine the owners' glee at sawing off that limb behind their bumptious young lord and master. Peter I has been too big for his britches from Day I as far as this crew is concerned. They didn't enjoy his unilateral edict that they open their books. They were scalded at the way he mocked their labor proposals. When he helped cajole everybody into a quick strike settlement, few owners gave him credit.

Ueberroth could lead the owners to expansion, but he couldn't make them drink. On Wednesday, he even went to the length of shipping all 26 owners to an "off-site" secret location for their all-day meeting so he could make them stay in one room -- away from phones -- and force them to concentrate on the dull business at hand.

Listening to reports on all 11 expansion cities.

In the end, Ueberroth came back with nothing but humble pie to eat. He couldn't even nudge the owners into a provisional timetable for expansion, nor get them to publicly rank the potential cities so towns with little chance might stop wasting time and money.

"This is the owners' decision," he said, time and again.

Behind the scenes, Ueberroth may have made progress. "The commissioner is a very organized man," said one owner. "Everything has a schedule and it's moving along just fine." The cities currently believed to be the front-burner group -- Washington, Denver, the Tampa Bay area and fast-rising Phoenix -- are, coincidentally, those thought to be Ueberroth's favorites.

Hopefully, it won't be Ueberroth, but the owners -- who show their power by taking their sweet time -- who will end up with most of the flack for this week's fiasco.

D.C. Baseball Commission chairman Frank Smith expressed the anger of many fans in many towns this week when he said, "I am beginning to doubt whether these fine men in charge of America's sport are acting responsibly."

So, what happens now?

Managers love to preach that baseball is the sport of coping with disappointment.

No other game incorporates such a high degree of unavoidable failure. Even world champions lose 60 times a season. In baseball, quitters are ground down if they can't rebound from frustration.

But after 14 years, Washingtonians are sick of baseball's hair-shirt moralisms. Enough with the lifelike frustrations already. Our character's strong enough. How about coming across with one lousy expansion team?

Baseball deserves the punches in the snoot that it will take from a dozen directions. "It's to be expected that people will get angry," said Red Sox owner Haywood Sullivan.

Hard as it may be, Washington needs to fight for equilibrium in its response. Smith went too far when he called this week "a crushing blow." Another commission member, Robert Pincus, was closer to the mark when he said, "We have developed momentum. We'll have to try to continue to sustain it as long as we are getting some signals -- albeit mixed signals . . . "

Washington needs to remember some hard truths. For 12 years, the town -- especially the city government -- did little to attract baseball's attention or affection. Now, for the last two years, Washington has become the model petitioner. It takes a while for this new state of affairs to sink in. "I grew up in Baltimore and it's hard for me to believe all the good things I've been hearing about Washington lately," says Kansas City General Manager John Schuerholz. "Has the town really changed that much?"

Owners aren't the only ones who haven't done all their homework on the new Washington. For example, the ideal baseball city would have a population that is young, rich and well-educated; that's the demographic slice at which the game aims its yuppie marketing approach.

So, students, which American city has the youngest population? The richest per capita? The best educated?

Until one month ago, when the D.C. Baseball Commission made its presentation in New York, your correspondent, a lifelong Washingtonian, had no idea that the answers to these three questions were: Washington, Washington and Washington.

If we still are learning about ourselves -- just discovering, in fact, that Washington may someday be seen as a natural baseball gold mine on a par with Boston, Detroit or Philadelphia -- then perhaps baseball's owners can be forgiven for not having the whole picture in focus yet.

Washington once had baseball for 70 years. Sometime in the '80s, the game will expand again. If Washington is patient, not petulant, and continues to press its case, the delays of an extra year or two that infuriate us now will be forgotten when a sport returns that can give pleasure for generations.