Again saying he was disappointed with attendance and his image in this city, Houston Astros owner John McMullen refused to say he won't move his baseball franchise.

McMullen was given three opportunities Monday to deny flatly he is considering a franchise switch, and refused to do it.

At the same time, he refused to say categorically he would move the Astros, at one point telling a reporter, "This is a business asset. . . . Look, it doesn't make any difference, one way or the other, what I tell you. I'm trying to break even in my business.

"As far as I'm concerned, that settles the issue."

Later, on Larry King's radio show broadcast from here Monday night, McMullen said of reports he might move the Astros to Washington:

"We're not thinking of moving. Obviously, there's a problem that has to be resolved. We're convinced, with a little perseverance, it baseball in Houston can attract a significant audience, and this city deserves to support a team."

But sources close to McMullen said he made those statements in the face of a hostile Houston audience in attendance at the King show. These sources said McMullen is still considering moving the Astros from Houston to Washington.

McMullen apparently is dismayed by attendance at Astros games because, despite a team that has been in or near first place all season, the club is on a pace to draw only 1.3 million. He has said he needs 1.8 million to break even.

McMullen said a four-game series with the New York Mets that begins Thursday in the Astrodome "would be a barometer" of city support. He said he expects at least 35,000 fans a game for that series.

He also said he would not sell the Astros to a local Houston group. "Absolutely not," he said. "Besides, I am a local owner. I've been here eight years."

McMullen has told friends he still is upset about his image in Houston, that when he fired general manager Tal Smith after the 1981 season no one bothered to get his side of the story.

"I'm treated as 'that guy from the East,' " McMullen told a friend Sunday.

And when a Houston reporter asked if it was true he had made only three trips to the Astrodome this season, McMullen snapped, "What kind of question is that? You're just trying to make me look bad with another story.

"Why can't you people ever write something positive?"

There were also confusing signals from Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who told King, "Houston is a good town and a great sports town . . . This is a major league town. The Houston Astros are here to stay. There's no question about that. The second half of the season, people will fall in love with this team. I've got patience."

Moments earlier, Ueberroth had told a reporter, "Anything's possible."

Regardless, several baseball executives are wondering why McMullen is refusing to end the speculation, which he could with one statement.

"Every day he refuses to deny it, it looks like he's planning to do it," a National League team executive said. "That has to hurt his attendance as much as anything."

Meanwhile, the owners of major league baseball's 26 teams met today and, as expected, barely considered expansion.

"We spent about three minutes on it," a source in the meeting said. "We'll get another report in December."

Of expansion, Ueberroth told King, "It's still up to those towns. We gave some fairly clear criteria to the towns. I will say they are not there yet. It's a ways off. There's not a one that's taken our list of criteria and matched it."