In its efforts to lure the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals or an expansion franchise, the city of Baltimore has taken on many of the characteristics of its great Colts football teams.

For instance, Baltimore, like the Colts of the '50s and '60s, speaks with one voice. In past years, it was Weeb Ewbank or Don Shula. Now, it's Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Second, efforts and energies have been focused in one direction: toward financing a downtown stadium, constructing a lease that apparently rivals any in professional sports and, finally, securing financing from a group of local businessmen.

Like a lot of things that become top priorities to ex-mayor Schaefer, the campaign to get a team has been so coordinated, swift and impressive that Baltimore appears destined for a return to the National Football League, if not with the Cardinals next season, then with an expansion team in 1989 or '90.

The analogy of Baltimore and the Colts isn't lost on a lot of people near the effort to bring back baseball to Washington.

Washington's efforts to land major league baseball look a little like its old team, the Senators, always leaving one too many runners on third or finding itself annually one or two quality starters away from respectability.

It was 16 years ago this winter that Robert Short hustled the Senators off to Texas and, after all these years, the national capital still appears to be several seasons away from again having baseball at RFK Stadium.

Not only have there been few aggressive efforts made to buy any of the currently shaky franchises, but Washington has fallen behind Tampa, Denver and Phoenix and into a pack with Miami, Vancouver, New Jersey and Buffalo in the expansion sweepstakes, according to sources familiar with the thinking of major league owners.

If that's not discouraging enough, there's the presence of the Baltimore Orioles and their influential owner, Edward Bennett Williams. Under him, the Orioles have focused a large part of their marketing efforts on the Washington area and say they draw about 20 percent of their attendance from the District and its suburbs.

In dollars, Washington probably brings the Orioles better than $2 million per season, and, although Williams has long said he wouldn't block expansion here, his colleagues know how important the area is to the Orioles.

For that reason, a survey of several owners by The Washington Post found more than one asking: "Is Washington a good enough market to risk hurting the Orioles? That's a hard question."

Such attitudes frustrate the D.C. Baseball Commission, which has worked hard to show that the Washington of 1987 is far different from the Washington of 1971 and that Baltimore and Washington are distinctly different markets.

"The perception still is that Washington hasn't changed that much," said Robert Pincus, president of Sovran Bank and a member of the D.C. Baseball Commission. "It's mind-boggling. The whole idea of our presentation to {baseball's} Long-Range Planning Committee was to show how we've changed as a community."

Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke echoed similar feelings, saying: "When they talk to me, it's not unlike talking to a father about a child, so they tell me what I want to hear. Then when I talk to people from other cities, I hear the negative things that are said about Washington. I've heard it enough that I just don't know where we stand anymore."

Washington may not know where it stands because many people connected with major league baseball are unsure why, unlike Baltimore, there has been no coordinated effort to get a team.

For instance, despite a five-year campaign by the D.C. Baseball Commission, RFK still has not been prepared for baseball. The latest project has been delayed while football seats are added and may now begin only in time to have the stadium ready by the 1990 season.

"If we got a phone call tomorrow from an owner who wanted to move his team here, we'd have to say no," Pincus said. "That's a shame, but right now the city is more concerned about {keeping the Redskins from moving to the suburbs}. You can't blame them for that."

There also remains a question of who will own the team. Cooke would like to be the man, but the commission has worked more closely with a group of downtown developers, including Oliver Carr, Ted Lerner and A. James Clark. By one estimate, that group's assets are worth well over $1 billion, and with all the men apparently low key in their approach to ownership, they're almost a prototype of the kind of people baseball wants owning a team.

In fact, the Carr group is so low key it has refused the request of several commission members that it become involved in a public campaign directed toward baseball's 26 club owners. (All of the Carr group refused to be interviewed for this story.)

For the last couple of years, it appeared that when Washington got a team it would either be Cooke or the Carr group putting down the money. Now, though, Councilman Frank Smith, chairman of the D.C. Baseball Commission, says he's working on a new ownership plan.

Smith's plan would have "local and national {racial} minority businesspersons" owning 60 percent of the team and the Carr group owning the rest.

Smith intends to raise pledges worth $40 million and says interracial ownership is an idea whose time has come. Maybe so, except he also admits his plan is not coming strictly from the notion that a sport dominated by rich white men needs black and Hispanic representation.

"I think it would look good for baseball," he said, before adding the kicker: "And I think it would get us a team more quickly."

It probably wouldn't. Among the guidelines sent to candidate cities are these comments about ownership: must have "significant community identification; long-term commitment to the club and community; one person ultimately responsible for all club decisions."

Smith, meanwhile, has contacted minority businessmen in Atlanta and Los Angeles about owning a piece of the Washington team.

Certainly, it would be unfair to portray the District or its commission as bumblers or incompetents because it's unclear if any action by them would have mattered.

For one thing, baseball has not expanded since 1977 and is only beginning now to talk about it seriously. Furthermore, no National League team has changed cities in 21 years, although the franchises in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and San Diego have been on thin ice several times the past decade.

Finally, almost everyone agrees that the city is fighting a mammoth image problem. The first attempt to change it was made in 1985 when former White House aide Michael Deaver did a slick brochure on the growth of and changes in metropolitan Washington.

The information in that brochure has just been updated, and it's still impressive: Among candidate cities, greater Washington is first in population, visitors, buying income, media household income, consumer spending and retail sales. Washington is the eighth-largest television market in the country, and fans have deposited $9 million in area banks to reserve the first 15,000 season tickets for the new franchise.

A supply of these brochures was delivered to baseball's annual winter meetings in Dallas, and, while many owners had them hand-delivered, a stack went unread in the press room. As they went unread, both Dallas newspapers did stories on expansion, and both rated Washington below Buffalo as an expansion candidate.

To the people who know this city and have watched its growth and renaissance, such attitudes are incredible.

"I think Washington towers above all the other cities," Cooke said. "In population, socio-economic issues, everything. It's no contest."

Pincus agreed.

"The commission has done a good job in elevating Washington," he said. "We've gone from nowhere to the top three or four. I think, if our ownership group would get out and have some one-on-one meetings with owners, that image problem would disappear. But I don't think that's going to happen."

He said the issue of the Orioles being so close "is bull. We could overcome that. I think it's two separate markets, and I think our brochure points that out. Besides, there's enough people in this area to support two teams, and if the Orioles play better they'll draw fans no matter what's going on here. They have that kind of following."

Another commission member, Andy Ockershausen, station manager for WFTY-TV-50, has urged Carr and Lerner to campaign publicly to bring baseball's owners here and give them guided tours.

"I hear that stuff about Denver and Phoenix being better all the time," he said. "But I saw {Chicago White Sox owner} Jerry Reinsdorf's reaction when he was here. He went to George Washington University in the '60s, and when he visited last summer, he was flabbergasted at the changes."

Almost.

"My impressions were good, very favorable," Reinsdorf said. "It's a different city from when I was there. I don't know if I was surprised, but I was impressed." He had no more gotten those words out of his mouth than he added a cautionary note: "That stadium needs a lot of work to get ready for baseball, and I think it's going to cost more than they think."

Then, in an apparent reference to the Orioles, he said: "I think Washington could support a team, but you have to consider what effect its getting a team would have on other teams. You have to look at it in the context of the other markets."

A year ago, the D.C. Baseball Commission had a plan to take a check for several million dollars around to the owners of several troubled franchises and lure one to Washington. At the time, one commission member said: "You can talk and talk and talk. You walk in with a check for $5 million and that gets their attention."

That plan has since been abandoned, partly because no National League team is looking for a new city. The San Francisco Giants say they'll move, but owner Bob Lurie says he'll spend 1988 exploring cities on the peninsula near the Bay Area. If he hasn't found a new home by then, he'll consider other markets but, last week, he said he'd been contacted by groups from Phoenix, Denver and Florida. Shouldn't the D.C. Baseball Commission have made at least a courtesy call to Lurie?

"Our understanding is that he intends to stay in California," Smith said.

Would William Donald Schaefer have been so laid back?

"If we had William Donald Schaefer, we'd probably already have a team," Ockershausen said. "When that man wants something, he gets it."