Is it easier to get into heaven than it is to get into the National League?

Washington is about to find out.

On Thursday a meeting of Major League Baseball owners will conclude with a news conference at which the NL is expected to announce its timetable, and possibly criteria, for the two-team expansion it has announced for the 1993 or 1994 season.

The announcement will amount to an official gun for about 15 cities that have been jostling at the expansion race starting line for years.

Washington, running hard and probably behind cities such as Denver, Phoenix, Tampa-St. Petersburg and maybe Buffalo, will find out where it really stacks up in the minds of baseball's 26 owners. Or at least the minds of the NL Expansion Committee, which comprises NL President Bill White, Douglas Danforth of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets and John McMullen of the Houston Astros.

It is widely thought that the owners believe the most fertile ground for this expansion is Florida or the vast expanse of major league wilderness that exists between Kansas City, Mo., and the Pacific Coast. But the D.C. Baseball Commission and a group of businessmen who would like to locate a franchise in Northern Virginia will make at least one bid for Washington.

They will be continuing a quest that began in 1971, when the Senators left for Arlington, Tex. They will be following in the footsteps of late business executive Joseph Danzansky. They will be picking up where developers Ted Lerner, Oliver Carr and James Clarke and dentist Robert Shatner left off.

Councilman Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), who has chaired the D.C. Baseball Commission for more than five years, said he maintains "a good, healthy sense of skepticism about this." He remembers making a presentation to baseball's long-range planning committee in 1986 and that "they never got back to us."

But there is a "difference in atmosphere" this time, Smith said. "What we are counting on is that they will look objectively at some criteria."

Washington, which more than five years ago attracted 15,000 season-ticket pledges (most remain) to area banks, will find out how RFK Stadium or a proposed stadium in Northern Virginia stacks up with new, existing facilities in St. Petersburg, Buffalo and Miami. Washington's prospective owners -- whoever they may be -- will have to show they are more worthy than Orlando's Bill du Pont, Denver's Dikeou brothers and Buffalo's Bob Rich Jr.

Phoenix and Denver will have to prove they can build stadiums. Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando and Miami will have to present themselves positively without depicting their Florida brethren in a negative light. Buffalo has to show it isn't always snowbound.

Also expected to make their bids will be New Orleans; Vancouver; Sacramento, Calif.; Indianapolis; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Nashville; San Antonio; Honolulu; and northern New Jersey.

Washington's most formidable competition: Tampa-St. Petersburg

Even if you build it, commissioners Peter Ueberroth and A. Bartlett Giamatti warned, baseball may not come. They built it anyway. And now that the Florida Suncoast Dome is up and running, a lot is at stake here.

If baseball doesn't choose the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, St. Louis Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog said the Suncoast Dome "will make a great bingo parlor." But because it was built with $110 million of public money, voters may not be content with it being used as anything less than a baseball stadium.

The White Sox almost made that happen, but the promise of a new Comiskey Park kept them in Chicago. That puts the pressure on.

"The stadium was built for baseball," said Buddy Shorstein, chief of staff for Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a member of the Senate Baseball Task Force that has been urging baseball to expand by six teams by the year 2000..

Two area groups are seeking a team. One is called the Tampa Bay Baseball Group. Established in 1982, its president is Frank Morsani, chairman of the board of Precision Enterprises, a holding company for seven Florida car dealerships, a marketing and advertising firm, a general contracting firm and several other businesses. Cedric Tallis became the group's executive director in November 1983 after a long career as a major league executive. He was involved with the start-up of the California Angels in 1961 and Kansas City Royals in 1969.

In late 1983 this group purchased 42 percent of the Minnesota Twins from Washingtonian Gabriel Murphy, but sold it almost immediately to current owner Carl Pohlad, who was committed to keeping the club in Minnesota. In 1988 the group made a bid to purchase the Texas Rangers from Eddie Chiles, who eventually sold the club to a group headed by George W. Bush.

Another potential ownership group involves Tom Hammons, a Sarasota businessman who is involved with Ken Harrelson, a former major league player and White Sox general manager who now covers the team as a broadcaster.

There was a 30-day drive for season ticket deposits last November, and St. Petersburg assistant city manager Rick Dodge said 22,967 reservations were taken at $50 apiece. About 3,000 more deposits have been made since then. The money is in escrow accounts, with the interest going to St. Petersburg's promotional efforts. Orlando

Bill du Pont and Pat Williams made the magic happen once. They figure they can make it happen again. Du Pont, who owns the NBA's Orlando Magic, and Williams, the Magic's president and general manager, are out front in the city's quest for major league baseball.

They have a nickname, logo and colors. They also have minority ownership. What they don't have is a stadium. But Williams finds benefit in that.

"The talk down here is that St. Petersburg has it locked because of the stadium," Williams said. "But we say, 'No, no. no. We're in a better position because we can build exactly what baseball wants.' "

Orlando has the funding mechanism in place for the construction of a new stadium. The Orange County Board of Commissioners has been granted the authority to add one cent to the county's resort tax if the city is awarded a franchise.

Meanwhile, du Pont, several of his partners in the Magic and local businessman Manny Garcia purchased the Twins' Class AA affiliate located in Orlando. They installed Williams as the club's president and general manager and put him in charge of the group's efforts to attract a major league club. A name-the-team contest attracted more than 1,000 entries, and the winner was Sun Rays.

In their first season as the Sun Rays, the AA club has increased its season ticket base from 90 to about 1,200 and average attendance from 1,300 to 1,600, Williams said. There has been an informal season ticket deposit drive, and about 4,000 people have put down either $100 for a box seat or $50 for a reserve grandstand seat. Miami

So, you think Joe Robbie Stadium is just a football stadium? Think again. If you take $10 million and throw it against a section of the stadium's stands, they retract. And the distance from home plate to the left field foul pole suddenly increases to 335 feet while the stadium's seating capacity decreases from 73,000 to a cozy 55,000.

Wayne Huizenga says he is ready to wind up and hurl his money at such a project. And unlike a county that has permission to impose a stadium tax if it is awarded a team, he apparently is ready to do this as soon as possible.

"He's prepared to write that check," said Don Smiley, Huizenga's assistant.

A founder of Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest trash removal company, Huizenga also is involved in real estate. But that's not all. In April 1987 he and two other partners purchased Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., parent company of the Blockbuster Video chain.

The work of converting some of Joe Robbie Stadium's permanent stands into retractable ones "will take place regardless of baseball," Smiley said. He said the work will start after the Dolphins' 1990 football season and probably will take three to four months to complete.

Huizenga is in a position to make this happen so quickly because in March he purchased 50 percent of the stadium and 15 percent of the Dolphins from the Robbie family.

He is in a position to make things happen on the expansion front because Pittsburgh Pirates President Carl Barger is on Blockbuster's board of directors. About a month ago Barger told the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, "I would consider Wayne my very best friend." Barger has introduced his friend to Pirates Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Douglas Danforth, one of the members of the NL expansion committee.

The city's expansion drive also is represented by the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, and there is a proposal to build a baseball-only stadium in Dade County. Phoenix

In the Arizona legislature, they are calling it The Field of Dreams. The dreams belong to Rep. Chris Herstam (R-Phoenix), the state's majority whip who is retiring after his current term and wants to go out with a bang. The field belongs to a baseball stadium that would be built if the legislature approves Herstam's bill allowing the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to impose a 0.5 percent general sales tax increase if the area is awarded a major league franchise.

The issue is one for the dreamers and the legislators because the voters apparently are having none of it. Last fall a referendum to increase property taxes in the City of Phoenix (a part of Maricopa County) so a stadium could be financed was defeated.

Even now, with the proposed tax switched to sales and spread over a wider population, a member of Herstam's staff said the measure may not enjoy widespread popular support. However, the state legislature and county board do seem receptive, the staffer said.

If they aren't, said Joe Garagiola Jr., chairman of the six-week-old Arizona Baseball Commission, "I don't see us making a big effort at getting one of these two {expansion} teams, because I don't think we would be one of those cities."

The stadium probably would be located in Tempe or Scottsdale (although Phoenix is not out of the question) and likely would be an open-air facility -- not a dome.

Phoenix also is counting on expansion being an East-West proposition. If that is the case, then its toughest competition is Denver. "In a two-city race," Garagiola said, "I like our odds."

Denver

The construction of a stadium also is the key issue in Denver's bid to resolve the crisis of the Time Zone Without a Team. But the stadium's fate lies in the hands of voters in six metropolitan counties who on Aug. 14 will decide whether to approve a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax that would be imposed if the city is awarded a franchise.

"It's do or die," said Robert Howsam Jr., president of the Milwaukee Brewers Class AAA affiliate Denver Zephyrs and ex-officio member of the Colorado Baseball Commission.

If the referendum fails, the commission would be dissolved. And its failure is a real possibility.

"The poll results have been good," said commission chairman Roger Kinney, "but looking around the country, the history of these things is pretty tough."

Although more investors are being searched for, ownership basically is in place with Denver real estate developers John, George and Deno Dikeou and the Coors Brewing Co., who co-own the Zephyrs.

Howsam has excellent baseball connections. His father Robert is former major league executive best known for helping build the Cincinnati Reds teams that dominated during the 1970s. Howsam also served as the Reds' marketing director for 2 1/2 years.

"We just have to come up with a stadium to qualify," he said.

Buffalo

Buffalo certainly has the riches to attract Major League Baseball.

It has the Rich family -- as in Rich Products, one of the nation's largest frozen foods producers -- and the Richs have an estimated net worth of $450 million in addition to a jewel of a minor league organization.

The question is whether Buffalo can overcome being Buffalo.

Bob Rich Jr. meets that issue head on: "We know the negatives. Weather and the size of the TV market."

To combat the first, Rich commissioned a 30-year study of Buffalo's weather by the National Weather Service. The study showed that the average afternoon temperature during baseball season is 69 degrees. Besides, say Buffalo's backers, who says early season weather is so good in Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago?

As for the second point, Rich points out that when viewership of Buffalo is combined with that of Rochester, Syracuse and the Niagara Peninsula via cable, the television market becomes excellent.

Now for the positives:

The Richs' AAA Buffalo Bisons last year became the first minor league club in history to draw more than one million fans in two consecutive seasons. It is well on its way to making it three in a row.

The stadium in which the Bisons play, 21,000-seat Pilot Field, was completed in 1988 and built on a foundation that will accommodate a 42,000-seat stadium. It's an open-air facility with natural turf and could be upgraded to the larger seating capacity in about six months.

In 1988 the Richs acquired the Royals' AA affiliate in Wichita, Kan., and the Yankees' Class A affiliate in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Like the Bisons, those franchises are doing very well.

The Richs own the National Baseball Congress, the Wichita-based national amateur baseball organization.

Said Rich: "I'm looking forward to the opportunity to speak to {the major league} owners as an owner."