When Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams bought the Baltimore Orioles in 1979, his first inclination apparently was to buy them shiny new uniforms, move them to RFK Stadium and rename them the Washington Orioles.

Several of his close associates, including current team president Larry Lucchino, confirm that Williams, who died in 1988, did not always intend to make those 90-minute drives to Memorial Stadium; that, in fact, his ultimate goal was to bring baseball back to Washington, his adopted home town.

A decade after the fact, that move never was made, partly because the Orioles began to draw record-breaking crowds to Memorial Stadium and partly because Williams stumbled upon a strategy that allowed him many of the advantages of moving a team without any of the headaches.

Long before the D.C. Baseball Commission began lobbying for a team, Williams, having worked here, lived here and eaten his power lunches here, realized how many people wanted baseball. He also, more than anyone else, realized how far they were willing to drive to quench their baseball thirst.

Williams gave it to them.

Sort of.

He decided that two remarkably different cities could share one baseball team and did it with advertising, promotions, personal appearances, a baseball store in Farragut Square, radio and television coverage and a dozen other tricks that some sports marketing specialists consider a stroke of brilliance.

A lot of people may have scoffed when the Orioles began sponsoring Washington-to-Baltimore bus trips, but not many scoff today. Not when the Orioles have become such a part of the Washington sports landscape that they're considered a home team by many Washingtonians.

Not when Washington's first hurdle to obtaining an expansion team may be proving that it doesn't already have a team. Not when the Orioles draw 25 percent of their 2.5 million home attendance from metropolitan Washington, including not only the Maryland suburbs, but also the District and Northern Virginia.

Not when the Orioles are on Washington's most powerful radio station (WTOP-1500) and when nearly all their games are televised in Washington. Not when their Baseball Store on Farragut Square does a brisk business and draws lines 10 and 20 deep for an autograph session with Mark Williamson or Gregg Olson.

Lines have become blurred. Children here grow up rooting for the Orioles, watching the Orioles and perhaps not knowing the Senators were anything other than the Texas Rangers or Minnesota Twins.

The Orioles know about this success and feed off it. It is not merely as a symbol of goodwill that they are bringing a scale model of their new $105 million stadium to Duke Zeibert's restaurant for a session with local reporters and a few invited guests today. In a few weeks, it probably will be back for a guest appearance on Farragut Square.Washington's Hometown Team

By almost any measuring stick the Orioles have captured this market as their own, and the perception in and around major league baseball is that, while Washington has applied for an expansion franchise, the city already has a team -- the Orioles.

The Orioles have said they will not block expansion into Washington, but they won't need to because, as one National League owner said, "I don't think you'll see an expansion franchise voted into an area that would hurt an existing team. That wouldn't make much sense."

The people who will decide on expansion know that, while fans in Tampa and Denver are many hours from a big league stadium, Washingtonians need only drive to Baltimore. When asked about his market a few years ago, Lucchino described an imaginary line that stretched just south of Philadelphia, east of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and north of Atlanta. Orioles Country.

The Washington pitch to major league baseball will admit the Orioles are here and that a lot of local fans drive to their games. "But," said Andy Ockershausen, a member of the D.C. Baseball Commission, "you look at the numbers and there's more than enough fans to support two teams. We're bigger than the {San Francisco} Bay Area {which supports two teams}. You're looking at an area that's going to have six or seven million people in a few years."

The Orioles may not agree. While they won't comment publicly about expansion, they treat the possibility of an expansion team in Washington as if it were a contagious disease. Their private comments and, occasionally, their public actions clearly indicate that Washington has a team. The Orioles.

They have dropped "Baltimore" in their advertising and news releases. And when the uniforms were redesigned a couple of years ago, one of the mandates to designers was that "Baltimore" not appear anywhere on the shirts, warm-up jackets or parkas.

If the effect on Washington has been dramatic, it probably has been more so in Baltimore, where few remember that the Orioles were once one of the most underappreciated good teams in the game. They drew fewer than one million fans as recently as 1974 and did not move solidly into the 1 million club until the pennant-winning season of '79 -- the summer just after Williams had completed negotiations to buy the team. They did not enter the 2 million club until their next pennant-winning season (1983).

They were such an undervalued commodity that when Jerry Hoffberger and his family offered them for sale he did not get a serious offer from anyone in Baltimore. For a few months, their departure was considered a serious possibility.

Williams got the Orioles for a red-tag special ($12 million, or about half what a star outfielder signs for in 1990). Nine years later, his widow put them on the market and within days had two offers of about $70 million apiece.

Baseball enjoyed a widespread surge in popularity in those years, and it always will be arguable how much the marketing of Washington is responsible. It is clear there was at least some impact, especially in revenue, which increased dramatically thanks to increased attendance and local radio-television rights -- rights that brought the country's ninth-largest market under the Orioles umbrella.

One of the many ironies of this story is that Williams -- considered by many fans in Baltimore as an outsider who would do what Colts owner Robert Irsay eventually did, move the team -- is the man who signed the Orioles to a long-term lease in Baltimore.

"It's not like we had this grand plan and were smarter than everyone else," Lucchino said. "It's not even like Jerry Hoffberger didn't realize the Orioles were a regional entity. If there was a difference when Williams came in, it was that a lot of us were Washingtonians. Speaking for myself, I'd made that drive to Baltimore. I knew it could be done. We knew a lot of Washingtonians were already making it."

Few teams have had similar success pulling fans from another major city and now other sports teams hope they can harvest the same kind of gold mine.

"We're trying some of the same things," said Washington Bullets vice president Susan O'Malley, who is trying to turn around her NBA team's lagging attendance figures. "We've dropped 'Washington' from a lot of our advertisements. We're the 'Bullets.' The Orioles play a couple of preseason games here and we're playing some regular season games in Baltimore. We're going to have a sales staff in Baltimore."

She said it is not just a matter of printing some brochures and telling people the drive is not as bad as they may think.

"It's not an easy sale," she said. "You hear people say Baltimore-Washington is one market, but if you've lived in Baltimore all your life or Washington all your life you don't feel that way. They're distinctly different."

That has become the rallying cry for the D.C. Baseball Commission, which not only is competing against the ghosts of two departed teams and of other deserving cities (Denver, Tampa, Phoenix and Buffalo), but must convince major league baseball that Washington doesn't already have a team.'We're Trying to Be Diplomatic'

"It's a problem," said D.C. Councilman Frank Smith, chairman of the D.C. Baseball Commission. "The Orioles have done a great job here, no question about it. We're trying to be diplomatic. We supported Baltimore when it was trying to get a team in 1954 and we need their support now.

"I really think the fans are on our side, because any baseball fan would like to have an American League team and a National League team both within driving distance. The other thing is that this area is big enough to support two teams. No one thought the Orioles would come here and draw like they did, but that just tells you what a great baseball area it is."