Hard as it is to believe, after 19 years of disappointment and slapstick, the Washington area is now well represented in its attempt to get one of the National League expansion teams that will be awarded late next year.

A few months ago, many hoped that either Washington or Northern Virginia would be able to put together a smart, young, enthusiastic, multiracial and rich ownership group with local roots, baseball passion and marketing pizazz.

Back then, no such animal existed. Gloom did.

Now Washington has two such groups -- one seeking a team in a refurbished RFK Stadium and the other trumpeting the potential of a privately built stadium in Northern Virginia.

For Washington, this is not a problem. It is, rather, an unmitigated blessing. Both groups have strong and viable concepts. Totally different ones, to be sure, but both persuasive. The result? Two swings. Not just one. If baseball is foolish enough to reject the wealth of the Washington market this time, the blame will be on the sport's head -- not the city's.

Several months ago it appeared Washington would be best served by one, only one, ownership group. Since then baseball has established its expansion timetable and procedures; a preliminary all-comers round, then a final four or five candidates.

Since everybody is invited to the party, it is great that, last week in New York City, Washington was represented by two groups -- one led by John Akridge of Metropolitan Washington Baseball (i.e., RFK), one by Mark Tracz of Capital Region Baseball in Virginia. By all accounts, both did very well in their presentations.

Now, let baseball decide which group belongs in the finals. At least local fans won't spend the 1990s speculating, "Wonder if Virginia would have had a better chance than D.C.?" or "Why didn't we push the Nation's Capital angle?"

Washington and RFK Stadium suddenly look much different with Mayor Marion Barry and Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke out of the picture. (Note: Any time Barry mentions baseball, regardless of what he says, he damages the RFK group.)

"I never gave up," crows proud Bob Pincus, the banker who helped bring together the Akridge-led group. "I'm excited about where we are now. Four months ago, I'd have said the odds against us were 50 to 1. Now, after last week in New York, I'd say 4 to 1."

On D.C. crime, the RFK group pointed out that at the last 460 RFK Stadium events there has been one -- that's o-n-e -- violent crime. "Less than one-third of those 5 million fans at RFK came for the Redskins. Half the events were after dark. RFK is the second-safest stop on the whole Metro," says Pincus.

The Akridge group's big plus may be multifaceted quality and clout. It is a local honor roll, from Sugar Ray Leonard and Donald Dell to politicos of every ilk.

The main hurdle, of course, is the proximity of the Orioles, especially when they move to Camden Yards. For the RFK group, that is the ballgame.

"The Washington-Baltimore area now has more . . . purchasing power than either Chicago or San Francisco- Oakland. And both those areas support two teams," argues Pincus.

In coming months, we can expect the RFK group to woo the Orioles with plans to merge the two cities' media markets and thus divide a pie so large that the Orioles might actually increase their local TV and radio revenue. Sometimes, two plus two can equal five.

Logically, baseball should consider the RFK group first. The sport deserted Washington twice. If the Oriole Problem is just too great for baseball to surmount -- and there is no other justifiable reason not to put a team in RFK -- Northern Virginia comes into play.

"I introduced myself {to the expansion committee owners} as the owner of the Prince William Cannons -- one baseball operator talking to other, bigger baseball operators," said Tracz. "I think they liked that . . .

"Through their business connections, {Astros owner John} McMullen and {Pirates investor Douglas} Danforth come here frequently and really know the whole Washington area. . . . They gave credibility to our points.

"But we also asked for suggestions. We came to learn too. We said: 'We think we're sitting on a gold mine comparable to Anaheim. We don't think there's any place left in the country that's remotely comparable to the demographics of Northern Virginia, plus what's to the south and west of us. We think we'll barely touch Baltimore's market. . . . our potential as a new baseball territory is incredible. If you think we're crazy, tell us."

Tracz has a way with head-snapping facts. The population of Buffalo -- a serious contender -- is 660,000. The population of Fairfax County alone is 815,000.

"Look at teams like the Royals, Red Sox and Reds which have proven you can draw from a large regional area," says Tracz. "We have 4.4 million people to the south and west of us -- from Richmond and Roanoke to Raleigh-Durham and parts of West Virginia. . . . We not only bring them the Washington market in a new, privately financed park that will be more than 50 miles from Baltimore, but we can also bring them a whole new region."

Plenty of Washingtonians are already making a longer commute to Orioles games than Richmonders, aided in future by high-speed rail, would make to watch a Northern Virginia franchise. Richmond? Well, it's as big as all of Buffalo.

"They already knew how the Redskins' radio-TV network penetrates far south of Washington," said Tracz. "In fact, they knew a lot about Nothern Virginia."

Has former commissioner Peter Ueberroth -- an advocate of Northern Virginia -- been sowing his seeds?

Still, there are hurdles.

The RFK group thinks its 30-year-old ballpark is a plus. Maybe, but Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium -- built from the RFK plans -- is glamorless, already slated to be replaced.

The Virginia group may need to cinch up its financial backing.

The biggest stumbling block would be public fighting between the two groups. Tongues should be bitten at all cost. For instance, last week's flap over short-term use of RFK by a Virginia team should have been an obvious non-issue. None of the principals can admit it, but if Akridge isn't a finalist and Tracz is, the D.C. Armory Board will do an about-face in a millisecond and embrace the Tracz group. How could RFK turn down a tenant, even for one year?

About a year from now, two cities will be very happy. One, for sure, will be in Florida. If baseball's owners have the brains God gave a rock, the other will be in Washington.