For the 1993 season, the National League will expand by two teams -- both in Florida, or one in Florida and one in Washington, D.C. That's it. No other options are realistic. The battle now is among three Florida sites -- and between Florida and Washington.

The NL announced its "short list" of expansion candidates yesterday, dramatically shorter than expected. Of the six cities, the strong feeling here is that Buffalo, because of its smaller size, and Denver, because of its mostly out-of-town ownership group, lack of an existing stadium, second-echelon demographics and sagging economy, have no sensible chance.

Also, two of the Florida bidders -- Orlando and St. Petersburg-Tampa -- are really an entry because they're close together. It's unthinkable for baseball to create two new teams and put them 100 miles from each other. If the west coast of Florida gets a team, it will play in St. Pete (even if Orlando is marginally the better market), because the Suncoast Dome is already built.

See how simple the Realpolitik of expansion has become: Miami, Washington and the Gulf Coast of Florida. That's the war. Decision by September.

Now don't get too excited. Baseball owners, as a group, consistently make the wrong choices. So, they probably will find a way to leave out the biggest, richest, most traditional and most prestigious of the six cities: Washington. The obvious best choice is usually the one they avoid. In this case, that would be sad indeed because Washington realistically will rejoin baseball only as a National League bastion, because of Baltimore's proximity. If Washington doesn't crack the monopolistic club this time, the Nation's Capital would have to wait for another NL expansion, and who knows when or if.

For the first time in memory, Washington actually seems to have several factors falling its way at a propitious juncture. After 19 years of disappointment, this probably should be viewed as more malicious teasing on the part of fate. Still, why not dare to hope?

What new developments favor Washington?

First, it appears that the prospective Northern Virginia ownership group led by Bart Fisher will enthusiastically help, and probably join forces to some degree, with the John Akridge group that's made the short list. The Fisher group could have sulked. Instead Fisher wished Akridge well and offered all possible assistance. Akridge said yesterday he was amenable. Not a done deal, for sure. But a good sign.

Next, indications are growing that the Orioles will not oppose, and may even mildly support, Washington's bid. Baltimore President Larry Lucchino says the worst thing that could happen to his team's attendance-from-Washington would be for the Orioles' fingerprints to be discovered on the knife that stabs Washington.

We'll just watch this one develop, thank you very much. "My number one goal, behind getting a team for Washington, is finding a way to make the Orioles our ally in this," Akridge said yesterday. All creative suggestions appreciated.

By a nice coincidence, the D.C. Council yesterday approved a 45-year lease on RFK Stadium for Akridge's group. The D.C. Armory Board would issue $25 million in taxable bonds to help fund a $35-45 million renovation program if Washington lands a team. "The good news didn't rain today, it poured. That's okay, that's just fine," said Akridge, laughing.

It also helps that Marion Barry is no longer mayor and that, by 1993, the Redskins almost certainly will be on their way out of RFK Stadium, headed for Jack Kent Cooke's new football stadium. That would leave baseball as the sole RFK tenant -- presumably to be both prized and pampered.

Finally, baseball has an extremely sticky problem these days between the American and National leagues. The word "war" comes to mind. The NL's expansion fees come to $190 million for both teams. Not only does the NL want to keep all this money, but most baseball people believe many NL teams, for instance San Francisco and Chicago, already have started spending it on free agents. Naturally, with those sums, the AL wants some. Since a majority of AL teams must approve any NL expansion, the AL boys can gum up the NL's expansion if they're not placated.

So what might happen? The NL wants as much of that money as possible -- especially overextended owners. But what can they give back to the AL?

The envelope please: half of Florida.

The National League would get a lion's share of the expansion money and would take its pick: Florida's east coast or west coast, plus Washington. That way, when the AL eventually expands, it would get at least one plum Sunbelt site.

This is the scenario that makes AL owners crazy. The NL gets the bulk of the expansion fees and first shot at both coasts of Florida. Then, down the road when baseball gets to 32 teams, the NL also gets Washington -- the best city of all. Why? Because Baltimore can keep the AL out of Washington forever.

"If we're now playing on the level field that baseball claims, it's going to be very hard for us not to get a team," said Akridge, whose can-do style and big-name ownership group is such a contrast to Washington's well-intentioned but drowsy suitors in the past. "Of these six cities, we have the best case from every angle. I can't find the negative. Of the four other areas that have two teams, two are larger {New York and Los Angeles} and two are smaller {Chicago and San Francisco-Oakland}. Actually, Washington-Baltimore is about the same size as Chicago. All eight of those teams are doing fine. The high expansion fee {$95 million} and the recession actually play to the larger markets. Baseball's economics are being pushed to the edge. These days, it's arithmetic, not alchemy. We have the best arithmetic -- by far."