Washington's bid for a return to Major League Baseball took its most concrete step forward in 17 years yesterday when a group of investors led by developer John Akridge was named to a list of six finalists for the two expansion franchises the National League will add for the 1993 season.

Akridge's group, which would like to locate a team at RFK Stadium, was selected as the Washington area's representative over a group led by attorney Bart Fisher that had been seeking a team for Northern Virginia.

The two franchises are scheduled to be awarded by the end of September. The other cities on the so-called "short list" for further consideration are Buffalo, Denver, Miami, Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg. The group selected from three Tampa-St. Petersburg applicants is led by Washington attorney Stephen Porter, co-owner of the St. Louis Cardinals' Class A minor league affiliate in St. Petersburg.

The NL Expansion Committee selected the six finalists from 17 applicants representing 10 cities. Each of the applicants responded to a detailed questionnaire and submitted a $100,000 deposit on a $95 million entry fee. The cities eliminated from consideration were Charlotte, N.C., Nashville, Phoenix and Sacramento, Calif. A group seeking a team that would have divided its home games among four cities also was eliminated.

The finalists are "the most qualified in terms of financial stability, significant community identification and long-term commitment to a baseball club and their community," expansion committee chairman Douglas Danforth of the Pittsburgh Pirates said in a statement released by the league. "The cities on the list are the best in terms of market size, government commitment to support baseball and stadium facilities in place or planned."

The Akridge group's effort to fill the void created by the Senators' departure for Texas in 1971 is the best Washington has had since 1973. That year, a group that included Bethesda dentist and businessman Robert Schattner, the late Joseph Danzansky and the late Marvin Willig was set to purchase the San Diego Padres from C. Arnholt Smith until he changed his mind at the last minute and sold the team to hamburger magnate Ray Kroc.

"I think it's fabulous, just fabulous," Akridge said. "We have come from nowhere to join the pack. That means we have convinced some people along the way that we have a good case. I think we have the best case, and our confidence is building."

"This is so monumental," said Sovran Bank/D.C. National President Robert Pincus, a longtime member of the D.C. Baseball Commission who helped Akridge organize the group along with Donald Dell, chairman of the board of ProServ, the Arlington-based sports marketing and management firm. "We have a great opportunity now."

Fisher fought an uphill battle after reorganizing a group that withdrew in mid-November. "It's a shame," he said, "but I'm glad somebody is going to get a shot from the area."

Fisher said he believed his group's lack of a stadium and financial support from Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder were deciding factors in its failure to make the short list.

"We really never had a place to play," he said. "We need a Virginia Sports Complex Authority like {the Maryland Stadium Authority}. . . . We went to Wilder and got a cold shoulder. We were told, 'We're out of money.' All we asked is just give us the authority to raise money privately."

Wilder could not be reached for comment.

The expansion committee -- the other members of which are NL President Bill White, John McMullen of the Houston Astros and Fred Wilpon of the New York Mets -- is scheduled to visit the cities represented by the finalists during the first quarter of 1991. It will make its recommendations to the other NL owners, the Major League Executive Committee and the Major League Ownership Committee at the June owners' meetings.

The new franchises are scheduled to field minor league teams in 1992 and stock their major league rosters in a dispersal draft in November 1992.

Akridge, whose group's conditional 45-year lease for RFK Stadium was approved yesterday by the D.C. Council, said he now will concentrate on consolidating his investor group and gathering public support.

He already has added unnamed investors to a previously identified, 16-person group. He said yesterday he would be willing to include members of Fisher's group as well as Mark Tracz and Ira Saul, the leaders of the Northern Virginia effort that withdrew.

"If they want to be involved," Akridge said, "we'll make room for them."

Akridge also has talked about approaching the Baltimore Orioles in order to discuss compensation for possible attendance losses. But "the expansion committee has said it's too premature to talk to them," Akridge said.

The Orioles, who say they draw 20 percent to 25 percent of their attendance from the Washington area, are seen as a major impediment to Washington's ability to obtain a team. And they are building a new stadium in Camden Yards for the 1992 season that is be 15-20 minutes closer to Washington than Memorial Stadium.

But Orioles President Larry Lucchino said yesterday he wanted "to reaffirm the neutral position that we have taken in this process and will continue to take."

In June, Orioles owner Eli Jacobs said if the club's vote was "the swing vote, we would not be opposed" to a team being located in the Washington area.

Akridge said one of his group's projects will be a season-ticket drive.

"We need a lot of people to pitch in," he said. "This will not be a cakewalk. It will be a fight."

Nearly everyone involved in the expansion process, including Akridge, believes that at least one team will be awarded to a city in Florida. But sources said the groups on the final list from Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg have made very strong presentations to the expansion committee, and there is a possibility both expansion franchises will be placed in Florida.

THEY'RE IN (SO FAR) . . .

Washington

Buffalo

Denver

Miami

Orlando, Fla.

Tampa-St. Petersburg

THEY'RE OUT . . .

Northern Virginia

Charlotte, N.C.

Nashville

Phoenix

Sacramento, Calif.

Of the six cities still in the running, two will be awarded National League expansion franchises, probably by the end of September. The two new teams will begin play in 1993.