For nearly two years it has been the big tease -- only lately upstaged by desert war or no desert war? But it still is a ranking concern in the land -- which two American cities will finally be endowed with major league status by the National League Expansion Committee?

Until now it has been mostly uncertain hints and evasive action by the NL, which never truly had much enthusiasm for expanding, even if it could slug two new teams with a $95 million price tag. The majors always have shied away from new partners cutting in on their gorgeous TV loot, but the NL was beginning to feel the heat from too many geographical centers, not to mention congressmen and such.

So, by degrees, the National League began to bend. First, there were mumbles about expanding in 1993. Then it said it had bids from 17 owner-groups. Almost a year later it admitted 10 selective cities were in the hunt. And then, the other day, gadzooks, the NL announced a "short list" of six surviving supplicants.

But they still are saying it will take them nine more months to come to another meeting of the minds, at which time the anointed two will be selected, maybe next September. On it drags, with the solemnity of the Magna Carta and a time frame for building the pyramids.

And where does this leave Washington? We're alive in the Pick-Two-of-Six, as the racetrackers would say. The other candidates are, in no special order, Buffalo, Denver, Tampa-St. Pete, Orlando and Miami. In that company, what are they waiting for? Washington should be a shoo-in, with the others scrambling for second money. The NL Expansion Committee should require neither nine months nor nine minutes to cast the only sensible vote.

Buffalo? Denver? Those three townships in Florida? What arrogance to claim any priority over Washington, except in terms of snowstorms and grapefruits.

None of them can pile up as many points as Washington: the biggest population; the highest incomes; the biggest TV market by far in an era when the networks are cracking down on the leagues and threatening to cut back the TV money unless there are more viewers; a made-for-baseball stadium that is a beaut, with real grass, no hoked-up dome with phony grass that demands that shortstops play short left-center; a neat new subway running into the very mouth of the place; and every president of the United States waiting to give baseball the White House blessing every opening day.

The other towns in the hunt may be nice, pleasant Norman Rockwell places, but they aren't Washington with all its importance and money to spend. A commentary on those other towns is now recalled here. The scene was Toots Shor's restaurant one night in New York when Shor finally ejected a rowdy, loud-talking group from Wisconsin.

One of them yelled, as a parting shot, "We don't like you, Shor, or your food either. We can get better steaks in Madison." Which brought from Toots the retort, "Yeah, and when you wake up in the morning, you're still in Madison." Substitute Tampa, Buffalo, Denver, Orlando, Miami.

Always they try to toss at Washington the dirty canard that this city lost two teams, with no explanation of how it was victimized by low-life, money-grubbing ownerships. It is a forgotten fact that New York also lost two teams, yet got no bad rap.

An imponderable may be the Baltimore Orioles' attitude toward a franchise in Washington. Larry Lucchino, the team president who speaks for owner Eli Jacobs, talks of the Orioles' "neutrality" in the matter, but he also keeps uttering the dratted R-word, that Baltimore must be considered a "regional team." That's a euphemism for: Washington belongs to Baltimore.

It would nice to think the Orioles are most friendly in this matter and are making no back-door moves around the league that would say otherwise.

There is a temptation to recall a skit in which the Saints and Sinners parodied a President Eisenhower news conference, in which a reporter eventually asked Ike, directly, if he liked the vice president. "Well, let me put it this way," said Ike in his fumbling manner, "I think Mr. Nixon is sincere." Asked to be specific, Eisenhower said, "Well, these days, for example, ever since my third heart attack, when the vice president comes to the White House and asks about my health, I know he's sincere."

Likewise, in the important matter that has been our text, it is trusted that the Orioles are free from hypocrisy.

By June 30: Expansion Committee will make recomendations to the other NL owners, the Major League Executive Council and the Major League Ownership Committee.

By Sept. 30: Owners from both leagues will vote, and franchises will be awarded.

Spring 1992: New franchises will stock their major league rosters through a special draft of players made available by existing teams.

April 1993: New franchises will begin major league play.