Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., remain the clear favorites to be awarded Major League Baseball's next two expansion franchises, baseball sources said yesterday. Those franchises would begin play in 1997 or '98 if expansion is approved by 21 of the 28 major league owners, and yesterday one owner said privately that teams already have been promised to those cities.

Even so, Friday's recommendation by baseball's expansion committee that the sport add four clubs -- with the second round of expansion slated to come two to three years after the first -- greatly enhanced the chances that the Washington area will regain a major league team by the turn of the century.

A franchise in Northern Virginia likely will come later rather than sooner, however. "It's a fait accompli," one major league owner said yesterday. "Those franchises have been promised to Phoenix and Tampa. We talked about it at our last meeting {Dec. 15 in Chicago}, and I'd say those teams have pretty much been awarded."

Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, baseball's acting commissioner, and Boston Red Sox general partner John Harrington, the chairman of the expansion committee, deny that any such decision has been made. But Jerry Colangelo, the head of Phoenix's expansion effort, said during a Friday evening news conference, "There's little doubt in my mind that the two leading candidates are Phoenix and Tampa-St. Pete."

Where does that leave the effort to return baseball to the D.C. area for the first time since the Senators left town following the 1971 season and became the Texas Rangers? Still in pretty good shape, it seems.

Two Northern Virginia ownership groups -- one headed by telecommunications executive William Collins III and one led by attorney Bart Fisher -- made presentations to the nine-member expansion committee Nov. 1 in Chicago. According to baseball and local government sources, Fisher made a spotty presentation, but Collins made a convincing case for the region. Philadelphia Phillies owner and expansion committee member Bill Giles called Northern Virginia the pleasant surprise of the process, and indicated the area is a strong candidate to get a team in the second round of expansion if not the first.

On Friday, Collins said he couldn't see his group being lower than No. 3, and couldn't foresee Northern Virginia not getting one of the four teams the expansion committee recommended adding. The math seems simple. There are four areas -- an Orlando, Fla., group made a presentation to the expansion committee last month -- still in the running, and four franchises to be awarded.

It may not be that simple. Harrington said Friday night that two or three cities probably will be added as candidates after the first round of expansion. Buffalo, Nashville and Charlotte may enter the mix, and baseball officials seem enamored with the idea of putting a team in Mexico, either in Mexico City or Monterrey. Vancouver also is a possibility.

The proximity of the Baltimore Orioles always had hurt the expansion chances of the Washington area. But the unpopularity of Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos among his peers apparently has made that a moot point. Major League Baseball Players Association chief Donald Fehr said last week: "They might want to punish Angelos by putting a team there. That's the sort of under-the-table comment you pick up." Angelos declined to comment on the matter yesterday.

The owners missed out on $500 million-plus in potential revenues last year because of the players' strike, and the addition of two teams at $140 million apiece would generate $10 million for each of the 28 existing clubs. The owners also are lobbying Congress to try to preserve their exemption from federal antitrust laws, and the representatives from Florida and Arizona have been leading the effort to get the exemption repealed or limited. Fehr said last week he favors expansion, but added: "Whenever {the owners} feel pressure on the antitrust exemption, they want to try and buy off votes. ... I just hope the people on {Capitol} Hill understand it for what it is. "One of the things they might do ... is to expand {with the} intent to secure votes, require payments of expansion fees -- or significant parts of them -- early, and use that as a war chest against the players in the strike. "That, it seems to me, is entirely inappropriate."

CAPTION: COMPARING BASEBALL EXPANSION CANDIDATES

PHOENIX LEAD INVESTOR: Jerry Colangelo, president and CEO, Phoenix Suns. EQUITY RAISED: $100 million, according to Colangelo. STADIUM: A 47,000-seat, natural-grass, retractable-roof, baseball-only stadium is proposed with a projected cost of $273 million, most from a county sales tax. Colangelo says the stadium cannot be completed before 1998, and that there are no suitable temporary facilities available.

SOURCE: Jerry Colangelo

TAMPA-ST. PETERSBURG LEAD INVESTOR: Vincent Naimoli, CEO of Anchor Industries International and other firms. EQUITY RAISED: More than $100 million, according to Naimoli. STADIUM: ThunderDome, in St. Petersburg, is ready for occupancy.

Source: St. Petersburg Times

NORTHERN VIRGINIA Capital Baseball, Inc. LEAD INVESTOR: Bart Fisher, Washington lawyer. EQUITY RAISED: Undetermined.

Source: Capital Baseball, Inc.

Virginia Baseball Club, Inc. LEAD INVESTOR: William Collins III of Great Falls, vice chairman of Metrocall, Inc., the nation's second-largest publicly traded paging company EQUITY RAISED: $100 million, according to Collins source: Virginia Baseball Club, Inc. STADIUM: Five stadium sites near Dulles Airport are proposed -- three in Fairfax County, two in Loudoun. Most are between routes 66 and 7. The stadium would cost about $170 million; the entire project, including land and raods, about $300 million. Area government officials hope for heavy private funding.

SOURCE: Virginia Baseball Club, Inc.

ORLANDO LEAD INVESTOR: Norton Herrick, Boca Raton businessman who says he has a $150 million personal line of credit. EQUITY RAISED: Undetermined (the Orlando group is not scheduled to be interviewed by baseball's expansion committee until next month). STADIUM: A $150 million stadium is proposed that would be funded by a proposed -- and yet to be approved -- tax hike.

REGIONAL POPULATION (In millions) Phoenix: 2.3 Tampa-STP: 2.1 N. Virginia: 1.56 (D.C.: 606,900 TOTAL OF 2.16 million) Orlando: 1.3

SOURCE: 1990 U.S. Census

TELEVISION MARKET (Rank among U.S. cities) Phoenix: 20th Tampa-STP: 13th DC: 7th Orlando: 25th

SOURCE: ABC Sports

MEDIAN INCOME Phoenix: $32,000 Tampa-STP: $29,000 N. Virginia: $48,000 Orlando: $31,000

SOURCE: Virginia Baseball Club, Inc.

EARNINGS (Percentage earning $75,000+ annually) Phoenix: 18% Tampa-STP: 11% N. Virginia: 30% Orlando: 11%

SOURCE: Virginia Baseball Club, Inc.