Ultimately, one person and one person alone may decide whether the Montreal Expos move to the Washington area -- Commissioner Bud Selig. That's good news and perhaps bad news. Within months, Selig probably will be seen as our greatest friend. Or our worst baseball nightmare.

"I know that perception will probably exist," Selig said yesterday of his fast-approaching role as Washington's friend or foe. "I accept it."

On some issues, especially labor negotiations, baseball commissioners are perceived to have far more power than they actually do. On others, especially franchise relocations, the commissioner has far more power than most fans suspect. "That's absolutely correct," said Selig yesterday.

First, the commissioner will decide if the Expos meet baseball's standards for relocation. What are those standards? Basically, total financial hopelessness and destitution. Then, Selig would take a position on whether it's wise to put a team, even a National League team, in an area so close to Baltimore. Selig's stance on the Orioles Issue would probably carry the day.

Selig has stalled for months on setting a firm deadline for new Expos investors to materialize or for new Expos stadium plans to come into being. He'll probably keep stalling all summer. His strong preference is for every current team to stay in its present city. Buy time. Cajole. Buy time. Cajole.

"I always want to err on the side of too much time," Selig said. "But the time is not infinite for Montreal."

Ever since the Senators left Washington after the 1971 season, every floundering team with crummy attendance that has threatened to move (usually to Washington) has drummed up fresh investors or a taxpayer-built ballpark. We've been the instrument of a half-dozen such extortions.

Time has never run out on any city. Why would it run out on Montreal? The latest save-the-Expos scenario includes a possible $50 million to $75 million investment by New York art dealer Jeff Luria and a new stadium built at the I-can-get-it-for-you-wholesale price of $150 million.

"Montreal is unique," says Selig. Translation: This time is different.

"Who's to say that this isn't your best opportunity in Washington?" Selig said yesterday. "Is any expansion planned? No. And, with all the new parks that are being built, there aren't going to be many teams on the market.

"The Washington area is a very viable candidate. . . . If we get to the end of the line with Montreal, this might be it right now [for Washington]."

The commissioner also adds, "I don't want to get people excited. We're not there yet." But we're getting there.

If Montreal's hopes finally are dashed, then Selig becomes even more important. Sometimes, the buck really does stop at one desk. When it comes to relocation issues, the commissioner is the sport's collective institutional memory. It's his job to say, "Here's what's worked well in the past. Here's what's flopped." It's also his responsibility to ensure the sport's due diligence on which cities will best support the game. So, what he says usually goes.

What would Selig say?

What he does say is right down the cautious middle. Unfortunately, while Selig's feelings for Washington tend to be warm, his problems with this area are all too concrete. "It's part of my job to assess the consequences of what a team 25 miles away would do to Baltimore."

That's 33 miles, Bud.

"Okay, 33."

Would a team in Northern Virginia have a significantly better chance of defeating the Orioles Issue -- and that is the issue -- than a team in downtown Washington? "I'd need to do more due diligence on that one. I really don't know," Selig said. "That's not a dodge."

Recently, a former general manager volunteered to me, "If the Expos go on the market, the group in Northern Virginia ought to work out a deal with [general partner Claude] Brochu. Then, they should threaten to sue if baseball doesn't approve it. How do you get something out of baseball? Threaten to sue them." In other words, bring baseball's precious antitrust exemption -- or the possibility of jeopardizing it -- into play.

"That's bad advice. That's a heck of a way to get into a league -- sue your way in," Selig said icily. In any consideration of whether a city such as Charlotte, rather than Washington, should get the Expos, "We would bend over backwards to be fair. I don't think anybody needs to worry about that."

This is the same sort of paternalistic tone that always makes the union go ballistic: If a point is reached where our interests are diametrically opposed, please, believe us, you can trust us to look out for your interests. Yeah, right.

Washington's biggest problem is that Selig wishes he knew how many fans the Orioles would draw if we had a team, too. But how can he know?

He can't. But thanks to the Orioles' pathetic showing this year, maybe he can start to guess. "Is the mood as ugly in Baltimore as I hear?" he said.

Oh, yes. The '99 Orioles are so bad, so fan-repellent, so hard to root for, so often emblematic of what's worst in the sport, that this season's second-half attendance at Oriole Park may represent some sort of bottom. Could a team in Washington or Northern Virginia possibly pull as many fans away from the Orioles as the team itself is currently driving away?

If the Orioles continue to play atrociously, yet still draw 30,000 to 35,000 to the park -- actual fannies-in-the-seats attendance, not pre-sold tickets -- then that's probably the club's true hard core. No Washington team could dent it.

However, if half the seats in Camden Yards are empty by August, with actual humans in attendance under 25,000, then that may be an even worse sign for Washington than it is for Baltimore.

Bizarre as it seems, baseball for Washington has reached a point where it is less about baseball or Washington than about Bud Selig and the Orioles.

"We need Baltimore to be a great franchise," Selig said firmly. Not just a good one, but a great one. An unthreatened one? Maybe it was just a slip of the tongue, but the way Selig said it, he didn't sound like a friend.

CAPTION: Commissioner Bud Selig points to Washington as a "vert viable candidate" if the Expos move.