In just eight months, the Expos will open the 2000 baseball season in one of three locations: Montreal, Charlotte or the greater Washington area. The odds on each of these three eventualities are probably about equal. Nobody is a clear favorite. Nobody is out of it. And everything will change a lot.

Montreal has the edge of incumbency. Charlotte has BankAmerica chief Hugh McColl, a lot of big bucks and old-boy favors to call in, especially from Commissioner Bud Selig. Washington has a vast, rich and booming market.

Yet each of these cities also has large and indisputable disadvantages, burdens that may be enough to sink their chances.

What should Washington, or Northern Virginia, do to win this battle? How can we swing the odds our way? How do we deal with the Baltimore Issue? Should we trash our opponents? What tactics might pressure baseball--a business that seldom listens to sweet logic? Here's a battle plan.

* We have to focus. It's now or never for baseball in this area. More expansion may be years away. No franchise has relocated in 28 years. If the Expos fail to get a new stadium deal or a new chunk of ownership money within the next few weeks, the strapped franchise will be sold and moved. With so many teams in so many cities building luxurious, new retro-style ballparks, we may not see another such shift for 28 more years.

* The Orioles, and owner Peter Angelos, are the disloyal opposition. (Let's not forget they've always been a stopgap measure, very often exciting and intoxicating for us, but not a local team.) The Orioles' self-serving claim that their economic health would be destroyed by a Washington franchise must be debunked with hard numbers and cool logic. This fallacy, more than all else put together, is what stands in our way.

At the most simplistic level, the Orioles claim 25 percent of their gate comes from our area. If they lost 80 percent of their supposed Washington area fans (and did not resell a single one of those tickets to anybody else), the Orioles still would draw 3 million fans a year! That's 37,000 a game. A huge gate! Fenway Park doesn't even have 37,000 seats!

In reality, demand for the best Orioles seats and suites is so great that any empty seats would be the cheap ones. Under an accept-the-Orioles'-assumptions worst-case scenario, Oriole revenue might drop 10 percent.

But why accept those assumptions? Washington area groups need to hire every demographer and marketer in sight to get an independent analysis.

* Baseball must be convinced that having teams in Washington and Baltimore is a far better result--for the financial health of the entire game--than having teams in Montreal and Baltimore or teams in Charlotte and Baltimore. The best interests of the sport--that's to say, the biggest bucks for everybody--are served by having two flourishing teams, both drawing big crowds, in Washington and Baltimore.

Hammer one point home constantly: A team in Washington may nick the Orioles' wealth. But who cares? The overall health of baseball as a whole would be increased. That's what should matter to the game's other 29 owners and its commissioner.

The Expos draw 9,000 a game, many of whom don't actually sit in the seats they own. The Orioles average 45,500. Together, that's 54,500. Therefore, if the Orioles, despite a team in Washington, still drew 37,000, then Washington would only have to draw 17,501 a game for the deal to be a net plus for baseball. More likely, we'd draw 30,000 to 35,000. The average National League attendance is 28,943 and the Washington area's population is far larger than the average NL city.

* Undermine Charlotte. Negative research is essential.

Take the thorny attendance issue first. Charlotte is a Class AAA town with a 10,000-seat park, Knights Stadium, that could be renovated to seat 18,000-plus. Wow, 18,000. Don't let me faint. Even a study financed by the city's sports commission said that, with a new downtown stadium, the team might draw about 25,000 a game. Since a new park has little political backing, building one could take years. Or might never happen. What a nightmare.

Do the Charlotte-plus-Baltimore arithmetic vs. the Washington-area-plus-Baltimore math. It's a no-brainer. All the margin of safety, as well as upside potential, is in the Washington column. Our metro area population is 4.6 million. Charlotte's is 1.3 million.

Besides its lack of size, Charlotte may have a worse flaw, which Washington's groups should underline. Charlotte strongly resembles baseball's recent expansion mistake: Tampa Bay. The Devil Rays demonstrate that a small market can't support baseball very well when its backing from local corporations is already spread thin by its NFL and NBA (or in Tampa's case, NHL) franchises. Pro sports tickets are big bucks. Companies, more than individuals, buy those luxury suites and field-level season tickets.

Charlotte is not just smaller in size next to Washington; we have much deeper pockets.

* Selig is the main power broker in this deal and he's probably not on our side. His true self-interests need to be brought out of the shadows. Selig is indebted--literally, in financial terms, and personally, in terms of gratitude and loyalty--to Charlotte banking interests. They're helping build a number of big league ballparks, including Milwaukee's. The Brewers are owned by Selig's daughter, who took over running the team when her father become full-time commissioner.

Conflict-of-interest issues have not bothered baseball's powers-that-be in the past. They seem oblivious to the concept. Selig is in the midst of another tangle now. He may pretend it doesn't exist. Imagine yourself in his shoes. What would you do? Guide the Expos to Charlotte? Thank the Carolina bankers for all their help to Major League Baseball over the years? Then cry crocodile tears? Can't you hear the words of commiseration now? "I have a deep sense of baseball history, so I feel Washington's pain. But they're just too close to Baltimore."

Was Baltimore too close to Washington 45 years ago when Washington's Griffith family allowed the St. Louis Browns to move to Baltimore and become the Orioles?

But don't mention the words "Nation's Capital" or "tradition" to baseball officials That tack hasn't worked for 28 years. It won't now. Baseball isn't sentimental.

* If the Expos fail in Montreal and actually come on the market, then this area's two main ownership groups need to get their act together. Right now, they're a migraine waiting to happen. Each group has exactly what the other lacks. Worse, each highlights the other's weaknesses.

The Northern Virginia gang, led by former AA catcher (and telecommunications honcho) Bill Collins, is well known and liked within baseball. They've done the proper politicking for five years and shown both patience and good-faith money. Also, a Northern Virginia site may pose less of a "threat" to Baltimore and could be a compromise solution.

Unfortunately, while Collins is wealthy, he's no longer as rich as he was a few years ago; he may no longer be considered a financial "player" by baseball standards. Collins claims to have flashy fellow investors lined up around the block. But none of them have names. That's bad. Just as disconcerting, after all these years, Northern Virginia's plans for a fabulous state-of-the-art park are still too vague. If you don't have a hard answer to the most basic question--where would it be located--what have you got?

Washington's new investment group, led by District investment firm head Fred Malek, America Online chairman emeritus Jim Kimsey and Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines, cobbled together by D.C. lawyers Steve Porter and Paul Wolff, is the classiest and best-heeled the town has ever put forward. By about 100 miles. But where have you guys been?

National League President Len Coleman says the best trump any potential Expos ownership group could have is a strong minority presence and a commitment to improving baseball's atrocious inner-city presence. Or, rather, non-presence. Raines is the top black businessman in America. Washington Baseball Club also has fine rhetoric about its ideas for a "team that reflects the diversity of the city."

Will Washington or Northern Virginia have a baseball team next Opening Day? Probably not. After 28 years of waiting, who can be an optimist? But you can say the same about Montreal and Charlotte. Nobody is even money. The competition is that close. And none of the contestants is a total beauty. For example, if we knew whether "we" was Northern Virginia or the District, the battle would be easier. But, after all this time, why should anything be different? We like it hard.

If this area can focus its energy, activate its activists and politicians, do its critical research on Baltimore and Charlotte, then make its case, especially to Selig, we've got a chance.

A last chance.