This is definitely not the closest that Washington has come to getting a major league team to return to the District. In early 1974, Topps ran off baseball cards of 15 San Diego Padres, including Willie McCovey and Glenn Beckert, with their team designation as "Washington Nat'l Lea." Now that's close.

Also, things seemed pretty serious the day the late Jack Kent Cooke told his secretary to get the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates on the phone. "So, how much do you want for that team?" bellowed Cooke as I listened.

Once upon a time, the Houston Astros looked like a near-lock, too.

Nevertheless, the Expos are so close to coming to the District right now that, if you were Charlie Brown, you'd be absolutely, positively certain that, this time, you were going to kick that miserable football before Lucy could pull it away.

At the moment, the Expos buzz is so loud you're lucky not to get knocked over by the volume.

"We believe we're down to the last inch in getting the [baseball] relocation committee to recommend the District as the home for the Expos in '05" at Thursday's Executive Council meeting, District Deputy Mayor Eric Price said yesterday.

"An 'inch' might be too close," said Bob DuPuy, baseball's second-highest-ranking official, "but discussions have been very productive [recently]."

According to numerous sources, the District will find out whether it gets the Expos by Oct. 1, though the earlier part of next week is more likely. "That's the right timeline," said a highly placed baseball source.

Yesterday, the District and baseball finally agreed on a site for a new ballpark: at M Street on the Anacostia waterfront. That is a huge hurdle cleared.

"Now we have to get a better name for that site than 'M Street,' don't we?" Price asked.

Tomorrow, baseball's Executive Council, which includes Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, will meet in Milwaukee. The relocation committee will tell the Executive Council that the District is clearly the most viable place to move the Expos. That's not the same as giving an order. It's a committee report. But it is a conclusion reached after years of agonizing analysis by an influential committee packed with those closest to Commissioner Bud Selig, including his daughter who owns the Brewers, his right-hand-man DuPuy and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Selig's closest ally through two labor strikes.

The relocation committee may not speak for Selig. But it's very close. And, in the matter of the location of franchises, commissioners have almost always been the only vote that counts. "Very little goes on in our industry that the commissioner is not directing," said a highly placed management source.

Bud has finally given the relocation committee its cue to speak. And they're "an inch," or slightly more, from saying "Washington," loud and clear.

What happens after that is subject to conjecture. Some think sweet reason will prevail. "If you know how Bud does business, there will be fulsome discussion by everything. Views will be shaped and evolve. Then we'll see what happens from there," said an industry source.

Like, perhaps, a choice of dueling pistols vs. sabers?

Some think Angelos's indignation will reach such intensity that he'll explode from spontaneous combustion. Others assume Reinsdorf, the toughest customer Selig can send into battle, will cross swords with Angelos as the commissioner's surrogate.

"Bud is a piece of work," said one bitter member of the Orioles family yesterday, not disguising his sense of betrayal. "And Reinsdorf, there's another great American."

However, those who know Selig assume that he has already laid a vast amount of groundwork to placate Angelos. "It's not a question of Bud 'standing up' to Peter," said one industry executive yesterday. "It's a matter of him having the imagination to satisfy Peter [financially]. And I think he'll be able to do it."

For months, various economic olive branches have been offered to the Orioles owner. However, Angelos ultimately has no actual right to block an Expos move to D.C., except to appeal to his fellow owners -- as one monopolist to 28 others -- to defend him and his perennial losing franchise from competition. It's a vile line of argument, but in baseball, base often works.

Why has baseball finally decided to decide? Because time has run out.

No Washington mayor is ever going to offer more than a 100 percent city-built, state-of-the-art ballpark. In fact, it may be too much to offer. Last week, three city council members won primaries who all claim they'll oppose using public funds for a park when they reach office next year. If baseball designates Washington as its choice for the Expos, then Mayor Anthony A. Williams still has the time, and presumably the votes, to fulfill his ballpark promise to baseball.

In theory, baseball could dither for another year. But all the economic and political factors are now aligned in the District -- although precariously. Everything from low interest rates to a decent economy to political support for baseball is in place. For now. "Time is the great killer to deals," said a District official yesterday.

"We all know a decision has to be made on Washington right now, one way or the other," a baseball official said yesterday.

What could cause that decision to go against the District?

First, there's a legal fight between baseball and the minority partners of the Expos that isn't concluded yet. If you have a spare decade, somebody can explain it to you. Baseball thinks it'll be solved soon. We shall see. It could gum the works.

Second, Angelos will use all his firepower to fight a team just 35 miles from Camden Yards. However, some in the game believe that he has lost control of events and, at this point, doesn't even have a grip on what will hit him tomorrow.

Third, the anti-baseball groundswell in D.C. politics might conceivably prevent Williams from delivering the stadium package that his people have negotiated, in minute detail, with Reinsdorf. However, that pitfall seems doubtful.

While Northern Virginia's best efforts have met with disappointment after disappointment, events have finally fallen into place for baseball in the District after an almost inconceivable third of a century of delay.

"I tell people I'll believe baseball is back in Washington after I actually see a game played there," a member of the relocation committee said yesterday.

"That's funny," I said. "I always say I'll believe it after the second game."