The home stretch is upon the men who want to own Washington's baseball team, and this is how they look plodding toward the post:

Ted Lerner has become more reclusive than Howard Hughes, as accessible as Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger. (Does anyone know what Lerner looks like? When he was last seen?) I know baseball told everyone to stay mum, but this man has duct-taped his lips. His bid was probably air mailed from Guam.

Jeff Smulyan can be seen grinning in celluloid, campaigning harder than John Kerry. The Indianapolis media mogul is so desperate to erase the portrayal of himself as the outsider, he returned my call. Soon enough, he'll be on stage with Bruce Springsteen in a barn jacket.

And Fred Malek? Poor Fred Malek. He sent Colin Powell last week to lobby the D.C. Council on his group's behalf. Imagine the indignity for such a great American with just a infinitesimal financial stake in Malek's group: One minute, you're addressing the United Nations on matters of global security, the next, you're at Corner Bakery with Jack Evans and Anthony Williams. Very disconcerting.

Fortunately, it's almost over. And this is how it will most likely go down: The penny-wrangling between the District and Major League Baseball should end in about a week, the final details of a lease for a new stadium to be worked out.

By Friday, Stan Kasten, the former Braves president, will have met with Bud Selig and formally be told, "Join forces with Lerner because we all know your group is toast."

Smulyan's group will also meet with Selig, and the commissioner will then make his final call. Within two weeks, at the latest, the Nationals will no longer be on the baseball public-assistance plan. They'll have a real live owner, not to mention the final touches on plans for a new stadium. This is just a hunch, but it will probably be announced at a joint press conference.

Which rich guy should it be? Only Bud knows.

Reading Selig, the only tea leaf in baseball that matters, is akin to living your life by horoscope: You hear what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. Beyond the rhetoric, here is what Selig is weighing in a two-, maybe three-horse race, depending whether you're in the camp of Smulyan or Malek.

(By the way, Malek's big supporter, the lame-duck mayor, has really come up small on this issue. While baseball was trying to sew up the lease deal, Williams left town. Williams has tethered his legacy to the economic redevelopment of Washington, and for more than a year baseball has been his baby. It's time he was there to see it grow up.)

Lerner is purported to have the inside track for two reasons. One, he is of D.C., which, perception-wise, means he loves Washington too much to move the Nationals. Two, baseball is happy he adhered to its secrecy request. With the way he has comported himself in this campaign, Lerner is someone baseball feels could carry the ownership banner without making a spectacle of himself. If a baseball man like Kasten is added to the mix, well, that erases the inexperience factor.

Smulyan is still in the running for several reasons. Cold-calling, grabbing everyone he can, he has enlisted a number of local investors, who happen to be black. They include Alfred Liggins, Rodney Hunt and Jeffrey Thompson, who brought along two of Joe Gibbs's former players, Art Monk and Charles Mann. Including Eric Holder and Bill Jarvis, Smulyan's group of African-American owners would represent the largest minority ownership in baseball, some $50 million. And Selig wants to champion diversity at the highest levels of the game. Further, some feel he has the backing of old friend Jerry Reinsdorf, the man Selig charged with assembling the cast of buyers.

Smulyan's ownership history in Seattle hurts him (cash-strapped and hamstrung by a stadium lease, he sold the team in 1992), but at least he's been there.

Any vote to move the team would be taken by the club's Washington owners, not Smulyan. Smulyan has removed himself from the equation just to make sure people believe him when he says he is not the second coming of Bob Short, who moved the Senators some 30 years ago.

"If you believe nothing I've ever said, let me say this: Indianapolis is never going to get baseball," Smulyan said in a telephone interview yesterday. "The value of the team is in Washington. Why would someone spend $450 million to buy a team in the fifth-largest media market and the area with the country's second- or third-most disposable income and then move it? Nobody is that dumb. Not even me.

"I'll buy a home there, I'll be there. Nobody will work harder than we will."

Take it easy, Senator. We know you want to be president.

Malek's group is still smarting from the perception, wrongly or not, that it initiated the negative campaign against Smulyan. Baseball does not like connivers, and only puts up with them because George Steinbrenner makes it. There is the existing relationship between the city and the Malek group to promote baseball in the district dating back several years. Before anybody believed a return was possible, Malek was the forefront of the movement, and the mayor has been loyal to him.

But his past has come back to haunt him, too. Though prominent Jewish leaders have said Malek has atoned for his role as a Nixon White House aide who counted the number of Jews working at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it's still out there.

Asked if he believed the Malek group was behind the out-of-town characterization and whether Smulyan's Jewish faith had anything to do with it, Smulyan said: "You hear things, but I can't believe that. I don't think there's any anti-Semitism involved. If I would have been part of a group of Episcopal bishops from out of town, the same thing would have happened."

I'm still perplexed by the localism issue. How is the area you live in more important than the stewardship of the team? This entire Sale-By-Zip-Code rationale has got to stop. After all, Bob Short lived in Washington for 15 years before he moved the team. The Griffith family lived in the District only their entire lives before they made sure baseball left Washington the first time.

Shouldn't more pressing issues be on the table at this point? Like, who is going to bring in wonder boy Theo Epstein? He's 31. He does not want to work for Larry Lucchino and the Red Sox anymore and he has direct ties to Washington.

(Okay, so his sister is merely a writer on the new Geena Davis series, "Commander in Chief." That counts, right?) The point is, it's getting late in the game. It's time to pick someone in this race, and I don't care what Selig is thinking. I'm going with Smulyan in the hopes he can bring in a rock star like Theo to lure some rock-star players.

What? The guy called me back.