The pitch to U.S. Rep. Jim Moran from the owner of the only minor league baseball team in northern Virginia came at him like a fastball thrown at a batter's chin.

If Congress revokes the game's antitrust exemption, the owner warned, Moran could lose not only the minor league Prince William Cannons, but also the long-sought chance for a major league franchise in or near his congressional district."He persuaded me," Moran, a Democrat, said of the visit Feb. 1 from Cannons owner Art Silber, a Baltimore banker and real estate investor.

A year ago, Moran was prepared to introduce legislation that would roll back major league baseball's longstanding exemption from antitrust laws. Aides had even drafted a bill to take away the monopoly status team owners have enjoyed since a 1922 Supreme Court ruling that essentially declared baseball was not a business.

"Then we looked into it, and found it would hurt northern Virginia's chances (at a big-league team) and hurt the Cannons," Moran said. "That's why I pulled the bill back."

With President Clinton beckoning Congress to end the six-month baseball strike and lawmakers still studying the antitrust exemption, the politically connected baseball owners have rolled out a powerful lobbying machine.

On the same day Silber visited Moran, 102 other minor league owners and managers fanned out across Congress for personal lobbying. A week earlier, eight major league owners had visited 66 members of the House and Senate.

With their stature as local business leaders, philanthropists and large political givers - and with a few of the city's best lobbyists in their bullpen - the owners have powerful sway on Capitol Hill.

And their most potent weapon, as Moran discovered, is the threat of moving franchises, especially those in the minor leagues, which are an important part of 176 local economies across the nation.

"You have to remember who the owners are," said Bud Shorstein, a senior aide to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who is sympathetic to some of the players' concerns.

"They generally are very affluent citizens who are leaders of their communities, very charitable people, who also have been politically active for years."

Figures compiled by the National Library on Money and Politics, a nonpartisan group that studies campaign finance, found that baseball team owners, their families and top employees have given $1.1 million to congressional candidates and to political parties over the past 15 years.

The owners also are likely to have personal connections on Capitol Hill.

The players have lobbyists, as well, but they are fewer and less well-known.