Although Abe Pollin said he's never bet more than a nickel on anything, surely beneath that meek-looking surface stirs the heart of a serious gambler. No builder achieves Pollin's stature without assuming enormous risks each time a shovel breaks ground. To reverse what he has called the major disappointment and failure of his business life, Pollin very likely needs to take one more plunge.

Abe, to keep the Capitals alive NOW, I think you've got to chance their being hurt in a few years. If not mortgage their future, at least compromise it. Trade some high draft choices for veteran players who will convince the ticket-buying franchise savers you pleaded with yesterday that the team has an honest, no-fingers-crossed chance to make the playoffs.

Reconsider your basic sporting philosophy. What's the use in having a full complement of draft choices the next two years, after all, if you don't have a team in two months?

Pollin spit it all out yesterday during an 11th-hour press conference. His terms, take 'em or--at best--see 'em leave: 7,500 season tickets, sellouts for the first 10 home games, approval by the permanent Capital Centre bondholder for a drastic reduction in what Pollin pays himself in rent and for Prince George's County to cut the amusement tax it charges the Capitals from 10 per cent to "hopefully" half of 1 percent.

All this in a month. To borrow from a former Washington football sage, the Capitals' future is 30 days. If all of the above comes close to happening, Pollin gets the local investors he needs for a massive financial transfusion. If not, Washington loses its third major team in a decade, slides closer to being a sort of sporting Charlotte.

It shouldn't be hard to save face, with this appealing team with the appalling lifelong record. Good guy Pollin has brought us two major-league teams and a fine playpen, without the usual bullying tactics so many areas experience.

Most owners demand a community-financed arena; Pollin built his.

He's blundered badly with the Capitals; he's also been about as unlucky as a man can get. And as obsessed with plugging up the hole down which he has thrown a fortune as a man can be. Pollin has fought fresh money from another league and familiar greed from his own--a salary structure that has nearly quadrupled since he bought the team eight years ago.

The team that popped into the NHL world the same time as the Capitals is hustling its third area, New Jersey, having failed in Kansas City and later in Denver.

So we owe it to Abe, and area athletic pride, to at least work at ways to keep the Caps skating. Isn't a bad team better than none?

And how hard is it to muster 7,500 season tickets? The Caps had 4,200 last year. If they all re-upped, and if 250 area businesses only bought 10 tickets each the plucky Save the Caps Committee probably would scrape together enough to make up the difference.

To achieve that 10-sellout goal, to keep the team one more year, it takes just one ticket from several thousand in an area of 3 million. An early buying binge would get the county thinking about compromise.

Of course, Pollin is getting uppity with us. So would anybody who has lost what he estimates, "in excess of $20 million in cash," over eight years. It's time for Washington to put up, or for him to shut the Caps down.

Emotion might keep them from melting away. Pledges may come in tidal waves that will lure enough money and minds to get the Caps slap-shooting all the way to mediocrity next season. Significantly more people than he once thought genuinely care about the Caps' fate.

Steve Mehlman, Sybil Hindin, Steve Gearhart and Larry White of the Save the Caps Committee are Pollin's most valuable players at the moment. They are fans and salespersons of the highest order. The owner applauded them yesterday. Today, he should lighten their burden a bit.

Selling Caps' tickets is easier than electric blankets just now, but possibly not by too much. Many former season ticket holders are angry, and deservedly so, by paying full price and then watching the team offer all manner of discounts and giveways.

Who's been keeping the faith, Abe?

Pollin yesterday said that wouldn't happen again.

Also, this hardly is the time to beg for $280, $420 or $500, depending on whether you want to see season-long body checks or hear them. For a $500 season ticket, Pollin wants $100 immediately, half of the balance by Aug. 15 and the rest by Sept. 15.

I returned from vacation yesterday with $1.38 in my pocket; I imagine others are similarly squeezed. And with taxes, school starting and such, even the most altruistic Pollin-watcher might balk. Fans must be bottom-liners too, and many will question what beyond goodwill this investment will offer.

What's a Mehlman to say?

That the Caps, at last, seem to have turned the playoff corner, if Pollin makes a judicious trade or two involving future high draft choices.

"A nice drastic move," said one of Pollin's potential partners, Richard Patrick, "but it would be balanced off long term. You don't want to mortgage the future, if you can. The great teams always seem to have those No. 1 choices."

What Patrick implied was: if Pollin pounced on this notion and swapped, say, first rounders the next two years for veterans, short-term fans might be coaxed into the fold but long-term investors might balk. Once intrigued by a team seemingly close to good, they might question the wisdom of buying into sudden patchwork.

Isn't a flailing swimmer who grabs a leaky float still ultimately doomed?

After the press conference, after dumping a large sack of supportive mail on a table, Pollin said he'd bet a nickel the area would pull him through. He learned from Day One this hockey business would not be easy.