In sports, what we Washingtonians do best is flog ourselves. Each time somebody Short-sighted makes off with a team, or an Abe Pollin needs a Chrysler-like bailout, we wring our hands and mumble, over three martinis: How come we're such an awful area?

Digest this: New York has lost as many baseball teams in the last generation as we have; Los Angeles has lost two more pro football teams; the Philadelphia 76ers, in a town that adores basketball and with the greatest stylist in the game's history, also fail to sell out every NBA playoff game.

As a country twanger might put it, if what we give our teams ain't quite love, it ain't bad.

Almost always, our record of support is at least a wee bit better than the records of our teams suggests they deserve. Pollin's hockey and basketball teams are excellent evidence.

There is no compelling reason to adore either one.

The Bullets are a spunky gang of overachievers who would have tugged harder at our hearts last year if they belonged to a league that made every game an event instead of a test of endurance. The NBA was among the first to recycle itself, to try to sell an 82-game regular season and then two months of playoffs.

Smart fans buy a good deal of both; many fans buy neither, being convinced that any season that fails to eliminate half the teams hardly is worth underwriting and the playoffs are a bore the first round or so. Valid or not, that's the presumption.

Pollin never has sold the Bullets with imagination or intensity. Other than a radio jingle now and then, he has assumed that offering a solid product will be enough to draw fans to Capital Centre in herds and turn a tidy profit. It hasn't been. The blue-collar work ethics of the Wes Unseld teams simply wouldn't sell in style-conscious Washington.

Style is wearing thin in Philadelphia. With Julius Erving dancing on air, inventing wondrous new ways to throw a basketball through a hoop, the Sixers usually have about 5,000 empty seats for each of their 41 home games. Sometimes, they have that many for a relatively attractive playoff series.

That must frustrate Pollin no end. If The Doctor can't sell out, what hope is there for the Bullets' bright young act, Frankie and The Beef Brothers? Gotta find something, Abe.

The Redskins did.

Long before they won regularly on the field, they prospered at the box office. Long before Vince Lombardi and George Allen, they had season-long sellouts.

"Everything in life is timing," Allen told The Post's Kathy Blumenstock from his latest football outpost, Chicago. "You have to win right away. When I was there, we went to the Super Bowl the second year."

But the town had fallen madly in love with the Redskins when the Redskins were falling maddingly over their cleats. If George Preston Marshall never said it, he used the promoter's primary precept: it's not what you have but what the public thinks you have that counts.

In the August swelter, the public thinks area teams ought to be worth opening their wallets for this season. For the first time in years, Maryland has a bright football package to sell: entertainment and a terrific schedule. The turtles actually can get back to running again in basketball.

Patrick Ewing may well shine with a Russell-like glow; George Washington is a budding eastern basketball power; the University of the District of Columbia already is a small-college force and the defending Division II champion.

If Pollin stages, say, sure-sell rockfests or pro rasslin' shows at halftime, word might get around that Frank Johnson, Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland are worth more than casual attention. But until the public stops assuming that NBA stands for Neverending Boredom Again, he will have trouble attracting more than us hoop junkies.

It reflects positively on the area that Washingtonians have shown even half-hearted enthusiasm toward saving Pollin's hockey team. If ever a gang merited burial, it's the Capitals; if ever a team was more mismanaged more regularly, none comes to mind.

Abe not only wants forgiveness he also wants us to finance possible future folly, a team for whom the journey to ordinary is perilous. Actually, that's not quite right. Pollin's the upfront guy pleading; the ones giving us the bottom-line eye are area investors who will join him if we execute a ticket and tax hat trick in the next nine days.

That's reasonable.

Anyone willing and able to take such a plunge deserves to know the degree of risk. The contortions fans and businesses have undergone to keep the Capitals are startling, the team being so pathetic for so long and the league even more watered-down than the NBA.

Pollin and his potential partners are asking for a hard-cash investment in faith, without the sort of bold, good-faith moves that might at least make the playoffs a realistic goal. Would you buy a ride in a confirmed clunker the owner insisted would suddenly purr smoothly with the same engine?

So if the Capitals cannot be saved, the question for Washingtonians ought not be: why have we failed again? It should be: would any other area have kept them alive for so long?