HOW DOES a city say goodbye to a great athlete who's become a civic fixture? Ideally, it's done with a "day." Just after (or maybe just before) his retirement the hero stands at midfield and takes the salute from 50,000-plus admirers, then makes a moving speech and sees his number retired, never to be worn again until the end of time.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to make things work out so photogenically, as the case of the Washington Redskins and John Riggins made painfully clear this week. Mr. Riggins said he'd like to play next year; the Redskins said they didn't think he was up to it anymore. The Redskins probably would have liked him to go gentle into retirement. John Riggins, being always and inimitably John Riggins, said nuts to that and told reporters he'd been let go; who knows? -- maybe, at age 37, he'll try to get on with another team next year.

To some extent this is more than just another example of the Riggins flair for the theatrical. In pro sports these days, salaries are high enough that a team's decision as to whether it keeps one of its aging heroes on for another year, even though it doubts his abilities, can be a costly one -- say, in the neighborhood of a million dollars. That's why, unfortunately, some legendary careers now end in unseemly bickering over that final year's contract. Moreover, in this day of the free agent, the best athletes are more likely than not to be journeymen who, by the time they decide to call it quits, are several cities removed from the places where they had their best years.

Washington should not forget that this is where John Riggins had his best years. The Redskins and their fans should keep this in mind until he has played out his string, and thn they should get him back here by whatever means it takes and have him stand out on the field to bid farewell to a full house. Whatever you thought of his off-the-field performances, John Riggins was one of those rare and riveting figures in sports -- call them the "of course, who else?" players. On third and two when it counted, every eye in the place was on him; nobody could have contemplated the football's being handed to anyone else.