It is 10 a.m. in the Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse. Tom Seaver, in uniform, a cigar in his mouth, is fiddling with a radio. He finds a station he likes, turns the sound up full blast and walks away, singing softly.

A moment later, a clubhouse boy turns the radio down. "Manager's orders," he says.

A spark comes into Seaver's eyes. He practically pounces on the radio, turning it all the way up again. Then he waits. John McNamara, the manager, appears. When he sees Seaver standing by the radio he smiles. He understands.

"Turn it down," he says, still smiling.

"What?" Seaver says. "I can't hear you, the radio's too loud." Then he points toward the manager's office. "That's where you belong," he tells McNamara. "Leave us kids alone."

Laughing McNamara heads toward the office. Seaver picks up a glove, puts the cigar back in his mouth and puts on his cap. As he leaves, he turns down the radio. And bursts out laughing.

It is 11:30 a.m. In left field, Tom Seaver is running. A man from NBC-TV is on the top step of the dugout yelling for Seaver to come in and announce the lineups for the network cameras.

"Almost finished," Seaver yells back. He continues running. He is sweating and he is not smiling. He is working. When Tom Seaver works, there are no jokes. No shortcuts.

When his work is complete, Seaver jogs into the dugout and polishes off the lineups in one take, throwing in one-liners as he goes along.

"Great going, Tom," says another NBC man. "Yeah," Seaver says, "tough job, reading a lineup."

It is 4 p.m. In Cincinnati clubhouse. Seaver, shirtless, with another cigar lit, is talking about his old teammate, Nolan Ryan, who had just lost a 2-1 game to the Reds.

"First inning he threw two fast balls to (Dave) Concepcion and he didn't even get the bat into the hitting area. Then he throws him a curve ball. Why? Because that's the formula.But it doesn't make it right."

And what did Seaver do as Ryan threw that curve?

"Walked over to the other pitchers and pointed it out to them."

He didn't laugh or smile as he spoke. Tom Seaver doesn't smile when he talks about pitching.

He has always been Tom Terrific, at least since the day he became a New York Met in 1967.

Everything about Seaver was terrific. His arm, his delivery, his demeanor. His personality, his knowledge. His looks, his wife Nancy's looks. On a team that has almost nothing, Tom Seaver had everything.

Now 36 and in his 15th season in the major leagues, the image endures. Coming off the first season in his career where he had serious arm trouble, Seaver remains one of the game's premier names. Any television network would pay him big money to quit and become a commentator.

But Seaver isn't ready for that. He still loves to pitch. His contract runs through 1983. With 249 victories he will not rule out the possibility of winning 300 games.

His record is 4-1 this season, his ERA 2.06. His shutout of the Astros May 8 was the 54th of his career, most among active pitchers.

"My image isn't something that I've ever cultivated," he said. "It was something that just happened. The press wanted me to be that way so they made me that way.

"The thing a lot of people don't understand about the press is that they make you what they want to make you. That usually only comes up when a guy complains. But it's just as true when the press makes a guy look good."

"The hardest thing for people to do in talking about an athlete is separate the image from the reality."

Seaver, a journalism major at the Univesity of Southern California, understands how the press can be used.

Over the years, there has rarely been a game during which someone has not pointed out that the way to tell if Seaver is in the groove is to check for dirt on his pants leg. According to the theory, if Seaver is following through properly, his lower body gets so low that he picks up dirt on his leg on each pitch.

The theory, Seaver says, is false.

"That's just something people started writing years ago and I let them keep doing it," he said. "That way, batters look at my knee and think, 'Oh, Seaver's got his good stuff tonight.' Sometimes when I come in from the bullpen and I haven't got a thing, I'll rub dirt on my knee for the batters to look at. Get them thinking."

Few pitchers in baseball's history have studied their art as extensively. He has learned to take advantage of every edge.

"What has made him a great pitcher, more than just having the pitches, is his mental approach to the game," said Texas Ranger Jon Matlack, who had long talks with Seaver about baseball theory when both were Mets. "Tom is a scientist when it comes to pitching. He's always experimenting, trying out new theories.Even when he first came up he didn't just go out and throw hard.

"What separates him from the guys who just have good arms is his ability to go out and win on the nights when he has nothing. I can remember times when he would come into the dugout between innings laughing at himself because he didn't have anything.

"But more times than not, he would figure out a way to keep himself in the game. Scrape by here, use a change-up there. The next thing you would know it's the ninth inning and he's pitching a five-hitter."

Seaver's understanding of the game's nuancces may date back to boyhood. Growing up in Fresno, Calif., Seaver was neither terribly big nor terribly strong. Unlike many pitchers in the major leagues, he wasn't overpowering in high school. But he was a good pitcher.

"Tom's thinking as a pitcher was a lot more sophisticated than most young guys when he came up," said Ryan, who came up to the Mets a year after Seaver. "I think that's because he always had to pitch his way out of trouble. He could never just throw his way out of it."

"Tom has always had something you can't put your finger on, an innate sense which always gives him a feel as to what he can do what kind of stuff he's got," Matlack said "Most of us find out the hard way, by getting slammed around, that we haven't got it that day. Tom always knew before."

Seaver burst onto the New York baseball scene in 1967, the kind of hero the press and public needed badly. The Mets had always been horrible (the last-place team every year since they came into existence in 1962) and the Yankees had been great and dull through 1964 before becoming horrible and dull in the middle '60s.

Along came Seaver, first signed out of USC by the Atlanta Braves. When the signing was ruled illegal because Seaver was still pitching in college when the contract was signed, Commissioner William D. Eckert allowed any team interested to submit a bid for Seaver. Three did, and Eckert drew the Mets' name out of a hat, probably the most significant act of his reign as commissioner.

When phenom Seaver arrived at the Met camp" a lot of guys were real lerry of him," remembered Bud Harrelson, Seaver's longtime roommate, who was also in his first major league camp that year. "Everyone's suspicious of a hotshot. If he hadn't handled the situation just right he could have become unpopular in a hurry."

On his first day in camp, Seaver was asked to pitch batting practice to some of the veterans. Unlike many bonus babies, he did what he was supposed to do, laying the ball over the plate to be hit.

"Most people were expecting him to try to show how tough he was," Harrelson said. "He just wanted to do his job. He didn't see any point in showing off in February."

Seaver spent one season with Jacksonville, then came up to the Mets in 1967. His record that first year was 16-13. But his ERA was 2.70 and whenever he pitched, the Mets were competitve.

He was an all-star, the National League rookie of the year. Because of his delivery, he was immediately compared to Robin Roberts. With Casey Stengel gone, the Mets management knew the days of pushing lovable losers were over. They began pushing fine young pitchers.

Those pitchers, with help from people like Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Ron Swoboda and Ed Charles, pulled a mmiracle in 1969. In one season the Mets went from chumps to champions and captured the imagination of the country.

The symbol of that team was Seaver. After winning 25 games and the Cy Young award, he also was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year and was the subject of a book. He and Nancy cohosted a television show and Seaver was a spokesman for everything from gasoline to gadgets.

"Looking back I thinkk that was the year for a lot of obvious reasons, but also because it put me in position to do a lot of things at a very young age I might otherwise not have done," Seaver said. "Certainly I don't think any of us ever look back on that year without smiling. But it's past, you can't sit around and rehash it all the time."

Seaver won the Cy Young award again in 1973, the year the Mets won their second and last pennant, and in 1975. Except for 1974, when he was hurt, he has been around the 20-win mark every season. He became the first pitcher in history to strike out 200 batters in eight straight seasons.

In 1977, when free agency became a part of baseball, Seaver asked for an extension on his contract to ensure a large raise. M. Donald Grant, board chairman, balked. The words went back and forth. Then just, before the trading deadline, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote that Nancy Seaver was jealous of Ruth Ryan because Nolan Ryan was making more money.

That was it for Seaver. He demanded to be traded, and was, hours before the trading deadline, to the Reds. The Mets received four players in return, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry.

"That was the only time I ever saw Tom throw the towel in," Harrelson said. "When it reached the point where his family was being attacked in the newspapers, that was it, he wanted out."

Cincinnati was delighted. The day after the trade, the Ohio House of Delegates ended its daily prayer by saying, "and thank you, Lord, for the generosity of the New York Mets."

Finding something bad to say about Seaver is difficult. He does curse, his cigars stink and, as has been the case throughout his career, he is a tad overweight. He doesn't play golf as well as his father did. He may have the world's loudest laugh, a high-pitched belly laugh that bounces off walls and strikes indelibly in the mind (and ears) of everyone who hears it. And his fast ball is not what it used to be.

But . . .

"Don't ask me to say anything bad about him because I can't think of it," McNamara said, leaning against a batting cage, working over a piece of gum. "He's still a great pitcher. He may not be the power pitcher he once was, but he's so smart, knows the game so well, he's still very effective.

"I think he's going to have a hell of a year because he's in great shape and he still loves what he's doing. Even if the couldn't pitch well I'd want him around because he's such a good influence on the young pitchers."

It is not coincidence that, much like the Met pitchers of the early 70's, many young Red pitchers are beginning to resemble Seaver on the mound. The term is "Seaverized." Compact delivery, low to the ground, no wasted motion.

"That's not what's most important, though," Seaver said. "I try to teach these guys how to think about pitching, how to learn about it. The other night Tommy Hume threw a dumb, stupid pitch (costing Seaver a victory) and I wanted to strangle him . . . Not because it cost me a win -- that happens -- but because I've been trying to tell him for four years now not to throw a pitch like that. I was frustrated."

Still, he took Hume out for a beer after the game and drilled his teachings into him.

"The only reason I'm still here is because I love what I do. I know so much more about it now than when I first came up. I can enjoy it more. Losing isn't as tough to take because you get used to it after 15 years.

"I've been lucky. I've been healthy most of my career, I've rarely missed starts. I still love to study pitching and pitchers. I could see myself pitching until I was 40 as long as I could still be effective."

Pitching is still very serious to Seaver -- and very imporant. He has not thought yet about what he will do when he retires.

Now, Seaver looks around him, sees only four other players from the '69 Met team still active and knows he will trade the uniform for some kind of business suit soon.

I'll miss it when I stop," he said. "If I don't ever see another airport again, that would be fine. But the game, the game, that I'll miss. The mind games you play with the batter, the clubhouse, the people in the game.

"But more than anything, I'll miss the competition. That's what makes it all worthwhile. The money, the fame and the glory are all nice, only a liar would tell you they aren't. But the best part is that feeling when you're in a tight spot and get out of it. That's what I'll miss. That's what I'll remember when I look back."

And, most likely, that is what people will remember when they think of Tom Seaver. Because when you cut through the thousands of words written about him, the praise written about him, the praise heaped on him, one word more than any other tells why he has won consistently for 15 years.

Competitor.