Too often, the great ones limp to their landmarks. The last brush stroke on the masterpiece can be the hardest.

Early Wynn sacrificed his pride for a 300th win. Phil Niekro is 46 years old and floundering, but still sees No. 300 just on the horizon of possibility.

Rod Carew is staggering toward a 3,000th hit, and Al Oliver wants his 3,000th so badly that he practically took out a want ad to get back to the American League as a designated hitter.

Just a couple of years ago, when Tom Seaver bounced from Cincinnati to New York to the Chicago White Sox in successive seasons, his fans tried to cover their eyes. Could that really be Tom Terrific with records of 5-13 and 9-14? Like Jim Palmer sinking in Baltimore, Seaver was almost too sad a sight to study.

Was this the same Seaver who struck out 200 men 10 times and once fanned 19 in a game -- the last 10 in a row? Was this the pitcher whose career ERA (2.80) was bettered only by Walter Johnson, Grover Alexander and Whitey Ford?

Palmer, too proud for the indignity of changing towns and begging for work, called it quits. But Seaver took the blows and kept reworking his craft.

Yesterday afternoon in Memorial Stadium, Seaver won his 297th game and he did it in grander fashion than a 40-year-old would even dare dream of.

For the first time since 1978, Seaver struck out 11 batters.

He did it against the highest-scoring team in baseball -- the best long-ball bunch, too -- and did it in their backyard. In the sixth inning, guarding a 3-2 lead, he struck out Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Fred Lynn in a row.

He'd struck out Murray before -- on three fast balls with a man on second. And, before the day was out, he'd given Lynn a memory for his old age -- four strikeouts in one game for the nine-time All-Star.

Early yesterday afternoon, Seaver tossed lollipop curves and nibbled with sliders. But somewhere during a two-run Orioles third inning he reached back and found the sort of stuff he hasn't had in years. First, he punched out Murray and Lynn back-to-back. Then, he had that fan-the-side sixth when he brought back thoughts of 25-win seasons and 1.76 ERAs and postseason glory.

Seaver started the eighth by whiffing Alan Wiggins and Lee Lacy (who is on a 17-game hitting streak). Then, after a home run by Ripken showed his vulnerability, Seaver started the ninth by embarrassing Lynn and striking out Larry Sheets, the front-runner for American League rookie of the year.

Then -- those last strokes are always the hardest -- Seaver simply found the well of his will empty. After walking one batter in his previous 25 2/3 innings, he walked two in a row, throwing only one strike.

"I was totally gassed," he said. "I didn't have much more to give out there."

Some bullpen mortal had to keep the great man's canvas from being slashed.

For Seaver, the march to 300 is worthy of his stature. The White Sox took him hoping for a fifth starter. Instead, he's their ace. After going 15-11 in 1984, he's pitching even better now. His 3.14 ERA is a better barometer of performance than his 9-7 record. On Wednesday, for instance, the world champion Tigers clobbered Seaver -- 1-0.

For the 71st time in his career, but the first time in the American League, Seaver struck out 10 or more men. Now, Walter Johnson stands just 27 strikeouts ahead of him on the all-time list and third place -- behind Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton -- looks like his eventual resting place in Ks.

"Don't miss the point," said Seaver afterward. "It's not the strikeouts. It's the win. I could have gotten the strikeouts and been a loser."

"Overall, yes, this is probably the best stuff I've seen him with (in two White Sox seasons)," said catcher Carlton Fisk. "I wasn't afraid to call anything right up to the end.

"He still has a good fast ball -- well, several fast balls that he does different things with. But he's so intelligent. He believes there are three elements to pitching -- velocity, location and movement on the ball. Other pitchers, if they don't have all three, get depressed and defensive. Seaver thinks you only need two of three to win. It's only been working for him for 20 years (19)."

Above all, Seaver competes. From the grime on his right leg where he scrapes the ground on every pitch to his blank, implacable look of total focus on the mound, he challenges his opponents at every level. "You should have seen the look in his eye when we got him those three runs in the fifth (for a 3-2 lead)," said Fisk. "I never saw anything like it."

Neither had Earl Weaver.

"He never got our radar gun up to 90," said Weaver, "until the seventh and eighth. Then every pitch was 90 or 91. That's what you call a finisher. He just smelled it."

"This one was for my dad," said Seaver. "Charlie's 74 today. Not a bad present." Seaver also won here, 3-2, last season on July 14.

Again today, Seaver showed why the pleasures of pitching well in old age are "greater than when you're young. There's just a lot more to it."

Now, Seaver gladly accepts the advice of old hands like Fisk, Manager Tony LaRussa and coach Dave Duncan. "I've never seen a pitcher who incorporates other people's observations, without being distracted, like he does," said Fisk. "And does it between innings."

"He's the perfect balance of smart but not too smart," said LaRussa. "We always remind him to use finesse, not try to pitch like he once did. But in big spots, he knows how to grunt."

"Just watch him in a game situation and you'll know why he is who he is in this game," said Fisk. "When it's on the line, every pitch is where it has to be."

"It looked like every pitch to the middle of our lineup was right where he wanted it," said Weaver.

The only person unimpressed with Seaver was Seaver. "I wouldn't call this a particularly good game," he said. "I gave up three runs . . . But mistakes can be blessings. The pitch (Floyd) Rayford hit (for a bloop double to right), I realized I dropped my arm down, so I concentrated on mechanics, pulling my left side down and getting my arm on top.

"When Lacy got that (RBI) double on a flat 2-0 breaking ball, I could use that to kick mayself in the butt because it was a lousy pitch.

"Bad things happen for a reason. Instead of reacting (to events), you should figure out what causes them."

No doubt Seaver's eye has been on 300 for years. Certainly it has been a gut goal since the bitter day the Mets did not protect him. After each win this year, Seaver finds some way to mention "the Met front office," which would dearly and desperately love to have him back now.

But, just as he barely acknowledges the existence of hitters, so he grinds his teeth if any victory is mentioned except the next one. The 1980s, in which he's 62-55 compared to 235-133 before, have been far too hard for him to feel otherwise. Now, he's just Tom Tenacious.

"I expect that I'll get worked up about the 300th win," he said. "After two more wins would be a good time, don't you think?"