In the game of love, particularly of the St. Valentine's Day Humongous Passion variety, women are the big leaguers and men are the amateurs.

That's the way is is.

As Byron said: Man's love is of man's life a thing apart; 'Tis women's whole existence.

Women are the pros. They know how to play when they're hurt, read the blitz, make the slam dunk with one second to go. Men look like Herve Villechaize going one- on-one with Dr. J. Or, for that matter, like Bobby Riggs going to the net against Billie Jean King. It's awful to watch, an embarrassing spectacle.

It's bad enough when love is going well for men and they're throwing their egos around, spending and bragging. When it goes wrong, ugly turns to monstrous.

In goose blinds, on welfare lines, on bivouac, coffee breaks and CB radios, they can't shut up about their broken hearts. They read you her letter, they cry, they show you pictures of her. Then they tell you they're going to write a novel about it all. It's like being tuned into a country music station without the music.

So set 'em up, Joe,

I've got a little story

I think you should know.

That's the archetypal male barroom lament. Anybody who has spent time in bars-- as opposed to places where the waiter has to fight through ferns to bring you a white wine--has heard enough of it.

It wouldn't be so bad if it were all just talk, woman- style. But the next thing you know they're punching out windows or seeking therapy in those parking-lot psychodramas we call fistfights.

Or they're tattooing her name on their arms to prove their love. Or calling her 27 times a day, trying to kick down her door at 3 a.m.

Consequently, it's been a very confusing decade for men. It's all had to do with that "sharing emotions" business, showing "feelings," being "in touch" with them, not being ashamed to let them erupt like Mount St. Helens, spewing labile lava all over everyone in the neighborhood.

Try to imagine what a shock it was for men to awake one morning, about a decade ago, and flip on a talk show to find well-meaning fellow Americans urging them to do more of this.

Of course, few of these psycho-liberation-media types had the cultural advantages of being plain old Joe Sixpack. Because of the desperate need for more graduate students in the '60s, they'd sacrificed their right to two or three years of living in a barracks, or even working on assembly lines, or having social lives in places with names like "Bud's Tavern."

No way they could understand what love meant to what paperback books now call "real men." But in America, ignorance is not only bliss, it's also a guest shot on Donahue and a six-figure book contract. So men listened. They had no choice.

The New Sensitivity, it seemed, required that men do a lot more hugging, particularly of that slow-motion encounter-group variety. And kissing, of the traditional hello-goodbye female-to-female sort. And crying. No matter that the face of a crying man is about as attractive as a dissected frog, the waterworks had to be unbunged. And then it had to be boasted about, men saying they were not ashamed to cry.

This was the new way, a clean slate for relations between the sexes. All that romantic madness was out the window. Precious little credit would be given even for refined displays, such as carving the Pieta or composing "Madame Butterfly," or indulging in that orgy of largely male feelings known as "English literature."

At first, it seemed easy. Men had been hugging each other for years, every time they won a bowling trophy.

But there was a catch. The New Sensitivity was supposed to replace the old behavior. To wit: No more parking outside her house eight nights in a row waiting for the other boyfriend to show up. This was "possessiveness." No more admitting that women were better at love than men. This was "putting women on a pedestal." Men weren't even supposed to insist on picking up the restaurant check. This was "macho."

The New Sensitivity meant not only that men were required to use a whole new repertoire of emotional gestures, but that they were supposed to do it according to new rules. Men had never understood the old rules.

This was why men were so bad at love, and said they didn't understand women. This may also have been the reason men outpolled women as being in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment.

So it's fortunate that we're in the middle of a much heralded "return to romance." Hollywood has a huge hit with "An Officer and a Gentleman," and the bookstores are jammed with romantic novels. They haven't come a moment too soon.

Old to new and back again: The history is summed up in about three lines of dialogue in the movie "Tootsie," which demonstrates that men can do a good job of trying to act like women, but that only women can get away with it.

As you recall, Dustin Hoffman falls in love with Jessica Lange. Except that she thinks he's a woman, because he has disguised himself as one to get a soap opera role opposite her. As a woman, he becomes Lange's best friend. One night she tells him how she wishes men would act. It's all very new-age, shared feelings and all that.

What she wants, she says, is a man who walks up to her, tells her how much he admires her and then says, "I'd really like to make love to you."

Hoffman can hardly wait. In his male incarnation, he runs into her at a party, admires her and says, "I'd really like to make love to you."

She throws her drink in his face.

He doesn't understand.

Men never do. They can't take the heat, but they can't stay out of the kitchen, either.

That's where it stands, in 1983. Men can go back to surprising no one with their emotional excess, even if they're bad at it. Women can go back to cool and rational management of romance. They're good at it.

Happy Valentine's Day, guys.