COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- There, now. Warm your chapped hands in the glow of that dateline. This village, to which baseball addicts trek for a February fix, is a place to ponder something not frequently noticeable in the modern age: progress.
Human beings seem to take morose pleasure from believing that once there was a Golden Age peopled by heroes and demigods, an age of greatness long lost and irrecoverable. But actually things are better than ever, at least in baseball, which is what matters most. And the reason for the improvement says something heartening about Life.
The Hall of Fame, a shrine to baseball's ''immortals,'' is located here because of a sweet myth that is -- as most myths are -- impervious to evidence. The myth is that Abner Doubleday invented baseball here in 1839 in Farmer Phinney's pasture. The 150th anniversary of that nonevent will be tumultuously celebrated next year. It has been said that the only thing Doubleday started was the Civil War, and even that assigns him too grand a role. He was a Union officer at Fort Sumter, but the southerners fired first.
However, the Hall is here, so grown men come here to gaze wide-eyed at Mel Ott's luggage tag, Christy Mathewson's checkers set and the shoes worn in 1975 by the player who scored baseball's millionth run. Here the words describing a Babe Ruth exhibit speak of ''the might of his smite as he hit balls out of sight.'' And here we can take pleasure from this paradox: the reason some of to day's statistics are less spectacular than yesterday's is because baseball generally is superior to what it was. Do not take my word for it, take that of Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould.
Gould teaches biology, geology and the history of science. His special interest is evolutionary processes. As a student of life's long-term trends, he has pondered the extinction of the .400 hitter (none since 1941), and he concludes that the cause is not, as you had feared, ''entropic homogeneity.'' Rather, the reason is that systems equilibrate as they improve.
While the highest averages have declined, the average batting has remained remarkably stable over time. It was around .260 in the 1870s and is about that today. But the highest averages have declined because narrowing variation is a general property of systems undergoing refinement.
Variations in batting averages -- the gap between the highest averages and the leagues' averages -- shrink as improvements in play eliminate many inadequacies of the majority of pitchers and fielders. Today's ''just average'' player is better than yesterday's. Major league players meet, Gould says, in competition ''too finely honed toward perfection to permit the extremes of achievement that characterized a more casual age.''
As baseball has been sharpened -- every pitch, swing and hit is charted -- its range of tolerance has narrowed, its boundaries have been drawn in and its rough edges smoothed. As Gould says, Wee Willie Keeler could ''hit 'em where they ain't'' (to the tune of .432 in 1897) partly because ''they'' -- the fielders -- were not where they should have been. They did not know better. Today's players play as hard as the old-timers did, and know much more.
In 1987 San Diego's Tony Gwynn hit ''only'' .370 because average play has improved so much that there are fewer opportunities for geniuses like Gwynn to exploit (in Gould's phrase) ''suboptimality in others.'' The ''play'' in playing professional baseball is, Gould says, gone. Baseball has become a science in this sense: it reemphasizes repetitious precision in the execution of its component actions. That is why variation decreases at both ends, with the highest and lowest averages edging toward the league average. Standard deviations (take a deep breath: the square root of the sum of the squares of all individual averages minus the major league average, divided by the total number of players) are narrowed by progress.
That is a thought to chew on here at the Shortstop, one of those little restaurants where Formica goes to retire and a grilled cheese and vanilla malt set you back $2.65. Nourished, you can savor this February scene:
A father with a wife and three children in tow zig-zags through the Hall's hall containing the bronze plaques celebrating the achievements of each immortal. ''There he is!'' exclaims father when he finds the object of his quest -- the plaque honoring Duke Snider, a Dodger. The children show signs of having heard their fill from father on the subject of Snider's superiority to all who have come since, and the wife is wondering if the marriage vow concerning ''for better, for worse'' covered this, but father is lost in reveries about olden days when giants strode the Earth.