Since, contrary to some predictions, the world didn't come to an end today, that must mean Mike Schmidt is still the best baseball player on earth.

Schmidt's story is almost as rare as all nine planets being lined up on the same side of the sun. His is the case of the gifted athlete who fulfills his vast potential.

Each spring, the Grapefruit League is filled with young players burdened with the weight of their half-developed skills. More often than not, they self-destruct, victims, in a sense, of their own abilities.

This spring, for instance, Marty Bystrom, 23, an October hero of the Cinderfella Phillies of 1980, has blown out his shoulder for the third time in 13 months and will miss the season. In a twinkling, he's gone from gold to lead.

Schmidt remembers seven seasons worth of days, when he played under a cloud of anxiety about whether he could live up to the capabilities in a 6-foot-2, 203-pound frame that seemed chiseled with some higher league in mind. Finally, the doubts are gone.

"The level I play the game at now is one that not many players have played it at," Schmidt said today. "And I think I can go higher."

Schmidt said this softly, perhaps so as not to offend the baseball deities. At 32, he knows how long and precarious the road of potential can be. It wasn't until he passed 30 that he took the final step to greatness.

Since that transformation, Schmidt has won back-to-back National League most valuable player awards. At this moment, he's probably the finest offensive and defensive third baseman in history. No one else has ever been as good with both bat and glove as six-time Gold Glover Schmidt has been since 1979.

Because, although from 1974 through 1977 Schmidt averaged 38 homers, 105 RBI and 103 walks a season--wonderful stats--it's gone undernoted that Schmidt has reached an even more fabulous plateau. And keeps improving.

In 1979, he hit .253 with 45 homers and 114 RBI. In 1980, he hit .286 with 48 homers, 121 RBI and was MVP of the World Series. Finally, in 1981, his progression reached fruition, but, because of the strike, few outside Philadelphia noticed. His .316 average, 31 homers and 91 RBI would have prorated to 49 homers and 140 RBI over a full year.

Finally, Schmidt has reached the sort of career apotheosis about which few would even dream. Like Johnny Bench in his prime, he knows that he may do what he does better than anybody who ever lived. Yet he remembers the bad old days.

"When I got in the box, the idea of what was expected of me, what I could be, affected the way I swung the bat every time," he said. "There were smatterings of success that excited people, and excited me, to the point where I really never found the time to develop a real batting stroke.

"It's a hell of a lot easier to stand up there and whale away at everything and make a lot of outs, and occasionally hit home runs. That's easy. One game-winning homer would wipe out a week of strikeouts . . . but I always knew that I could be better.

"I didn't do well in the playoffs in those years because hitting under pressure was a problem for me . . . I was pitched inside and consistently missed that ball or hit home runs foul. Seeing a steady diet of that pitch, and wanting to swing at it, had created an (early) opening of my (left) shoulder and a vulnerability to the breaking ball.

"I hated just being 'dangerous.' I hated being the guy that could be an easy out, if pitched properly. It's not fun to have to battle that anxiety constantly, every at bat."

Schmidt can finger the day when potential finally became reality. The 1979 all-star game. Schmidt, always a dickerer, experimented with turning his whole hitting theory inside out. He moved well off the plate, charged into every pitch and tried to hit the ball to center field, instead of pulling. The model: Roberto Clemente.

"I got two doubles in that all-star game, both to right-center field, one off Nolan Ryan," he recalled. Since that day, Schmidt has hit over .300 in more than 1,000 at bats. "I've gone from a dangerous hitter into a good one.

"Now, I'm less slump prone and better under pressure," he said. "I can hit according to game situations, and that's the way baseball should be played. Now, I can hit the flare to right field on an 0-2 pitch in a big situation, or come through with a sacrifice fly with a man on third or a single with a man on second."

Ironically, Schmidt's last career stage is often attributed to more ethereal causes: a stable home life, birth of a son and daughter, a rediscovery of Christianity. While all this is true, it also amuses Schmidt. "I used to be accused of being too cool," he said. "Now, it's seen as 'intelligence.' Then, I had no emotion, lacked desire, thought too much for my own good. Now, people flock around to try to figure out what I've been thinking."

After signing a five-year, $7.5-million contract last winter, Schmidt would like to attack one last area of unused personal potential.

"I'm somewhat a shy person. I don't like being on stage, don't like being in front of people, don't like being stared at . . . but I'd like to leave a mark."

In what sense?

"A mark by example," he said. "Grade school kids are experiencing now what I didn't experience until college. If a kid in the eighth grade has run the gamut of experiences from sex to drugs to hard liquor, if he's gotten in the habit of altering his state of mind as often as he can, is he going to grow out of that by the time he's 20?

"I don't see a lot of kids nowdays who like themselves. When I was growing up, I followed the crowd. That's why it bothers me to go to schools and see there's no respect for hygiene, no respect for the way you look, no respect for teachers, no respect for the mind. There's only respect for whoever has the most fun."

Mike Schmidt enjoyed the irony of saying it.

"Wasted potential," he said.