CINCINNATI -- A beer-promoting sign hung on a wall back at Bud Harrelson's Shea Stadium office in New York proclaims: "This Bud's for you." It is also the message Harrelson has delivered repeatedly to the Mets in the 6 1/2 weeks since he took over as manager the last time the club visited here.

Harrelson does not come out of the same mold as his predecessor, Davey Johnson. His blue-collar approach is in sharp contrast to that of Johnson, who grew increasingly detached from his players as his wildly successful six-year managerial reign drew to a close.

Mets officials were looking for a change of personality when they fired Johnson on May 29 and promoted his third-base coach, Harrelson. They certainly got one. "I always say I look at this job this way: I don't dictate, I orchestrate," Harrelson said.

The joke among New York players earlier in the year was that Johnson was having a tunnel built from his office to Shea's home dugout so that he'd never have to walk into the clubhouse. Among Harrelson's first tasks upon his appointment was to improve the rapport between Mets players and their boss.

He spent his initial day on the job conducting one-on-one meetings with each player. "It was the first time I left the manager's office feeling like I knew more than I did when I went in," pitcher Ron Darling said.

The results have been spectacular. The Mets were 20-22 under Johnson, then lost four of their first five games under Harrelson. They have gone 28-8 since to pull within two games of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League East.

"Buddy deserves all the credit," said outfielder Darryl Strawberry, whose turnaround from early season doldrums coincided with Harrelson's hiring. "He relaxed us. He created an atmosphere where we could win. Now, instead of wanting to do it, we do it."

Harrelson, the Mets' sparkplug and shortstop for 12 years, can be found before a game taking grounders with infielders. He is as unassuming and softpedaling as Johnson was blunt and, some felt, heavy-handed.

He is a tried-and-true organization man, having served as a coach and a minor league manager. "Simply put, I just love the Mets," Harrelson said. "I love to serve for this team."

He won't criticize Johnson, who's a close friend, but his managing model is his New York mentor of two decades ago, the late Gil Hodges. His other lasting impression of what coaching means, he said, comes from 1965, when a Mets third-base coach named Whitey Herzog took rookie Harrelson under his wing while others were insisting the scrawny infielder wasn't big league material.

All that Harrelson has done in his tenure has turned to gold. Dave Magadan, underused early in the season, was batting .350 through Friday and has become a dependable every-day first baseman. Daryl Boston and Mark Carreon have developed into a lethal platoon in center field.

The Mets have survived a subpar year from Kevin McReynolds and the disruptive force of their only remaining malcontent, Mike Marshall (who has been offered to, among others, the Baltimore Orioles with the asking price of reliever Mark Williamson and outfielder Steve Finley).

Dwight Gooden has won his last six starts to come to the support of Frank Viola, who's 13-4.

"It's all coming together, but I don't think it's anything I did," Harrelson said. "I can't solve everyone's problems. All I can do is give them someone to talk to. If that helps, then so be it."