NEW YORK, SEPT. 14 -- The New York Mets no longer are snide or condescending. Admissions of shortcomings and expressions of fears sneak into their dialogue. They're more often polite than snarling, more engaging than overbearing. Keith Hernandez or Gary Carter would cringe at the alarmingly low doses of surliness in Shea Stadium's home clubhouse.

Mets players don't scoff at the notion that they might lose this National League East dogfight to the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates. The Mets have taken on the personality of their softpedaling manager, Bud Harrelson, and the transformation has brought a loss of arrogance they have accepted with regret.

The switch from despised to tolerated has not necessarily been a positive one in their eyes. Opponents' feelings of ambivalence, they say, have come only because the Mets no longer are a few gratifying steps ahead of the rest of the pack.

"Guys from other teams are always telling me, 'The personality of your team has really changed. You seem to have a better group of guys. You must be mellowing,' " shortstop Howard Johnson said. "Mellowing has nothing to do with it. We're not the same team, period. We have to fight with you instead of beating you 10-0. We can't afford to stick our noses in the air now. If you're going to be arrogant, you've got to be able to back it up. We used to know we could. We're not always so sure anymore."

Said pitcher Dwight Gooden: "Now we play the game the way people around the league expect you to play it. We're gentlemen. . . . I liked it better the other way, when everyone used to hate us."

The Mets of 1990 are the chasers rather than the chased, and they're taking the fall sorrowfully. The vulgar, stinging bench jockeying that was one of their trademarks in recent years is all but gone.

The cocksure swagger has disappeared from their step. The Mets have holes -- and matching doubts. For perhaps the first time since they became baseball's glamour team in the mid-1980s, the Mets are approaching the game much like everyone else.

Their dugout celebrations consist more often of a curt handshake or a pat on the back rather than the raucous mob scenes of the past several seasons. Any semblances of outlandish public remarks have been discouraged -- first by the team's front office, which muzzled usually brash former manager Davey Johnson before his firing three months ago, then by Harrelson.

When slugger Darryl Strawberry publicly promised a thorough beating of the Pirates during the clubs' first meetings of the year in June, the low-key manager warned the moody outfielder to choose his words more carefully. Subsequent questioning of Harrelson's tactics by Mets players resulted in stern-faced lectures behind closed doors, several players said.

"There's no reason to get other teams all riled up for nothing," Harrelson said. "In 1986 or 1988 {when the Mets won the NL East by 21 1/2 and 15 games, respectively}, maybe we could afford to do that. Those teams could taunt you, make you mad, show no respect for you -- and still clobber you. Those teams thrived on that atmosphere. This is a different team. These are different players."

The bottom line is talent. The Mets have finished first or second in the division for each of the past six seasons, and those clubs likely would have thrived with any approach. "We were so good, a little mean streak or a little testiness didn't matter," said Pirates second baseman Wally Backman, traded by New York to Minnesota two years ago before signing with Pittsburgh as a free agent last winter.

These Mets have deficiencies. They haven't been able to find a dependable center fielder or a leadoff hitter with speed. Catcher has been a trouble spot too -- as has third base since Johnson was forced to switch to shortstop to replace injured Kevin Elster.

The latest reshuffling has Gregg Jefferies at third and the just-acquired Tommy Herr at second base, but Herr hasn't hit. There is no reliable setup man for closer John Franco. The Mets are 23-28 against left-handed starters. There is instability and uncertainty.

The Pirates, who wilted beneath the Mets' aura of invincibility in an '88 late-season collapse, aren't likely to fade this time around. Pirates players are quick to point out that, despite the Mets' recent run of success, New York has yet to win a tight race during its string of top-two finishes.

"We were afraid of the Mets in 1988," Pirates outfielder Bobby Bonilla said. "We're not afraid of them now. But I think that has more to do with us than with them."

Some Mets disagree. This still is a potent club. The Mets lead the National League in runs scored. They still have perhaps the game's deepest pitching staff, and they had won 35 of their last 46 games at home.

Harrelson's methods are difficult to question; he is 61-40 since taking over. He has mollified Strawberry and calmed a potentially explosive clubhouse. Apparently gone is the ceaseless friction that marked the Mets of the late '80s. The unrest is contained to isolated pockets of disgruntled players now.

But even while issuing disclaimers that they're not faulting Harrelson, these Mets wonder aloud whether their missing ingredients are surety and confrontationalism. They think back to the '86 World Series championship club -- with hard-nosed types like Hernandez, Carter, Len Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell -- and ask if the departure of those players brought a passing of the approach they need.

"We still have the players and the numbers," Strawberry said. "Maybe what's missing is the old fire. We need to create that feeling again."

"The old Mets were tough," Backman said. "We had Lenny, Keith, Gary, Mitch -- guys who wouldn't back off an inch. It's hard to really say which came first -- being good or being confident -- but I think first we believed we were unbeatable. We convinced ourselves of it, then we went out and proved it.

"Those guys are different. They want to show it before they talk it. But maybe that's not the way to do it in New York. Maybe you've got to thrive on the pressure, be feisty -- like a baseball version of John McEnroe. Maybe they should be doing it the way we used to do it here in '86."