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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

High road back to town

PHILADELPHIA -- The high school reunion analogy works perfectly.

Terry Francona was the teen geek -- white socks, ear-to-ear zits, a pocket protector. He was bullied and wedgied and they called him a loser. Now he comes back and he's Mark Cuban or Matt Damon. He's got the millions and the sweet ride and a centerfold on each arm. Women dig him and guys want to be him. It would be so easy to gloat.

''I don't like the idea of rubbing somebody's face in it," Francona said before his Red Sox demolished the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park last night. ''I don't feel like that. I liked working for the Phillies. You have to let go. You're going to take the hit, but the only thing that helps that is time."

It was bad for Francona here. Philly's version of ''The Big Show" skewered him daily when he was managing the then-moribund Phillies. In the final days, he had to keep changing parking spaces, but still his tires got slashed.

''And that was on Fan Appreciation Day," he remembered.

Slandered. Libeled. Son of Tito heard words he never heard in the Bible.

It would have been fun to come back and put it all in their faces. One Philadelphia columnist suggested Francona would be within his rights to walk out with the Sox lineup card before the game and salute the fans while wearing his championship ring on his middle finger.

But we know better. Francona is a high-road kind of guy. Deep down he no doubt feels some satisfaction in his triumphant return, but he won't give the locals the satisfaction of letting him know they hurt him. He did rip a local cheesesteak joint (Geno's -- ''It's horrible," he said) but that was it.

And still, Philly's big show boys were putting the 2x4s to Francona all day.

Spotting Francona in the clubhouse a couple of hours before the series opener, catcher Doug Mirabelli (three-run homer in the second inning) said, ''My cabbie had the radio on when I was on the way over here. Man, the media in this town loves you. They think you're Casey Stengel."

''The fans are even better," joked the Sox manager.

Francona was 37 when the Phillies hired him as manager in 1997. They went 285-363 in his four years at the Vet. Angelo Cataldi, one of the toughest jock talkers in Philly, wrote this when the Sox hired Francona: ''As a disciplinarian, Francona was laughably inept. The running joke in Philadelphia is that Curt Schilling was the first player-manager in baseball since Pete Rose . . . Calling Francona a 'yes man' does a disservice to yes men everywhere. Francona should be the lead singer in Yes. He should be running the YES network."

''I take what we're doing very seriously, but I don't mind laughing at myself," Francona said when asked about those bad old days. ''It got a little testy here. They started moving my parking spot so I could sneak out the door because it was getting difficult. I was having problems where people were getting aggressive.

''It was a different time then here. We were at a point where you'd better throw strike one to start the game. They were mad at the Phillies. We weren't good, they wanted to be good, and they didn't want to hear about rebuilding. They could have had Larry Bowa, they got Terry Francona. It was just a tough time.

''I remember when I came back to scout, they put a security guy by my side. They didn't want something to happen. I was humiliated. They didn't want to humiliate me. They were doing it because they didn't want something to happen.

''That was the year after I managed. Then when I came back as a coach with Oakland, I actually had to manage because Ken Macha was going to one of his kids' graduations. The players gave me a batting helmet to wear as a joke. Hey, when people are getting on you that much, it means you're probably not winning."

Francona raised his family here and he'll always have a considerable connection to the region, even when the family finally relocates to Greater Boston. He's been tagged for a lot of game tickets this weekend and the local media spent most of its pregame time in the Sox clubhouse and dugout.

Francona bristled at the notion that he was holding his head higher in the aftermath of the World Series win.

''I always held my head high," he said. ''Every day I tried to do the best I could and I stuck to what I believed in. I still do the same thing. I just have better players. I never felt like I had to be vindicated. I did what I felt was right all the time. Vindication was never something I was terribly concerned about."

Sure. That's probably what Bill Gates says at the high school reunion.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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