The baseball landscape in Philadelphia has changed since Terry Francona managed the Phillies from 1997 to 2000.

In those days, the Phils were a rebuilding club that piled up losses and second-division finishes in front of mostly small crowds at cavernous Veterans Stadium. Phillies Nation? Not quite. The team was lucky to have Padilla’s Flotilla in those days.

All these years later, Philadelphia is an honest-to-goodness baseball town where excitement for the game and the home team crackles the way it does in those hardball habitats of New York and Boston.

Francona, in his sixth season as manager of the Boston Red Sox, saw the electricity last June, when his team came to Citizens Bank Park for an interleague series. His daughter, Alyssa, who had gone to high school in Bucks County, first pointed it out to him.

“She came for a visit when we were in Philly last year,” Francona recalled in his Fenway Park office Wednesday. “She had been out in the city, walking around, shopping. She came back and said, ‘Dad, it’s different. Everyone is wearing red.’ “

Winning the National League East in 2007 brought the red out.

Winning the World Series last year made the color more vibrant.

Francona would have loved to have been the Phillies’ opponent in that series, but the Red Sox lost the American League Championship Series in seven games to Tampa Bay.

The Phillies’ title brought a smile to Francona’s face.

“I think I’ve tried to be pretty realistic about my time there,” he said. “It’s hard to get fired. You’re emotional. You get your feelings hurt. Your self-esteem takes a pounding.

“But over time, you’re able to look back and separate things that happened and things that in the end helped you. You’re able to look back at people you really appreciate. There are a lot of people that I was very happy for there.

“When I saw (longtime director of travel and clubhouse services) Frank Coppenbarger leaping in the dugout at the last out, I couldn’t have been happier. I was so happy for (team chairman) Bill Giles. He loves the Phillies so much. Every year during spring training he’d address the team and say, ‘We’re going to go to the World Series.’ And he meant it.”

Francona returns to Philadelphia on Friday night, but not to look at his former colleagues’ World Series rings. (He doesn’t have to, he’s got two of his own.) He’s in town for a three-game interleague series against the Phils. It’s always an event when the Red Sox – and their legions of traveling fans – come to town, and this series, to be played in front of sellout crowds, just might live up to the hype. Both teams entered last night leading their divisions.

“It’ll be a fun series for the fans, but from our standpoint, it’s just another part of the grind to see if we’re good enough to be there at the end,” Francona said.

Could this be a World Series preview?

“I wouldn’t mind,” Boston third baseman Mike Lowell said. “Put it this way: We’re two teams with a legitimate shot.”

Boston will send Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Josh Beckett to the mound in the series, while the Phils will counter with Joe Blanton, Antonio Bastardo, and J.A. Happ.

Beckett, who will pitch against Happ on Sunday afternoon, has been on a roll. He is 6-1 with a 1.70 ERA in his last seven starts. Opponents have hit just .181 over that span with a .258 on-base percentage.

“His two-seam fastball is 94-95 (m.p.h.) with a change-up and a curveball,” Francona said. “He competes his butt off. He’s confident.”

The series will pit a couple of old friends against each other. Lowell and Raul Ibanez, the Phils’ popular newcomer, both hail from the Miami area. They played against each other in high school and have spent off-seasons working out together. Ibanez entered Thursday night leading the NL in slugging (.671). He was tied for the lead with 55 RBIs and second in homers with 20.

“He was always a very good hitter in Seattle, kind of under the radar,” Lowell said. “Some people might not think he projects to 20 homers at this point, but he’s always had a good opposite-field swing with pop. He hit home runs in Seattle, but he also hit balls there that made you say, ‘Man, in a hitter’s park, that’s out.’ He’s getting rewarded in Philly. People don’t realize what a good, everyday grinder he is. Against righthanders, against lefthanders, he’s in there every day.”

Lowell has played for World Series winners in Florida and Boston. He knows that defending champs have something other teams want.

“I do think the Phillies have a target on their backs,” he said. “No one else can say they won it last year but them. Teams gear up for them. Teams try to measure themselves against them. For them it’s good. You’d rather it be that way.”

All this could add to the intensity of the series. But then again, both teams are coming off intense series against fierce New York rivals. How much more intense can it get?

“Philly has been a good club for years,” Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said. “You can’t replicate the media and fan attention given to Yankees-Red Sox, but our preparation will be just the same. We have to plan for Raul, (Ryan) Howard and Chase (Utley) the same way as we do (Derek) Jeter, (Alex) Rodriguez, and (Robinson) Cano.”

(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-11-09 2140EDT

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