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As if one were needed, reminder of a fried season

For Red Sox fans, chicken was centerpiece of year that gave them a case of heartburn

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Popeyes Chicken near Fenway Park displayed a sign making some serious fun of the beer and chicken flap surrounding some Red Sox pitchers last season.

The fried chicken, of course, did not cause the historic September collapse of the Boston Red Sox. But when the whole ugly affair came out later, it was the perfect symbol for it, a shorthand metaphor for feeling gross inside.

And at the dawn of a new season Thursday, and Fenway open again, there it was doing brisk business, the Popeyes chicken at the center of it all, with a taunting new banner and that framed photo on the wall.

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For those who need reminding, the story goes like this: When the superstar pitchers were not on the mound - Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and John Lester - they were in the clubhouse, playing video games, drinking beer, and eating fried chicken from the Popeyes on Brookline Avenue. It was just one tiny part of a mess of indignities; but people latched onto it. There were problems at manager, and GM, and with the stars, and with everything, but those two words - fried chicken - were just too perfect for it all.

Anyone with experience with fried chicken knows it is a food with a huge difference between how it feels going in, and how it feels once it is in. People love Popeyes; it’s great in that way that fried chicken is never bad. People also know how they feel after eating it.

They tend to sit a while afterward at the now-infamous Brookline Avenue franchise, and on Friday, the customers watched a television set showing the opening ceremonies from the 100th season at Fenway, just over the turnpike, the first game since the two became tied historically, a future trivia connection.

To celebrate the new season, Popeyes proclaimed its role in history with the new banner flapping above the scalpers smoking Newports on Brookline Avenue: “4 out of 5 Pitchers Prefer Our Chicken BEST.’’ John Stilianos, who owns the place, was still laughing at his sign.

“I’m not trying to be mean; we’re just having fun with it - Beckett was here a lot,’’ he said, pointing to a framed photo of him on the wall, the only Sox player so enshrined. “They were all here.’’

“But, hey, they were eating it when they were winning, too,’’ Stilianos said as he ate a tender. “They didn’t just start eating it in September. Plus, we feed a lot of the visiting teams. They come in and order a couple hundred.’’

Around Fenway on Friday, fried chicken fans came to the defense of the battered bird.

“I think that if I had to choose a last meal, it might be Popeyes,’’ said David Littlefield, owner of the Sausage Guy cart on Lansdowne Street. “But you can’t blame the food. It’s a gift. You just can’t overindulge.’’

Fried chicken is what a nutritionist would call “sometimes food.’’ You don’t have to be a professional athlete to know that even a professional athlete can’t handle it regularly.

“No one eats a plate of fried chicken and is superactive afterward,’’ said Luke Park, the chef at River Gods in Cambridge. “I love Popeyes, but I’ve eaten there and literally passed out right after.’’

At Fenway on Friday, Sox fans reacted to the question: “How do you feel after eating fried chicken?’’

“Fat and lethargic,’’ said Alex Kalinowski of Wrentham.

“Disgusting and greasy,’’ said Stephanie Prince of Malden.

It was not a scientific survey, but responses were consistent.

And perhaps that is why those two words, fried chicken, stuck in the craw of Sox fans looking for something to blame it all on.

This Popeyes opened at the very end of the Sox season in 2010. Last year was its first full season, and it went out with a bang. The fried chicken became the symbol of a collapse too exquisite, too improbable, that the idea of a simple blame was simply too easy to pass up. Fried chicken. Fried chicken. That was the season of the fried chicken.

But this is a new season, and Stilianos, the Popeyes owner, thinks everything could turn around. Instead of being the food of failures, he thinks fried chicken could be the food of winners. On Friday, the team did not let him down.

The Sox opened with a 12-2 drubbing of the Tampa Bay Rays, and, for one day in the heart of a Red Sox nation still far from trusting, they looked promising again.

But it was just game seven of the season. And none of the players had been in yet.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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