Back in the day, Bleacher Creatures ringleader "Bald" Vinny Milano decided he was fed up with with A-Rod. Milano, a super-fan who leads the roll call from section 203 in Yankee Stadium, also sells t-shirts outside Billy's Sports Bar on River Avenue. The shirts feature original logos and designs meant to cater to his buddies in the (relatively) cheap seats at Yankee Stadium with slogans like "Jeet Street," "The Teixecutioner," and the classic standby "Bahston Sawks Cack."
"As a small business owner, I have to have my finger on the pulse of Yankees fans," says Milano, a 39-year-old Long Island native. "A-Rod wasn't doing anything for the team and they were fed up with him. In 2006, we made shirts that looked like something a mechanic would wear in the garage. They said 'A-Rod's Automatic Transmission, Open April-October, Just Like Alex, No Clutch.'"
Even after 2009, when Milano says Alex Rodriguez "singlehandedly won us the World Series," he only supported him as a Yankee, not as a person. "My opinion of him didn't really shift, I was caught up in the public perception that he was an asshole, a guy who deserved to get booed at the supermarket."
But in September 2014, when Rodriguez was persona non grata around Yankee Stadium, serving out his season-long PED suspension in the shadow of Derek Jeter's farewell coronation tour, Milano released another shirt. It simply said: #FORG1V3
"I got hate mail from Yankees fans for the first time ever," Milano says. "It was ridiculous and had absolutely nothing to do with Jeter's 'RE2PECT' thing. People were simply pissed off I was defending A-Rod."
No sports villain out there wants to be loved, wants to be #FORG1V3N, as badly as A-Rod. But the question remains: Is such a thing possible? Can Yankee fans (and, more broadly, baseball fans) love A-Rod again?
After all, he has always come across as needy, insecure, and yearning for adoration. He has been his own worst enemy: turning fans who might have his back into haters by hanging paintings of himself as a centaur on his wall, by eating popcorn ostentatiously with Cameron Diaz, by lying about PEDs again and again and again. This is the difference between A-Rod and, say, Christian Laettner. You won't find a Duke fan of a certain age who doesn't worship Laettner, but there are no bigger A-Rod antagonists than Yankee fans themselves. (Except maybe Mariners and Rangers fans.)
This spring training however, there are whispers of a thaw in the icy relations, or at least detente. So as baseball prepares for Rodriguez's return, I set out seeking the elusive fans who've done a 180-or even a 360-turn on A-Rod, going from a-hater-to-a-lover, or a-lover-to-a-hater-to-a-lover-again. The responses ranged from "fuck that guy" to indifference to a message board that deleted my query to a convoluted theory that the Yankees will buy him out after spring training but before Opening Day because…?
It wasn't easy, but they're out there. Bald Vinny is not shouting into the right field void alone.
Marcia Herold has tended bar in New York City for two decades. These days, she's at Greenwich St. Tavern, where baseball is the #1 topic of conversation. Herold, a 45-year-old Yankees fan since always, knows her sports stuff and how to dish it. Her knowledge and verbal dexterity have even allowed her to reach the finals of the WFAN Fantasy Phenom contest, the prize being her own sports talk radio show. On April 1, Herold has a live sit down with the Sports Pope himself, Mike Francesa.
On a recent March morning, Herold did a guest spot on the WFAN Midday show. Naturally, A-Rod came up, but this being a quick-hit five-minute segment, she didn't get to say much. She did, however, say that this season, she would have his back. Herold was never really a full on A-Rod hater—she reserves that venom for Carl Pavano, Randy Johnson, and Kevin Brown—in part because Rodriguez's flaws have always been so glaring.
"I've cursed A-Rod at points throughout his career, every Yankee fan has. He's done some really dumb stuff, and deserved a lot of the derision. Everyone hates the Yankees because the Yankees spend a lot of money; We—their fans—feel privileged and entitled, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. A-Rod was/is a legitimate reason to hate the Yankees and their fans. I think Yankee fans, frankly, were tired of defending him," she says. " But now I feel like his arrogance has been replaced by self-deprecation. Real or not, A-Rod is now showing the humility everyone wished he'd had earlier in his career. People don't think A-Rod can come back. For the first time in his life, A-Rod is sort of the underdog. It's easy to root for the underdog."
If everything breaks Herold's way, she may not only be rooting for the underdog, she might get to talk to Rodriguez on her new WFAN radio show. She knows the thing she'd most like to ask him is how he has handled the enormous pressure of being the best. To Herold, that pressure has made Rodriguez's off-the-field errors that much more human.
For some fans, empathy is just a reaction to the backlash. That's the case for Chris Johnson, a 27-year-old security guard born and raised in Manhattan.
"When the Yankees traded for A-Rod I wasn't thrilled because I loved Alfonso Soriano, but I knew we needed a third baseman, so I went with it," he says. "I don't boo Yankees and I was never one to jeer A-Rod. In fact, I came to love his game. He's one of the best I've ever seen, but the second time he got busted for using steroids. It wasn't even the steroids, it was the lying about it, a second time. I went from defending him, to wanting to defend him, to wishing we had nothing to do with him. Fool me once, shame on me…"
Now, enough time has passed for Johnson to come full circle. The ongoing level of disgust at a guy who wasn't even around the team found Johnson feeling way more empathetic than he had in the recent past.
"I've never been one who think A-Rod owes me something. A lot of Yankee fans do, so they get way too personal. No reason for it. Alex is the focal point of people's wrath and he's not even playing? It's too much. Its changed my views. I need to get behind Rodriguez as a matter of circumstance," says Johnson.
Speaking of fans who think A-Rod "owes" them something, the one consistent "pro" sentiment from responders was, in essence, they could be "blinded by the bat." If Rodriguez delivers at the plate, forgiveness shall follow.
Changing entrenched hearts and minds is challenging work, but it can be done. The easiest way isn't through argument, rhetoric, or appeals to one's best self. A Science study found that a mere 20 minutes discussing same-sex marriage with a gay (but not straight) canvasser did what years of hot-button issue messaging couldn't. It changed minds of those who had been opposed. This is an example of what is called the "contact hypothesis." The idea is that prejudices can be lessened or eliminated through direct contact.
So what was it that found Bald Vinny Milano doing an about face on Alex Rodriguez, a man whose foibles, whatever they may be, real or imagined, were actual profitable to his business?
"I met him."
A-Rod and Bald Vinny crossed paths at a 2012 Yankees Hope week event.
"He was the nicest guy in the world, walked past literally thirty media people to talk baseball with me for ten minutes. A-Rod had every opportunity to blow me off, to be a douchebag, and he most definitely wasn't. I posted pictures online and everyone asked, 'Is he an asshole?' I couldn't tell them fast enough. 'No. He's not.' I argue with fans all the time. The worst is when people tell me he disgraced the pinstripes. You know who signed his first check? A convicted fucking felon. Learn your history. Get outta' here with that."
This season Bald Vinny will be out selling shirts, game-in and game-out, staunchly standing ground for his man Alex Rodriguez. Being friendly at a fundraiser started it off, but what A-Rod is trying to do in 2015, actually has Milano respecting him more than in his 38 HR/120 RBI prime.
"A-Rod could've walked away from all of this, stopped having to deal with the Yankee fans who vehemently hate him. He's already made himself the laughing stock. Cooperstown is out of the question. And he's got more money than he could ever spend. He could have disappeared, but he' s coming back to play for pride. He's got passion and wants to prove people wrong. The guy's gonna' be forty-years-old, has two bad hips, and he's busting his ass. I think it's kind of awesome. If Yankee fans can't respect that a little bit… How do you not support a guy like that?"
So there you have it. All A-Rod has to do is personally meet-and-greet everyone who passes through a Yankee Stadium turnstile. If he's savvy, and this Alex Rodriguez we're talking about, he'll take his goodwill tour the people, to the diehards, to the Bleacher Creatures. They're the ones he needs to win over, but relationships are a two way street. They also might consider learning to forget and #FORG1V3.