NEW YORK -- Joe Girardi believes in the essential goodness of his fellow man. When he looks up into the maw of Yankee Stadium, he doesn't see 40,000 often angry and almost always unsatisfied people who have spent too much of their time and way too much of their money to watch his lately mediocre team play baseball.
He sees 40,000 souls just waiting to take a poor, beleaguered soul into their merciful graces and absolve him for past sins.
Or maybe he just looked up and saw the eight fans who each held up a hand-lettered card at Monday's regular-season opener spelling out "#Forg1v3."
Because when he was asked after the Yankees 6-1 Opening Day loss to the Toronto Blue Jays -- a loss that exposed many of this team's weaknesses while showcasing few of its assets -- for his reaction to the warm, and even raucous, reception given to Alex Rodriguez in his first big league game following a 162-game suspension for being a performance-enhancing drug abuser, Girardi chose the philosophical route.
"I think we live in a forgiving society overall," Girardi said. "We live in a society that gives people second and third chances, and fourth and fifth chances. I've seen it with some of the players when I was here early, who had a lot of chances and came back. Look, as humans, we're going to make mistakes. We’ve all made mistakes, and I know for me, if someone had given up on me the first time I made a mistake, it would have been a long life for me, I'm sure. But we live in a society that pulls for people to come back and make something of their lives, and I think we’re fortunate because of that."
Incidentally, Girardi is a manager who loves one-word inspirational messages. Scattered around the Yankees spring training clubhouse are signs reading "Compete," "Accountability" and "Win." He's a sucker for stuff like that.
Rodriguez took a more pragmatic view, however.
"I don't allow myself to think like that," he said when asked if by their cheers, he felt the fans were forgiving him. "I do appreciate the reception. I have to admit, it definitely felt good, that's for sure. I've got a long history here. I think about 2009 and some of the things we accomplished together. I have a lot of love for the city of New York, especially our fans. But let's make it clear: The fans don't owe me anything."
In the minds of many fans, however, Rodriguez owes them plenty. Same goes for his 24 teammates and a seemingly endless list of illustrious predecessors, such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte.
The fans feel the Yankees' organization also owes them. It hasn't paid up too well lately. In recent history alone, the Yankees brought in a journeyman named Travis Ishikawa in July 2013 to help combat a rash of injuries. He played in one game and struck out in both plate appearances -- and was released the next day. A little more than a year later, he hit the walk-off home run that put the San Francisco Giants into the World Series.
Let's make this clear: There's not a lot of patience here, and no one has ever mistaken Yankee Stadium for the confessional at St. Patrick's Cathedral. While adulation is regularly dispensed while the team is winning, absolution is parceled out strictly on a case-by-case, and often game-by-game, basis.
This is the same fan base that booed Jeter when he slumped through a horrendous April 2004 and Rivera in 2005 after a couple of blown saves. Pettitte was booed here. So was Tino Martinez when he had the temerity to replace Don Mattingly, and so was Jason Giambi when he dared to replace Tino. So was Rodriguez, early and often in his Yankees career, even during his MVP season of 2007. And there's no doubt he will be booed again.
The reason A-Rod was cheered on Monday has nothing to do with forgiveness or redemption or any of those Hallmark card sentiments that Girardi loves to recite but can't possibly believe. A-Rod was cheered for one simple reason: The offensively challenged team these fans pay to see badly needs him to be productive.
There might be secondary reasons, of course: The perception that A-Rod has been victimized in some way by MLB, the Yankees and the media, in no particular order, or the simple fact that the average person loves to live vicariously through an "outlaw," someone they believe is "getting away with something" that they never could.
A-Rod checked off all those boxes on Opening Day, plus one more -- he was one of the few bright spots for a team that looked disturbingly ordinary, and maybe worse than that.
Masahiro Tanaka was so bad in the third inning, allowing five runs -- including a two-run homer to Edwin Encarnacion -- and so anemic was the Yankees offense, held hitless for 3⅔ innings by Drew Hutchison, that A-Rod's walk leading off the third inning felt like an offensive explosion. And when he singled leading off the fifth, the place erupted as if he had hit the game-winning homer.
The point is, the cheers for Rodriguez were hardly a referendum on steroid abuse (Yankees fans hate David Ortiz), nor were they the benevolent bestowing of a second chance, since he's already had that here.
They were, pure and simple, a cry for help, even if it has to come from a player they have often despised.
After the game, A-Rod admitted to some nerves for his first real game in 561 days -- but not as many as he felt before his first game in spring training. When asked if he had ever thought this day would never come, he said "A lot of things went through my mind" -- but then claimed not to be able to remember where he was or who he was with on Opening Day 2014, which you would think was an especially traumatic day for him. He thought the Roll Call -- a rare honor for a DH -- was "cool," professed his love for the Bleacher Creatures, promised he would never again take being a big league ballplayer for granted and gave the obligatory line about Yankee fans being "the most passionate fans in the world."
No. 13 was having none of that. He's been around this game long enough to know that by Wednesday, that just like any player, that sign that read "Forg1v3" could easily be replaced.
By one that reads "Produce," and, eventually, "Booooooo!"