'Bald Vinny' Milano has been sitting in the bleachers at Yankees games since 1998, and led his first Roll Call — in which the "Bleacher Creatures" in right field chant each Yankee's name until he acknowledges them — a year later. Milano says he started attending virtually every home game after being laid off from his advertising job working for a dot-com, and then in 2001, he started selling T-shirts that he'd designed outside of Yankee Stadium. He'd been making a living doing that ever since, but this week, Milano announced on his blog that he wouldn't be returning to the bleachers next year, citing the need to find new work to support his family. He spoke with The Sports Section about his T-shirt business, his decision not to return, and the art of heckling.
For people who haven’t been following along, explain why you don’t plan on returning to the bleachers next year?
Essentially it’s what I do for a living. Everybody’s like, what do you do during the off-season. Unfortunately, I don’t do much. Like I said, this is what I do for a living. This just kind of sucks, but it’s tough to keep going under the current set of circumstances. It’s tough for me to grow my business past where I am without any licensing. I can’t get into any stores, or really make anything official. And it’s kind of just been holding me back.
You’ll be changing career paths now. What kind of work are you looking for?
I have a sales background. I used to work in traditional advertising. I did some advertising agency stuff, back when I first got out of college. I just want to focus on sales. Anything that at this point could allow me the flexibility to spend some time at home, and really just provide for the family. I’d love to get something with health insurance, you know? As silly as that sounds, you know, there’s no security in what I’m doing right now. And I really found that out the hard way this year , especially with all the rain.
That’s really what killed me in the long run, because usually I have a little saved up by the end of the year, that I can at least get a little breathing room, make it through the holidays and whatnot. And that really all got lost this year because of the rain. I’m outside, I don’t have any covering, and it drives a lot of the people away. It really hurts business. And not to say that it’s all rain. Obviously, the economy sucks. Business just in general has been down this year. One of the trends I noticed that is unique this year is, I’ve always had funny shirts, and people would come by and buy them. Now they take their phones out, and they take a picture of them and they text them and they post them on Facebook instead of purchasing them.
Did you consider giving up the T-shirt business but keeping your tickets?
I can’t. Right now, this is very emotional for me, because this is something that’s been my whole life for the last twelve years. I really don’t want to go, if I can’t do it the way I want to do it. Just the Big Four concert—the big Metallica/Slayer thing—that was the first time in years that I was at Yankee Stadium not working. And it was weird, just walking around and not having the responsibility of worrying about my stand or my inventory or my employees or the business or sales—and that was just for a rock show. I can’t even imagine what that would be like for a ballgame. I know I definitely can’t go to opening day. That’s just on principle. You know what I mean?
You talked in your blog post about hoping the Yankees or some other group would buy the business. Do you think the language on some of the shirts hurt the chances of that happening?
Oh definitely. I’ll be the first one to say that a lot of my stuff definitely leans towards the vulgar aspect. But I make that stuff out of necessity. My brand is the Bleacher Creatures. You know, the rivalry stuff that I do is because I need to put food on the table. If I could just stand out there with [Bleacher Creature shirts] — none of my bleacher stuff is offensive. Nothing uses vulgar language. The only thing that’s bad are the rivalry shirts, and like I said, I did that because it sells. I cater to that hard-core market. Not everybody’s going to walk around with a shirt that says “Boston Sucks Cack” on it. But that’s my best seller ever.
I was going to ask, what sells best?
Without a doubt, that shirt has been my best seller. And like I said, it goes with the market. Yeah, I have a shirt with Ted Williams's head on a Popsicle stick. But it caters to a specific target. I went that route out of necessity. With the licensing, I seek that for bleacher stuff. I don’t really care about the rivalry stuff.
Do you have a favorite opponent who’s engaged with you guys, either in a fun way, or in some other way?
Sure, we have a long relationship with a lot of guys: Vernon Wells, B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford — anybody who you see regularly, they definitely know us.
Are there guys who don’t handle it as well as others?
I think at this point, pretty much everybody knows what our routine is. It’s always funny when you get a new guy. Like Sam Fuld comes up, he saw a little bit of action. But we were relentless, just because he’s this touted prospect, blah blah blah. And we’re giving him the business, and at one point, he just turned around laughing. You know those guys get it. It’s all in good fun. I’ve said this a million times: I have no athletic ability whatsoever. I can’t hit a fastball. My arm sucks. So if I can do anything to help my team, it’s going to be getting in someone else’s head. So that’s our outlook in the bleachers: If we can get in your head, we’re doing our best to help our team win. On the flip side, they get it, they know that we’re clowning around. So it’s all in good fun.
Did you ever get in anyone’s head to the point where you think it impacted a game?
Well, in way, we kind of got into our own guy. During roll call, Melky Cabrera flubbed a catch while he was waving to us. But these guys are professional athletes. They’re used to hearing a lot worse than what we dish out. The heckler's best friend these days are all these smart phones, because we pull up everybody’s Wikipedia page, and we have mom’s names, and girlfriend’s names, and where you grew up. Nothing’s off limits these days.
Don’t you think there are things that cross the line?
For us, it’s not being vulgar. You can get on somebody and ride them all game, and never once curse, or be racial. And I think that’s a stigma that gets applied to us in a negative way. People always think we’re the loudmouths that all we do is get up on the bench and yell, “fuck you.” It’s not like that. We take pride in being creative hecklers. This is kind of what we do for a living. This is our gig. I think that only the real bad stuff is off-limits. We wouldn’t do anything racial. Jacoby Ellsbury, perfect example, has some Indian heritage. We do Tonto jokes all night long. You know what I mean? But we would never do something offensive.
You don’t think that kind of thing could be considered offensive though?
It depends where you go. I mean, yelling at somebody, “Hey, your horse is double parked on River Avenue” is not really super offensive. But calling somebody a red-face something-or-other—that would never happen. It’s hard to say classy heckling—that doesn’t really exist. But we certainly pay mind to it, only because we’re policed so heavily. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat out in [Section] 203 — there are more guards in our section than there are in the entire [rest of the] bleachers combined. So we kind of have to self-police. We’re not going to let stuff like that go off. I’m not going to make it bad for me; I have to come back tomorrow. Some yahoo comes out from NYU who’s having a couple of beers with his frat buddies, you don’t have to come back tomorrow. You want to get up and yell, "fuck you"? Well, go do that in another section. Don’t do that in my section. We live there. We consider it our home.
Do you have a favorite line you’ve ever come up with for a player?
Not really. My thing is, I really focus on the roll call. That’s my area. Everybody kind of has their own gimmick. There’s a guy out here, Bad Mouth Larry, he’s like the official heckle leader. My thing is really the roll call. Anything that anybody does in that regard to make it special is cool. The best roll call we’ve ever done, without a doubt, without hesitation, was for the Beautiful People, when we did HOPE Week in 2010. That was the best one, without a doubt. People still come up and call me and tell me how awesome it was.
What do you think is going to happen with the roll call going forward?
I think people are going do it. It’s really not complex. It’s just yelling. It just helps if you have a focal point, so people don’t jump all over each other. It sounds like a muddled mess if you don’t have somebody kind of orchestrating it. And whether it’s me, or somebody else, I think it’s going to go on. The Bleacher Creatures are never going to stop being Bleacher Creatures just because I’m not there. I think it’ll go on. It’s going to be a little different, because I’m the only one who was there every day. Whether it was a makeup of a rain-out, or a doubleheader, or a Tuesday day game—you know, most people work Tuesday days. You know what I mean? I was like the constant. I’m sure somebody’s going to fill in. Like I said, it’s not brain surgery. It’s not like you need a PhD to get up on a bench and start yelling.