NEW YORK -- I parked several blocks away from the protest in support of Alex Rodriguez on Thursday morning, the one taking place in front of Major League Baseball headquarters on Park Avenue. I'd read the stories about Fernando Mateo, president of Hispanics Across America, his claims of getting assaulted by a security guard on Tuesday, wearing a neck brace on Wednesday. I pictured an experience roughly on par with when Woody Allen pickets an embassy in "Bananas."

The crowd estimates ran into the hundreds on Wednesday, and I wondered if I'd manage to get close enough for a look at what was going on. After all, isn't this how the Arab Spring began?

But the atmosphere was dramatically different on Thursday morning; the numbers had thinned, and even the passion one normally associates with protesters had somewhat ebbed.

Rafael Santana has been coming since Tuesday afternoon, he told me when I encountered him on 48th Street, about two blocks from the barricade set up outside the MLB offices. He was easy to spot, since he was wearing one of the "Support A-Rod 13" shirts that had been everywhere on Wednesday. Most protesters didn't wear them on Thursday.

Things like the shirt, the spontaneous presence of pizza and beer, and signs that appeared to be written in the same handwriting gave rise to the idea that perhaps Rodriguez had paid for this protest, and those protesters, himself.

The truth seems more complicated than that, though. For Santana, clutching a baseball he hoped to get signed by Rodriguez, it was a question of basic fairness. That's the reason he gave for coming since Tuesday, traveling the roughly 140 blocks from his home to spend the day chanting, dancing and talking to people like me.

"For me, Alex Rodriguez is a good guy," Santana said as we walked to the barricade. "Major League Baseball wants to take him for a symbol ... 211 games, that's too much."

So according to Santana, when he saw this was going on, he decided it was time to take part.

"I just seen it on TV," Santana said. "I've been following him since I was in the Dominican Republic. I am a fan. And when you're fans, you continue to follow the player."

Santana hadn't heard anything about getting paid to be there, he said. But shortly thereafter, he'd managed to secure a cowbell, and began tapping it rhythmically, as the group that had been reportedly around 15 when Rodriguez showed up at 9:15 had swelled to nearly 40 by 10 a.m. Later Thursday, Rodriguez would return to thank about 20 supporters holding a candlelight vigil for him.

(Photo by Howard Megdal)

But while a small group effusively chanted that morning, most of those present were talking among themselves in small groups, or checking their phones. Ricardo Santiago, for instance, was just standing within the barricade, smiling at the passers-by, who didn't take particular notice of the gathering. Interestingly, though he said he was there to support Alex Rodriguez, he was no more a true believer in Rodriguez's innocence than Santana was. Both believed that Rodriguez should be suspended.

"211 is too much," Santiago said as an "Alex! Alex!" chant filled the air behind us. "I think more like 50 games. The other guys, who were first-timers, they got 50 games. Why 211?"

It's a funny thing, to take your day not to protest Rodriguez getting punished at all, or the legitimacy of the proceedings you're standing in front of, but essentially the shades of gray that determine just what a punishment should be.

"I will be satisfied with a 50-game suspension," Santiago said. "That would be justice."

Santiago even shot down the reported Rodriguez defense that he'd been duped into taking steroids.

"I don't think you can bully nobody in this world," Santiago said. "You go because you want to go. I don't think nobody can make you."

Still, Santiago is planning to stay the whole day. "The whole day, however many days we need to," he said. And how will he fill the time?

"Chanting Alex, Alex," he said, smiling. "Support Alex. Help him feel better. They bring you lunch, they give you water."

Who brings you lunch and water?

"I don't know," Santiago said.

Joshlyn, who asked me that I not use her last name because she was taking off from work to come to the protest, was there as well. An attractive mother of two, she'd brought them both: three-year-old Joey, and six-month-old Joshua, the latter resting comfortably, reclining in a stroller.

"We come to the games," Joshlyn said. "So we decided to come support."

Joshlyn and her family are from Westchester, she said. Her children were getting picked up at lunchtime, she said, while she planned to stay and get a baseball signed. In the meantime, Joey snacked on some Cheerios out of a plastic Ziploc, and smiled and clapped when the "Alex" chants would start up again.

Joshlyn noted proudly that Joey had seen Alex Rodriguez play. "He's been to Yankee Stadium too," she said, smiling and gesturing at her baby. "He didn't play, though," she added, referring to Rodriguez.

Max, standing next to them, asked me not to use his last name, since he was skipping work as well. He's the boys' uncle, and he was much clearer about why he was there. The crowd had swelled slightly, but still remained at 50, well below Wednesday's numbers.

(Photo by Howard Megdal)

"This is historic because what they're trying to do to him, the kind of suspension, is very unfair," Max said. "Maybe this will help other baseball players in the same place."

And yet Max, too, thinks Rodriguez should be suspended.

"Be fair about the punishment," he said. "But if you got caught, you got caught. What're you gonna do?"

Our conversation caught the attention of a well-dressed man in a gray suit. He came over and introduced himself as Al Sandoval, executive director of Hispanics Across America. He'd clearly mastered the talking points. But he also thinks Rodriguez should be suspended.

"As a first-time offender, he should be suspended for 50 games, at the very most," Sandoval told me. He also maintained that he had no issue with the process of an independent arbitrator deciding. "We want the arbitrator to be fair. 211 games is not fair." But as to why, absent seeing the evidence, Sandoval was willing to say what the punishment should be, he quickly pivoted to asking questions about why the Yankees weren't more aggressively defending Rodriguez, which was its own answer, really.

Sandoval pointed out that HAA, back in 2005, had also protested at the MLB offices, at that time over the league's failure to do enough to stop steroid use in the Dominican Republic. I asked him how, exactly, those two causes were tied together.

"It coincides, it does," Sandoval insisted. "If you're going after the biggest star in baseball, it starts at the bottom. It's almost like real estate. You've got to build from the foundation up."

So why, then, was HAA so eager to support someone who appeared to have taken steroids in the first place?

"I know it sounds contradicting," Sandoval acknowledged. "We're saying to be fair. We're not saying, per se, to let someone totally off the hook." Then he compared Rodriguez's interactions with Tony Bosch of Biogenesis to someone having conversations with a next door neighbor who turned out to be a drug dealer. I asked Sandoval if he had any specific evidence that would equate these two situations. He did not.

Still, in a case that will ultimately be decided by one man, both Major League Baseball and Alex Rodriguez have decided that waging a battle for public support is important, too.

"The media can control your reputation," Sandoval said, as another "Alex" chant began, rose, and ended in applause, for something. He seemed to be coming closest of anyone to diagnosing the reason for the protests. "They can control public sentiment, perception, how a person is viewed."

Or maybe Santiago captured it best.

"In the Dominican, we support our players," Santiago said. "Anybody Domincan be here, we're gonna support them. They don't have to pay nobody to come here. If they were paying people, there'd be no room for more people. People like money. That's the only thing that people like. Money."