CLEVELAND – Bill Boldin, a fan of Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team for most of his 52 years, conducted an informal poll on Friday while waiting to meet with friends for the first game of the season at the Cleveland Guardians.
Boldin counted the names of the teams on the jerseys of fellow Cleveland fans as they wandered downtown. He counted 38 T-shirts that bore the word “Indians” for the team’s old nickname, before seeing even one with the team’s new name, the Guardians. It was a very unbalanced ratio and an unscientific set of data, but not unexpected.
“And I hope it stays that way forever,” Boldin said.
Boldin’s views represent a large part of Cleveland fans, many of whom vehemently opposed the team’s decision in 2020 to change its name after 107 years. The decision came after decades of protests by groups of Indians and others, who claim the old name was racist.
Friday was the first home game for the rebranded Cleveland Guardians, a new name chosen, in part, to capture the historic, Cleveland-centric theme reflected by the Guardians of Traffic statues on the Hope Memorial Bridge near Progressive Field, where the team plays. The team has already played six games as Guardians this season, but they were all away. Friday provided the first opportunity for home fans to gather en masse and express their feelings and loyalty.
Bob Hostutler, owner of a computer store in Willoughby, Ohio, wore a sharp white jersey with the team’s old name and a hat depicting Chief Wahoo, the infamous old logo of a cartoon, smiling Indian. That caricature, which many like, but others find extremely offensive, was withdrawn from team uniforms in 2019, because the franchise began a gradual process of distancing itself from old images and nicknames.
“I love Chief Wahoo,” Hostutler said.
In the days after the team announced it would abandon its century-old name, Hostutler swore he would never pay to see the Guardians, he was so angry at the decision. But when his brother offered him a ticket for the game on Friday, he decided to leave. Then, at a party in front of the trunk door on Friday afternoon, he was presented with a Guardian T-shirt as part of a promotional gift. He took the T-shirt, but planned to give it away again.
MLB season 2022
The season that was under suspicion is suddenly in full gear.
“I will never wear it,” he said.
For decades, protests against the team’s name have been part of the opening in Cleveland as well as overflights and ceremonial first pitches. Protesters gathered in the streets near the stadium carrying signs asking the team to change its name; many times they faced the desperate abuse of fans entering the stadium. But on Friday, for the first time in recent times, there were no protests other than a man carrying an American flag advocating world peace, and another man a few blocks away promoting religious piety.
The new form of protest comes in the form of shirts and jackets adorned with the word “Indians” and hats depicting the Wahoo chief. In some cases, it is the only team suit owned by the fans who wear it, and many jerseys bear the names of former players who have never worn the Guardians jersey. Even for fans who support the new name, asking them to buy all the new equipment would require significant expenses.
But in other cases, the point was to wear old clothes.
“I don’t like it,” said Bill Marshall, 64, a Cleveland heating and air conditioning engineer. He said he was opposed to the name change, a decision eventually made by the Guardians’ executive director, Paul Dolan. “They gave in to the pressure,” Marshall said.
Marshall demonstrated his devotion and his opinion in vivid colors, wearing a blue jacket and hat with the name and logo of the Indians.
Adapting to the new name will take time for many loyal fans, but the name changes are actually part of the Cleveland franchise’s fabric. In the early years of the 20th century, Cleveland’s team was known as the Blues, Bronchos and Naps before finally settling on the Indians in 1915.
This year, the Guardians became the fourth MLB team in the last 90 years to change names without moving cities, and only the second to adopt a completely different name. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became the Rays. The Houston Colt 45s changed its name to the Astros in 1965, and the Cincinnati Reds were called Redlegs from 1954 to 1958. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had many nicknames in their early years, were known as the Superbas 12 years before they became Dodgers 1932
But for Cleveland, the name change comes amid an unstable global struggle over etiquette and terminology that occasionally emerges in the world of sports. And that happened at a time when teams from the Washington NFL franchise to dozens of colleges and high schools have moved on to throwing out nicknames that have been criticized as insensitive or racist.
“The whole cancellation culture thing has gone too far,” Boldin said.
A civil servant from nearby Solon, Ohio, Boldin is not as inflexible as some of his fellow fans. He praised the decision of the Washington football team to give up his offensive name and admitted that probably the Wahoo boss had to leave as well. While there were plenty of hats with that character on Friday, Boldin did not wear them.
Many people associated with the team, including fans and longtime players, sometimes inadvertently used the old name, not out of malice, but simply out of habit. Carlos Baerga, a former second base player at All-Star and now a special assistant on the team, accidentally called that old name in a conversation.
“It’s hard for many after all these years,” Baerga said. “But that’s what the team wants and what the owner wants, so go with it. We played for the city, anyway, not for the name. That’s the most important thing. “
Terry Francona, Cleveland’s manager for the past 10 years, has been instrumental in helping fans accept the new name. He was born in 1959, the first six years since his father Tito Francona played for Cleveland, so his legacy is intertwined with the club. Francona applauded Dolan’s courage and said that the Guardians were just trying to respect him.
“Sometimes people aren’t very prone to change,” he said. “But I think if you ask some people their skin color, the status quo isn’t always that good.”
And not all Cleveland fans are holding on so fiercely to the team’s past. Alex and Jean Ann Reno, a couple from Upland, India, celebrated a new era of the Guardians on Friday by tattooing one of Cleveland’s new logos on their ankles, a distorted C-style cartoon.
“Times are changing,” Jean Ann said as the couple unveiled their new body art.
She and her husband drove four hours to Cleveland on Thursday, and went straight to the team store, where they bought all the new Guardians gear they wore on Friday. Alex said they got a “ton of flack” from other fans because they wore it.
He learned to love the Cleveland team from his father, who is originally from Toledo, Ohio, and he loved the team. He took Alex to his first game at the Municipal Stadium in 1985 when Alex was five months old and the old name of the team went deep into the family tradition.
“I didn’t like it when they changed it,” Alex said, “but it’s still my team.”