In Cleveland, Some Fans Are Guardians Only of the Past

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 he waited to meet friends at the Cleveland Guardians first home game of the season.

Boldin counted the team names on the jerseys of fellow Cleveland fans as they wandered around downtown. He tallied 38 shirts that featured the word “Indians” for the team’s old nickname, before he saw even one with the team’s new name, Guardians. It was a heavily imbalanced ratio, and an unscientific data set, but not unexpected.

“And I hope it stays like that forever,” Boldin said.

Boldin’s views represent a large swathe 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 protest by Native American groups and others, who argue the old name was racist.

Friday was the first home game for the rebranded Cleveland Guardians, a new name chosen, in part, to capture a 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 had already played six games as the Guardians this season, but those were all on the road. Friday provided the first opportunity for home fans to gather en masse and express their feelings and loyalties.

The fans wore a mix of apparel featuring the team’s old and new nicknames, but Guardians gear was definitely less prevalent on Friday.Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times

Bob Hostutler, a computer store owner from Willoughby, Ohio, wore a crisp, white jersey with the old team name on it, and a hat depicting Chief Wahoo, the infamous old logo of a cartoonish, smiling Native American. That caricature, beloved by many but deemed grossly offensive by others, was retired from the team uniforms in 2019 as the franchise began a gradual process to distance itself from the old imagery and nickname.

“I love Chief Wahoo,” Hostutler declared.

In the days after the team announced it would abandon its century-old name, Hostutler vowed that he would never to pay to see the Guardians, so incensed was he by the decision. But when his brother offered him a ticket to Friday’s game, he decided to go. Then, at a pregame tailgate party Friday afternoon, he was handed a Guardians T-shirt as part of a promotional giveaway. He took the shirt, but planned to re-gift it.

“I’ll never wear it,” he said.

For decades, protests against the team name were as much a part of opening day in Cleveland as flyovers and ceremonial first pitches. Protesters gathered on streets adjacent to the stadium carrying signs asking the team to change the name; many times, they faced withering abuse from fans entering the stadium. But on Friday, for the first time in recent memory, 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.

“I don’t like it,” Bill Marshall, 64, said of the name change. “They caved to the pressure.”Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times
Bill Boldin said he saw mostly apparel with the team’s old name. “And I hope it stays like that forever,” he said.Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times

The new form of protest comes in the form of shirts and jackets emblazoned with the word “Indians,” and caps depicting Chief Wahoo. In some cases, it is the only team attire owned by the fans wearing it, and many of the jerseys bears the names of former players who never wore a Guardians shirt. Even for fans who support the new name, asking them to buy all new gear would require a significant outlay.

But in other cases, wearing the old clothing was the point.

“I don’t like it,” said Bill Marshall, 64, a heating and air conditioning engineer from Cleveland. He said he opposed the name change, a decision ultimately made by the Guardians’ chief executive, Paul Dolan. “They caved to the pressure,” Marshall said.

Marshall demonstrated his devotion, and his opinion, in vivid color, wearing a blue jacket and hat featuring the Indians name and logo.

Adjusting to a new name will take time for many loyal fans, but name changes are actually part of the fabric of the Cleveland franchise. In the early years of the 20th century, Cleveland’s team was known as the Blues, the Bronchos and the Naps before it finally settled on the Indians in 1915.

Cleveland’s new name was inspired by the Guardians of Traffic statues on the nearby Hope Memorial Bridge. Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times

This year, the Guardians became the fourth M.L.B. 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 their name to the Astros in 1965, and the Cincinnati Reds were called the Redlegs from 1954 to 1958. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had many nicknames in their early years, were known as the Superbas for 12 years before they became the Dodgers in 1932.

But for Cleveland, the name change comes amid a volatile global struggle over labels and terminology that occasionally plays out in the world of sports. And it took place at a time where teams from Washington’s N.F.L. franchise to dozens of colleges and high schools have moved to drop nicknames that were criticized as insensitive, or racist.

“The whole cancel culture thing has gone too far,” Boldin said.

A government employee from nearby Solon, Ohio, Boldin is not as inflexible as some of his fellow fans. He applauded the Washington football team’s decision to drop its offensive name, and conceded that Chief Wahoo probably needed to go, too. While hats bearing that likeness were in abundance on Friday, Boldin did not wear one.

“Times change,” Jean Ann Reno said of the Guardians name change.Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times
Reno and her husband, Alex, both got Guardians tattoos before the game.Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times

Many people associated with the team, including fans and longtime players, have sometimes inadvertently used the old name, not out of malice, but simply from habit. Carlos Baerga, the former All-Star second baseman and now a special assistant with the team, accidentally referred to the team by its old name in conversation.

“It’s hard for a lot of people after all those years,” Baerga said. “But it’s what the team wants and what the owner wants, so you go with it. We played for the city, anyway, not the name. That is the most important thing.”

“People aren’t real big on change sometimes,” said Terry Francona, the Guardians manager. “But I think if you ask some people maybe of color, status quo isn’t always so good.”

The team’s new gear was available throughout the stadium for fans to replace their old collections.Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times

And not all Cleveland fans cling to the team’s past so vehemently. Alex and Jean Ann Reno, a married couple from Upland, Ind., celebrated the new Guardians era on Friday by having one of Cleveland’s new logos, a crooked, cartoon-style C, tattooed onto their ankles.

“Times change,” Jean Ann said as the couple showcased 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 new Guardians gear, which they wore on Friday. Alex said they received a “ton of flack” from other fans for wearing it.

He learned to love the Cleveland team from his father, who was originally from Toledo, Ohio, and loved the team. He took Alex to his first game at Municipal Stadium in 1985 when Alex was five months old, and the old team name ran deep in family lore.

“I didn’t love it when they changed it,” Alex said, “But it’s still my team.”

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