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The Cleveland Guardians nickname is difficult for some fans

CLEVELAND — Bill Boldin, a fan of Cleveland’s Major League Baseball team for most of his 52 years, conducted an informal poll Friday while waiting to meet friends at the first home game of the season. Cleveland Guardians.

Boldin counted the team names on the jerseys of other Cleveland fans as they strolled downtown. He counted 38 jerseys that featured the word “Indians” for the team’s old nickname, even before seeing one with the team’s new name, Guardians. It was a seriously lopsided ratio and an unscientific, but not unexpected, data set.

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

Boldin’s views represent a wide spectrum of Cleveland fans, many of whom vehemently opposed the team’s 2020 decision to change its name after 107 years. The decision came after decades of protests from Native American groups and others, who argue the old name was racist.

Friday was the first home game for the renamed 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 cheek. The team had already played six games for the Guardians this season, but those were all on the road. Friday was the first opportunity for home supporters to gather en masse and express their feelings and loyalty.

Willoughby, Ohio computer store owner Bob Hostutler wore a crisp white jersey with the team’s old name and a hat depicting Chief Wahoo, the infamous old logo of a cartoonish Native American and smiling. This cartoon, loved by many but deemed grossly offensive by others, was removed from team uniforms in 2019 as the franchise began a phased process to distance itself from old images and nicknames.

“I love Chef Wahoo,” Hostutler said.

In the days following the team’s announcement that it would drop its century-old name, Hostutler swore he would never pay to see the Guardians, so furious was he at the decision. But when his brother offered him a ticket to Friday’s game, he decided to go. Then, at a pre-game party on Friday afternoon, he received a Guardians t-shirt as part of a promotional giveaway. He took the shirt, but planned to re-gift it.

“I will never wear it,” he said.

For decades, team name protests were as much a part of Opening Day in Cleveland as ceremonial flyovers and first pitches. Protesters gathered in the streets adjacent to the stadium carrying signs demanding the team change its name; on several occasions they faced scathing 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.

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 kit owned by fans who wear it, and many shirts bear the names of former players who have never worn a Guardians shirt. Even for fans who support the new name, asking them to buy all the new hardware would require a significant outlay.

But in other cases, wearing the old clothes was the goal.

“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 Guardians chief executive Paul Dolan. “They gave in to the pressure,” Marshall said.

Marshall demonstrated his dedication and opinion, in bright colors, wearing a blue jacket and hat bearing 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, the Cleveland 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 past 90 years to change names without changing 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 during 12 years before becoming the Dodgers in 1932.

But for Cleveland, the name change comes amid a volatile global fight over labels and terminology that sometimes plays out in the world of sports. And it came at a time when teams from the NFL franchise from Washington to dozens of middle and high schools decided to drop nicknames criticized as insensitive or racist.

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

A government employee from nearby Solon, Ohio, Boldin isn’t as adamant as some of his fellow fans. He applauded the Washington Football Team’s decision to drop his offensive name and admitted Chief Wahoo probably had to leave as well. While hats bearing that resemblance were in abundance Friday, Boldin wore none.

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

“It’s difficult for a lot of people after all these years,” Baerga said. “But that’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’s the most important thing.

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

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

“Times are changing,” Jean Ann said as the couple showed off their new body art.

She and her husband drove four hours to Cleveland on Thursday and drove straight to the team store, where they picked up all the 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 from Toledo, Ohio, and loved the team. He took Alex to his first game at the Municipal Stadium in 1985 when Alex was five months old, and the team’s old name was deep in family traditions.

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

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