How Shall I Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?

On the wall in my office hangs a yellowed Cleveland Indians souvenir pennant. My father gave it to me in the late 1970s during one of our early visits to old Municipal Stadium, that cavernous “mistake by the lake” where the Indians played their games until moving into Jacobs Field in 1994. My family moved to northeast Ohio in 1978, right around my seventh birthday. A budding middle infielder with youthful dreams of the big leagues that would not entirely cede to reality until sometime during high school, I was destined to become a fan of the Tribe.

Several times each summer would make the hour-long drive to the stadium. My father still remembers fondly how easy it was to decide, on a sunny afternoon, that it was a good day for a ballgame. There was little need to plan ahead, since Municipal Stadium seated about 75,000 fans, while the Indians in those days might draw a crowd of 10,000 on a good day.

The team was lousy. Some readers might recognize names like Andre Thornton (a decent hitter, with power) or Mike Hargrove (known as “the human rain delay” for his long and elaborate routine in the batter’s box). Only the most die-hard Indians fans, though, will remember such baseball legends as Rick Manning and Duane Kuiper, to say nothing of Tom Veryzer or Jerry Dybzinski. One year we arrived at the stadium early for a “behind the fences” event on my birthday, and I had my picture taken with the immortal Ross Grimsley, who had once been a good pitcher—but only before joining the Indians.

As every baseball fan knows, however, hope springs eternal. Some good players came along every now and then. Rick Sutcliffe and Bert Blyleven pitched for the Tribe in the early ’80s. Joe Carter and Cory Snyder provided enough offensive excitement to land them on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the start of the 1987 season, when the magazine predicted that the Indians would be the best team in the American League. They went 61-101 that year.

We Indians fans were a long-suffering bunch. But then, suddenly, things began to turn around. Perhaps the first omen was the 1989 movie Major League, a film that gives chills to any Tribe true-believer. In it, a collection of rookies and has-beens, deliberately assembled by a tight-fisted owner who hopes the team will lose so many games that she can move it away from Cleveland, catches fire and wins a division title. In the film’s climax, Jake Taylor (played by Tom Berenger) bunts in the winning run and announcer Bob Uecker cries out, “The Indians win it! The Indians win it!” I consider that the greatest moment in American movie history.

Real life began to imitate Hollywood. In the ’90s, the Indians suddenly became good. Very good, in fact. A new group of players in a new ballpark opened a new era in Cleveland baseball. What remains to this day one of the most ferocious offenses I have ever seen—with hitters like Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and Jim Thome—began racking up victories and making the playoffs. They were still the Indians, of course, and Tribe fans can never quite shake the sense that when things are going well, it’s probably too good to be true. Their loss in the 1997 World Series, when they took a lead into the final inning of the final game and still managed to lose, was heartbreaking. I remember watching the game on a small black-and-white television set and feeling my eager anticipation of victory give way to stunned disbelief before finally settling into dull resignation in the face of cold reality: “Of course. They’re the Indians.”

This year, they have defied expectations by being good once again. The youngest team in Major League Baseball, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, has won the American League’s Central Division. By the time you read this, they will have played their first game in the opening round of the 2023 playoffs. Life is good.

Well, almost good. There’s a problem. The Cleveland Indians are no more. Instead, when I check the scores each morning to see how the Cleveland baseball team did last night, I am confronted with some unknown group called the Cleveland Guardians. What have these interlopers done with my team?

The “Indians” moniker has fallen victim to the latest wave of objections to team names and mascots based on Native American stereotypes. Such criticism surfaces periodically, but it gained strength after the George Floyd killing. For a few years already the team had been avoiding the grinning “Chief Wahoo” mascot, who beams down upon me happily from that old pennant, opting instead for a simple “C” logo. But now the name is gone as well. Instead of the Tribe, I am supposed to root for the Guardians.

This is quite a bit more difficult than the non-sports fan might imagine and has prompted some soul-searching on my part. I would be lying if I pretended that the name change doesn’t bother me. The Indians are bound up with a lot of memories: playing ball with my dad in the backyard and working our way through the team’s line-up as we simulated a game; conversations with friends about our favorite players; driving into the city with a buddy to see a game after we’d gotten our licenses. Home, friends, family—one’s childhood home team conjures up so many memories and teaches so many lessons in loyalty, endurance, and the virtue of hope that asserts, after each disappointing season, “There’s always next year.”

In spite of my half-hearted resolutions, I have continued to check those box scores. Frustrating though the name change is, it is hard, finally, to remain too outraged. A sports team that drops its Native American nickname or mascot is like a cafeteria that goes “trayless.” Many institutional cafeterias have abandoned the use of trays in recent years, because without them, people take and waste less food. Considerable water and energy are saved by not having to wash all those trays. Not having a tray available is pretty annoying, but it’s hard to argue with the decision. So I carry my plates precariously or go back for an extra trip, grudgingly aware that my righteous indignation is misguided.

Which is more or less how I’ve come to feel about the team formerly known as the Indians. It’s tempting to long for the day when we didn’t get so worked up over the names of sports teams. But there never really was such a day. Symbols of group belonging always carry public meaning, be they flags, songs, costumes, dances, or food. They are always sites of contestation; now just happens to be the moment when sports mascots have landed in the crosshairs. It’s tempting, too, to wish that folks just wouldn’t be so sensitive about a little old name. But perhaps that is easy for me to say, since people tend not to name their teams after those of German extraction. (The “Cleveland Krauts”—now, that would have been a name.) A little magnanimity on this score will do me no harm.

There is, of course, one thing the Guardians could do, as the playoffs begin, that would go a long way toward reconciling me to their new name. To borrow the immortal words of Jake Taylor from Major League (lightly edited for this family-friendly publication): Fellas, you’ll just have to win the whole thing.

Go get ‘em, Guardians.

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