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The Cleveland Indians/Guardians botched their name change

When the ownership of the Cleveland Indians decided to change the team’s name a few years ago, the opportunity presented them a generational opportunity to rebrand not only the Cleveland Baseball Team but, in some ways, the entire city of Cleveland, for the next century. With the recent announcement of the selection of “Guardians” as the team’s new name, the verdict is unequivocal: They blew it.

The choice came from among around eight or so options that seemed seriously under consideration. In addition to Guardians, these included three names that adorned past Cleveland baseball teams: the Spiders, the Blues, and the Buckeyes. Possible entrants could have also included other past Cleveland baseball names such as the Rustlers and Lake Shores, though these never gained much traction. Also under consideration was the name Commodores, a nod to Cleveland’s Lake Erie stalwartness. Some pushed for the name Rockers or Rox, a nod to Cleveland’s history around rock and roll. The name Municipals was also under consideration, while some thought the name Cleveland Baseball Team, though a temporary placeholder, could actually serve a permanent function. Each option carried a few possible flaws, though in most opinion surveys on the subject the name Spiders curried greatest favor among fans.

On the surface, the name Guardians seems to check several boxes. For one, it’s generic enough that it shouldn’t carry negative associations that some might have had with Spiders. Like with several of the other names, there’s a neat, if small, local story around it – namely its origin coming from a pair of statues adorning the old steel truss bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River just down the street from the ballpark. It allows for a relatively seamless rebrand, as several of the letters in from the word “Indians” can be retained, allowing for the new script font to look somewhat similar to the old one. And, probably most importantly to the team ownership, the slick PR language that could be crafted around the name Guardians far exceeded the potential of the other names: basically that Cleveland is a city where people are proud of their heritage and everybody loves each other and defends each other like Guardians. The team even produced a video of a small handful of supportive fans uttering messages approximately reflecting those sentiments.

There is, of course, the practical issue in the selection that the entire premise of the Guardians idea is contingent on the visual of these specific local icons that for some legal reason can’t be reflected in the team’s logo. While the Guardians statues themselves do perhaps carry some recognition in the community as a relic of the city’s art deco past, the fact that the team can’t use them has instead left it with a series of new clipart-quality logos that look more like the awkward early branding of a character-less expansion franchise than they do the rebranding of one of the most historic teams from one of the most historic cities in the league. For all one can say about Cleveland, it’s anything but a generic city, and futility or not, the Indians are a franchise with tremendous history. And in fact, that futility reputation is unearned: not only are the Indians one of the original charter members of the American League, but they carry the 8th highest winning percentage of all MLB teams, behind only the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League.

The bigger issue with the name Guardians is that it fails to rise to the mission of the moment the rename represented in either of the ways that it needed to in order to constitute a great name. Specifically, it failed to deliver either a name that speaks to the richness of the city’s true civic, geographic, economic, or identitarian fabric, history, and pulse, nor a name that speaks to anything organic, intrinsic, or rooted in time about the history of the team being named. It’s a shame because this opportunity presented so much potential on both counts.

In terms of defining the richness of the city’s civic identity, the name comes nowhere close. Good examples that are stronger elsewhere include the Steelers of the Pittsburgh steel town, the Packers of northern Wisconsin’s processing plants, the Yankees of the business capital of the north, or the Lakers who, before Los Angeles, originated in the land of 10,000 lakes. In each case, these names speak to something overarching and tangible, historic, tactile and real about who the teams’ host city is and how it’s differentiated from others. While it’s great that, according to themselves, Clevelanders love and defend each other, such sentiments are little more than safe and generic PR fluff that could apply to any city. Great team names simply don’t reflect surface-level emotional one-liners like that – find one great team name in sports that does. Cleveland’s identity is more than that – much more, and the team failed in not choosing a name that speaks more boldly to Cleveland’s identity as a pivotal historical place and the grand industrial city on the shores of old Lake Erie, the great old city of water and fire, weathered hard over the near century and a half it has shared with its baseball team.

And it’s in this context of the big, bold, rich, and historic identity of one of the country’s seminal and iconic cities in one of its most unique and iconic settings, a place tied intrinsically to its lakefront home, birthplace of industries and cultural transformations, home to Rockefellers and former presidents, a burning river and the generational churn of the Rust Belt, that the selection of a name rooted in something so minute – a pair of small statues dating only to 1932 with only faint lore to the city itself – seems so petty. While the statues’ story is cute, theirs is not the kind of grand civic history that has defined this great city. Professional baseball in Cleveland itself predates those statues by nearly 50 years, and its development has had nothing to do with them, nor did the city’s. They are at best a footnote to both the team and the city if they are worth mentioning at all, not their underlying identifier.

In this grand and historic civic sense, the name Commodores would have been far more appropriate. For it is the victory of the commodore ships of General Perry that defeated the British navy in the War of 1812 using the early village of Cleveland as its US Navy outpost that secured not only the incorporation of this future great American city, but which also secured access to Lake Erie for the budding America, opening up perhaps the most seminal maritime shipping link in the country’s development, the linkage between the St. Lawrence Seaway all the way to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, with this linkage at the City of Cleveland between the Ohio and Erie Canal and Cuyahoga River down to the Ohio River creating the seminal lynchpin that catalyzed industry to the interior of the country and powered 200 years of explosive industrial growth on the Lake Erie waterfront, all of the complexities of which created the contemporary city of Cleveland. All of Cleveland’s existence in short, all of its industrial growth and legacy, all of who the city is today, and everything that paved the way for it as a home of professional baseball, is owed to the iconic legacy of the commodore ships at this the most pivotal maritime encampment and intersection. The Commodores name would encapsulate this civic history, and would give purpose and hierarchy at the stern of a great Ohio baseball system that serves this maritime network of cities with a suite of regional minor league teams on that state’s secondarily critical more inland waterways, each with its own subordinate seafaring name – the Columbus Clippers, Lake County Captains, and Akron Rubber Ducks. The inconsequential legacy of the Guardian statues at the edge of downtown as a random and generic bond-funded project in the 1930s is petty and trite in comparison. Those statues, by the way, were nearly torn down in 1976 because engineers thought they looked tacky, noting there was nothing meaningfully historic about them.

Broader histories aside, even in terms of a localized identity, the name fails to capture any vestige of the organic richness of the team being named, which is why so many people feel the name comes off as so generic and lame, more reminiscent of an expansion franchise, a minor league hockey team, or the arch-enemy team from any cheesy kids’ sports move in the ‘90s than that of the team with the third-best winning percentage in the history of the American League. What makes this fact so tragic is that the team’s community history in Cleveland, the product of literally outsized per capita love for the Indians passed between generations of the people in this city, is perhaps the franchise’s greatest enduring asset, perhaps the very reason a team in a small and otherwise deteriorating market is able to continue to survive here when conventional metrics suggest it should not. If ever there were a team that should honor its own history in its rebranding, it is this one, and the legacy of this franchise offered several viable, unique, and compelling options.

And it is in this sense that the name Guardians, which has not a lick of historical context with the history of this franchise, fails so badly in comparison to the other options like Spiders, like Blues, like Buckeyes, like Rustlers, or like Lake Shores. Each of these options that would tie to an historic context offered history, offered uniqueness, offered interest, and together they offered a diverse choice. Few other franchises would be as blessed with such a creative cornucopia of highly brandable cool, historic, and highly tactile future names. Cleveland already enjoyed a dynamic brand and identity, for instance, tied to the Spiders, and anyone with a graphic eye would surely agree that the public domain branding associated with that name blows out of the water that which the team has used for the Guardians. Not to mention what might have been possible with future branding and stadium culture for either that name – think fans dressed up as Spiderman and giant spider arms on the scoreboard – or with Commodores – the stadium already embodies a somewhat maritime theme in its lightpoles, among other possibilities.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the rebrand is not that the Indians ignored these concepts of civic and team heritage in picking a new name, but instead that they are pretending they didn't. Starting from scratch would be one thing, but the Indians are pretending the move was done out of some great admiration for the city's history and identity. The truth, however, is that in naming the team the Guardians, the Indians have retroactively created a pretend history they didn't need to, seemingly for no reason. They have a 150-year history with the City of Cleveland is authentic, deep, and bold, and instead they chose to glorify something pointless and generic as though it held embedded community value. Instead of richness, history, and character embedded, the best of intentions gave way to a safe and generic alternative that highlights a couple of tacky and ahistorical statues that are inconsequential to the both the city's and the team's past. It's the worshipping of false idols if there ever has been. The move is a massive failure and deserves to be panned. For posterity, fans will have to wonder what could have been with a different name going forward.

Ultimately, it’s just a name. More importantly, let’s hope the city can keep the team. After all, it’s lost half its population in a half-century and that doesn’t bode well for the permanent future of baseball here. But the name folly is a lesson for the city overall. For Cleveland to forge ahead in the 21st century, it will take more than half-hearted box-checking to be successful, and it will take more discipline to understand what is actually special about this iconic city. Quite frankly, it can learn far more from the audacious courage of General Perry and his courageous commodores than it ever will from its tacky traffic guardians, which to this day are still standing still.

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